Op-ed by Ciara Connolly, a third year International Relations student at King’s College London.
The EU has failed to agree on a coherent, humane migration policy. Its neighbouring states now capitalize on this weakness by playing with human lives.
Last Saturday, the body of a young Syrian man was found in a forest near Wolka Terechowska, a small village on the border of Belarus. Ahmad Al-Hasan was barely 19 years of age. He died alone.
The boy is the latest victim in a political stalemate between Belarus and the EU. Thousands of refugees have been stranded on the Belarussian-Polish border for weeks attempting to enter EU territory. At least thirteen people have died in the forest’s sub-zero temperatures, while others face abuse from authorities who employ tear gas and water cannons against them to prevent them from advancing.
The EU is entangled in yet another humanitarian crisis at its borders.
Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, has used immigrants as a political tool to hit back at the EU by pushing thousands of migrants towards the EU border. Belarussian-EU relations have considerably worsened since the EU sanctioned Lukashenko for holding illegitimate elections last year. In a flagrant show of power politics, Lukashenko has been trafficking refugees into Europe, reportedly flying migrants into Belarus and accompanying them towards EU border countries.
Poland, which has a notoriously hostile approach to migrants, has responded with brute force, deploying 20,000 police officers to its borders and using violence to deter refugees from entering. These hard-line ‘pushback’ policies blatantly violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Though the act of weaponizing migrants is despicable, Lukashenko is not the only one we should be outraged by. The EU’s failed migration policy has directly allowed for this objectification of human life to occur.
Even the Commission’s rosy rhetoric can’t hide the dire state of EU migration policy. Instead of providing safe, clear channels into the EU, current policies purposely create hostile environments for refugees and push responsibility onto other countries such as Turkey and Libya. Human Rights Watch and MSF describe EU asylum policies as inhumane, claiming they deliberately put peoples’ lives at risk to deter them from entering the EU.
If refugees are lucky enough to survive the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, they endure dire humanitarian conditions in detention centres and the prospect of being kept in limbo for years until their asylum applications are processed. ‘Landing zone’ countries have resorted to deterrence tactics: Greece recently passed new asylum laws, which trap asylum seekers in endless bureaucratic processes, while Italy fines humanitarian rescue ships who try to save drowning refugees. When asylum applications are rejected, the EU has no suitable system to safely expel migrants, thus leaving two thirds stranded in camps indefinitely.
One may say this is down to individual member states’ failures, yet EU organisations themselves are facilitating inhumane practices. A group of investigative journalists uncovered that Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, intercept migrant boats off the Libyan coast and force them back to Libya. Up to 91 refugees perished at sea because Frontex officials delayed alerting nearby ships of their boats in distress.
Evidently, EU migration policy is neither efficient, nor just – no wonder then, that neighbouring countries with frosty relations to the EU exploit this weakness.
What must the EU then do to prevent another Belarus?
Firstly, it must confront its own hypocrisy. The EU denounces Lukashenko for creating a lucrative human trafficking scheme, yet only two years ago, the EU was sending Belarussian border control two million euros worth of patrol vehicles and surveillance equipment, despite knowing of their implication in human rights abuses. The reality is that the maintenance of a brutal border policy in Eastern European countries benefits wealthier, North-western EU states – they can outsource issues of asylum processing to poorer border states without having to deal with the consequences. EU institutions and powerful member states are thus complicit in the abusive treatment of refugees on the Union’s borders – if they continue to withhold support from weaker states in their handling of refugees, illegal pushback practices will persist, and public opinion will continue to be swayed by far-right populists that scapegoat migrants to gain votes. Effective settling of refugees across the EU is crucial to prevent more violence on EU borders.
Moreover, instead of simply deescalating the current Belarus crisis by asking airlines not to comply and imposing further sanctions upon Belarus, the EU must think more long-term by ensuring safe transport channels for refugees. Whether EU states like it or not, refugees will continue to cross into European territory. If the only routes available to them include being plundered of their belongings by smugglers who crowd them into dangerous dinghies, refugees will take them to escape war and persecution. Creating a more hostile environment for refugees arriving to Europe does not act as a deterrent, it simply puts more lives at risk.
The tragically ironic aspect of Lukashenko’s odious scheme is that it represents a first attempt at allowing migrants to fly into Europe, a right not usually granted to refugees. Is it so radical to suggest that the EU could do what Belarus is doing but in a legal manner? Flying in vetted refugees would surely grant the EU some moral high ground, while simultaneously eliminating illegal smugglers. Furthermore, this would certainly be cheaper than funding the current inhumane and useless construction of border walls. The typical counterargument, that this would cause a huge influx of migrants into Europe, ignores the reality of the situation – there is already a huge influx of migrants attempting to enter the EU, we are simply able to turn a blind eye to them because most are hidden away in detention centres or dying at sea.
Although Belarus seems to show signs of backing down, there is no way of undoing the damage enacted by this engineered crisis– Ahmad Al-Hasan, the 19-year-old Syrian who died trying to reach Polish territory, was buried on the 22nd of November. His family, who supported him in making the journey to Europe to continue his studies, joined the ceremony virtually.
It’s time for the EU to take accountability for the inhumane system it has helped create. Perhaps this way, its neighbouring countries would not be so quick to weaponize migrants as a bargaining tool against them.