Until it sorts out its migration policy, the EU will be at the mercy of its authoritarian neighbours

Copyright: "File:Putin with Alexander Lukashenko 2015.jpg" by Пресс-служба Президента России is licensed under CC BY 4.0

By Robert Tyler, Senior Policy Advisor at EU affairs think tank New Direction

For a long time now, the EU has been struggling with the challenge of irregular migration. This includes refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, attempting to reach the relative safety of Western Europe by crossing the border with Turkey, and onwards into Greece and the Balkans. As a result, the European Union, and Germany in particular, welcomed many of these people with open arms. Trains into Vienna, Munich, and Berlin were greeted by supportive crowds. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was lauded as a hero for her humanitarian work.

However, as the months drew on, the flows of migrants only increased. It became clear that these were not only refugees on the run for conflict, but also economic migrants from across the Middle East and North Africa, in search of a new more prosperous life in Western Europe. In a desperate bid to control numbers, the European Union struck a deal with Turkey, in effect paying Erdogan to help end irregular migration, which helped, combined with the closure of the “Balkan Route”, to reduce irregular immigration.

The EU’s fledgling response to irregular migration

The Turkey deal became something of a model for future arrangements with other neighbouring countries, including Morocco, as a means to incentivising third countries to stop migrants from reaching Europe. However, as always, there were holes in the nets. A destabilised Libya became a backdoor into Europe, despite an EU operation, “Operation Sophia”, in force patrolling the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, migration helped to fuel support for populist political forces across the continent, with the likes of Front National in France, PVV in the Netherlands, and Lega Nord in Italy all surging on the back of anti-migration rhetoric. New political parties, like the German AfD, also gained support on the back of the growing crisis. Many of these parties are widely seen as having pro-Russian sympathies.

The success of these parties changed the debate over migration, as they crowded out traditional moderate parties that were opposed to uncontrolled immigration as well, changing the tone of the discussion into something altogether more hostile. As a result, the migration debate also became a cultural issue, much more than merely about border control.

Over the last seven years, the EU did manage to better control irregular migration, but only slowly. The numbers of those coming via the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western Balkans, and the Central routes have been reduced. The numbers of those crossing the Straits of Gibraltar have stabilised. COVID-19 has also contributed to reducing new crossings.

A new wave from the East

However, over the course of this Summer, a new wave of irregular migration has started. This time, rather than crossing the sea, they’re crossing land, and rather than coming from the South, they’re coming from the East. Here I am referring to irregular migrants crossing from Belarus to Lithuania. One would think that as a result of the crackdown in the country, these migrants would be Belarusian, but they are not. They are Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghani

The Lukashenko regime in Belarus, scrambling to hold on to power, has begun to import migrants via daily charter flights from Baghdad, Damascus, and Kabul. Those people arrive on tourist or transit visas, and are then shown the way to the border, where they are conveniently left in order to be allowed to cross.


Lukashenko and his cronies are in effect weaponising the migration crisis as a means to destabilise Europe in two ways. First of all, the regime is trying to reignite the debate over migration in Europe, re-inflaming the tensions of the last seven years. Secondly, it aims to force the hand of the European Union to respond to a crisis, at a time when it is internally divided both when it comes to Belarus and to Russia.

It is clear that one of the aims of both Minsk and Moscow is to see the debate over immigration brought back to the forefront of European discourse. Their objective is to knock discussion on Belarus into the background, whilst at the same time reigniting the heated debate over illegal crossings.

Furthermore, another reason for the Kremlin to try to reignite the debate over migration is that it may fuel those Russian regime-friendly populist political forces on the continent. The more successful they are, the more divided the EU response to any Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe.

Time for the EU to sort out its migration policy

In diverting the Ryan Air jet two months ago, the Lukashenko regime already forced EU governments to confront Minsk and Moscow, and now it is poking the EU once more, using irregular migration. The EU debate over how to handle Russia and Belarus has led to frustrated divisions between East and West in recent months. Add migration into the mix, especially on the Eastern flank of Europe, which has so far avoided irregular mass migration, and this can only be cause for greater tension.

In effect, Lukashenko and Putin are forcing the EU into a new and difficult position. The EU cannot possibly pay Belarus in the same way it has paid Turkey and Morocco to stem the flow of migrants, but if it opts for a different strategy, for example resorting to pushbacks and large-scale deportations, this would open up the debate as to why this was not the policy to begin with, something that would equally fuel the “populists”.

The EU has itself to blame for this, enabling Lukashenko play it like a Balalaika. Over the years, the EU has refused to consider alternative approaches to tackle irregular migration, like for example the Danish approach to replace asylum processing in Denmark with reception centres in countries outside of Europe, for example in Africa. This is similar to Australia’s approach and has now been also adopted by the United Kingdom.

It is true that meanwhile, the EU has at least managed to get Iraq to suspend flights to Belarus for 10 days, which follows EU pressure on Iraq, but the question is why the EU does not properly use its great leverage linked to visas and development aid in order to get the countries of origin of irregular migrants to become more cooperative to welcome back their own nationals when these are denied asylum in the EU.

The EU should not lose more time to change its strategy to control migration. Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, has warned that “we know that since Western troops are leaving Afghanistan, there’s a possibility for the huge migration flows which we are already witnessing in Tajikistan and with Russian facilitation.”

In sum, until it sorts out its migration policy, the EU will be at the mercy of its authoritarian neighbours, which are not hesitating to use irregular migration to exploit EU divisions. 

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