The overwhelming majority of people camped at the border are economic migrants. For a long time, companies linked to the president have been establishing contacts with Iraqi travel agencies and offering „tours” to Belarus for USD 600-1000. Over time, new flights were opened from Iraq to Belarus, and their number was increased to four per week. The Belarusian president’s business knack also led him to raise the price of a visit to the country to as much as USD 10,000.
In late June, following the arrest of Roman Protasevich by the Lukashenko regime, the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada took coordinated sanctions action against Minsk. In response, the President of Belarus announced that he would no longer stop migrants wishing to cross the border into the European Union. Lukashenko liberalised visa regulations and invited thousands of economic migrants and refugees from unstable regions of the world into his country, thus enabling them to easily reach the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. As a result of these events, Poland found itself in the middle of a new migration crisis created by Belarus.
„Belarus: One day in life”
The vast majority of those camped at the border are economic migrants who have flown into Belarus from countries such as Iraq and Nigeria. They hope to find better living conditions. There have been many migration routes over the years, but most of them involve a harsh and multi-stage journey through the Balkans or the Mediterranean. Smugglers have managed to develop a safer system based on transferring migrants to Belarus and then directly to the border with Poland, Lithuania or Latvia. An entire system of travel services, appropriate documents and precise instructions were prepared for potential travellers. However, it often turns out, as in the current crisis, that the promise of a swift passage to Western Europe is a deception and a scam, of which some migrants are unaware. Many of them return from Minsk after a few days or so to their country of origin.
According to reports by Tadeusz Giczan, a Belarusian opposition journalist, the mechanism for transferring migrants to the EU border by the government in Minsk was already developed 10 years ago as part of „Operation Sluice”. Back then, it was about forcing the European Union to hand over substantial financial aid packages; today, the same procedure is being used as retaliation for the sanctions imposed by the EU after the fraudulent 2020 presidential elections and the detention of Roman Protasevich. Only the scale was changed.
Lukashenko hopes not only for the lifting of sanctions or financial aid in exchange for stopping the flow of migrants but also for the legitimisation of his authoritarian rule by Western countries. The actions of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan from a few years ago, serve as a model.
For a long time, companies linked to the president, especially CentrKurort, have been establishing contacts with Iraqi travel agencies and offering „tours” to Belarus for USD 600-1000. Once a week, Iraqi Airways planes flew Iraqi citizens to Minsk, and tourist visas were issued to the passengers. Lukashenko advertising tourism to Belarus and the promise of assistance and a tourist visa lent credibility to the offer and instilled confidence in potential migrants. Some people returned home after a week, but most treated the visit to Belarus as an opportunity to get to Western Europe. There were many groups on social media giving precise instructions on how and where to cross the EU border.
Over time, new flights were opened from Iraq to Belarus, and their number was increased to four per week. Iraqi Airways was joined by Fly Baghdad and Belavia. Planes began flying to Minsk from Baghdad, Irbil, Basra and Sulaymaniyah, among others. Small Boeing 737s have also been replaced by much more capacious B777s and B747s. Demand for the tours has not dropped, helped by the direct involvement of Lukashenko, who personally advertised the „tours” on Iraqi television, and the large numbers of refugees from Afghanistan. The Belarusian president’s business knack also led him to raise the price of a visit to the country to as much as USD 10,000.
Officially, the trips are about tourism, but in practice no one even tries to hide the fact that it is mainly about economic emigration. Even the posters advertising the trips feature the slogan: „Belarus: One day in life”, which indicates the real aim of the trips. In practice, one day can turn into several weeks or, if someone manages to get to Western Europe, many years.
Initially, the stream of migrants was directed primarily towards Lithuania. In early August, at the request of the Lithuanian Government, the European Commission intervened in Baghdad and demanded a halt to flights to Belarus, and Iraq bowed and suspended them all.
The successful EU intervention has not changed much. Migrants began to be flown to Istanbul, Damascus, Beirut and Dubai, among others, and from there to Belarus. It seems that attempts to prevent flights are not an effective solution to the current crisis. Lukashenko can always find a way around an obstacle, and the EU does not have the leverage and capacity to intervene everywhere. Besides, the Belarusian President is hedging his bets for the future. Politico reports that Lukashenko is holding talks with Venezuela about opening direct flights to Belarus.
Even if the Union’s interventions were to have a temporary effect, the methods used to date to deal with the problem of mass migration should be viewed critically. The European Union’s pay&forget model, where authoritarian states are paid to keep migrants out, is not working. Bribes in the form of financial aid packages, as in the case of Belarus, may work in the short term, but they always carry the risk of future blackmail. The European Union should learn a lesson from the current crisis and develop effective methods of protecting its borders against similar situations in the future.
So how to end the crisis? Paradoxically, from the point of view of realpolitik, the best way forward may simply be the further sealing of the border combined with new sanctions against Lukashenko. The restrictively controlled and sealed borders of Lithuania and Poland have brought migrants to a standstill in Belarus, and there is no sign of any change in this situation. Maybe Lukashenko has overreached himself. He hoped that internal pressure would force the eastern EU countries to open their borders. The truth is that it is now Belarus itself that has the biggest problem with migrants, who have willingly flocked to Minsk, confident of further emigration to western Europe.
Minsk airport has turned into a genuine nomad camp, housing hundreds of migrants. The migrants located near the Polish-Belarusian border have even started to occupy uninhabited houses. The situation had become so dangerous that at the beginning of October Lukashenko was even forced to suspend some flights for a short time and send some people back home. The migration crisis is a double-edged sword from which Belarus is also suffering.
The media buzz that has been created around the situation at the border is also of significance. Information about problems with crossing the border of the European Union has already reached some people interested in „trips” to Belarus, which, combined with the approaching winter and the prospect of spending weeks in the forest at the border, may reduce demand for flights to this country. The most effective way of dealing with the sudden influx of migrants may be precisely to intensify efforts to provide effective and well-targeted information to potential arrivals about the current situation at the border. It should be remembered that a large proportion of them are economic migrants who are convinced that paying a few thousand dollars will guarantee them safe and trouble-free transport to the European Union.
Frontex at the border
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) has proposed that, considering the law and the current crisis, migrants should be gradually allowed to enter Poland and then either legally be granted asylum or sent back. Lukashenko obviously will not accept them, so Frontex has preliminarily offered to organise return flights to third countries for rejected asylum seekers. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that Poland has already carried out some return flights for migrants on its own, but a larger-scale operation will require cooperation with the European Union.
Poland should also ask Frontex for support in border protection. Such a move would not only relieve Polish officers to some extent, but would also shift some of the responsibility for events at the border to the European agency. The Lithuanian government has already decided on a similar step, which is why the criticism of some EU representatives for the inhumane treatment of migrants falls mainly on Poland.
It therefore seems most sensible to continue sealing the border and to invite Frontex to help. At the most inflamed points, i.e. where groups of migrants are stuck between the Polish and Belarusian border guards, the successive and slow letting through of asylum seekers could be considered. Economic migrants who do not qualify for refuge in EU countries can be sent back home with the help of Frontex. Such measures would not reduce Lukashenko’s problem with an excess of migrants in Belarus, but they would provide a humanitarian way of helping those camped out at the border.
Yes, the EU will bear the cost of this transport, but it can count on a reduction in the intensity of the influx of migrants. Information about sending migrants back home will quickly reach third countries, so many people who are considering going to Western Europe may decide not to pay several thousand dollars for a multi-day stay in the woods on the Polish-Belarusian border. Eyewitness accounts of the impasse at the border will confirm that Lukashenko’s offer is a hoax and may prove to be far more demotivating than the messages and propaganda of the Belarusian media that merge into a confusing jumble.
Polish version available here.
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