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Over the past month, as thousands of migrants gathered on Belarus’s border with Poland and tried to cross into the European Union, some European leaders accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of engaging in a “hybrid war.” In an effort to put pressure on the EU, they asserted, Lukashenko intentionally sent the migrants to the border with Poland and left them exposed in a freezing forest. Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, called it a new way of “using human beings in an act of aggression.” But if the strategy was extreme, the forces driving it have long been in play. What EU leaders failed to acknowledge was that Lukashenko was drawing on a dynamic of state-manipulated migration that has become common in many parts of the world—and which the EU itself has helped shape.
Without a doubt, the Poland-Belarus crisis has been exceptionally sordid. The migrants in question were not from Belarus or even from surrounding countries but largely from Iraq and Kurdistan. Starting in June, they had been lured to Belarus on tourist visas, with the false promise that they would then have easy access to the EU. When they arrived in Minsk, they were bused straight to the Lithuanian and, especially, Polish borders. In essence, Lukashenko was staging an artificial humanitarian crisis in an effort to get concessions out of Brussels. Ever since rigged elections in 2020, European leaders have dismissed the authoritarian Belarusian regime as lacking “any democratic legitimacy,” and Lukashenko was signaling that he was prepared to use any means possible to force them to the negotiating table and get them to lift sanctions.
Although Lukashenko’s gambit failed, he did succeed in sullying the EU. The Polish government sent troops to defend its border, even using tear gas and water cannons. During the standoff, at least ten migrants died of exposure, including a one-year-old Syrian child. Meanwhile, by supporting Poland’s hard-line tactics and deflecting its ire on Belarus, the EU appeared not just callous but hypocritical: instead of upholding EU asylum law and the principles of human rights, it looked on as migrants were pushed back into Belarus. But the response was squarely in keeping with recent European policies aimed at controlling cross-border migration as much as possible, although usually conveniently farther from its frontiers and out of its immediate sight. Even with the Belarus situation still unfolding, The New Yorker has reported that the EU has paid $500 million to Libya to fund brutal militia-run detention centers, where thousands of African migrants trying to cross into Europe are now being held.
The events on the Belarusian border may have been unusually dispiriting, but the political calculations behind them are hardly new. As the number of migrants, displaced people, and refugees has exploded in recent years, advanced economies in Europe and elsewhere have resorted to increasingly harsh measures to keep them out. In turn, gateway countries such as Libya, Turkey, and now Belarus have new incentives to use the threat of mass migration to extract aid money and other concessions. Increasingly, migration has become a matter not of policy and diplomacy but of coercion, blackmail, and dirty deals. Far from an anomaly, the Belarus case is simply the next stage in the weaponization of migrants.
Authoritarian governments have used migrants as weapons in the past. When Moscow began to permit Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1971, it deliberately allowed criminals, many of whose claims to Jewish identity were bogus, to join them. The Cuban leader Fidel Castro used the same tactic to an even greater extent when he opened his country’s ports during the 1980 Mariel crisis. Most of the 125,000 Cubans who fled to the United States were genuinely seeking freedom and opportunity, but the Castro regime sent convicted criminals and even patients from psychiatric hospitals to join the exodus.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, migration has taken on a powerful political dimension in advanced democracies as well. Over the past two decades, civil wars, famines, and other upheavals, from the Balkans to Yemen to Afghanistan, have led unprecedented numbers of people to seek refuge in the wealthier economies of western Europe and North America. According to the International Monetary Fund, by 2019 there were 270 million migrants in the world, a figure that had more than doubled since 1990.
Confronted with this onslaught, the EU came up with a novel solution: it would pay countries huge amounts of money to prevent migration. In 2008, the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi struck a deal with Italy in which the Italian government agreed to pay $5 billion in “reparations” to Libya to stop the flow of Africans heading north into Europe. When the Arab Spring revolts erupted in 2011, bringing a major uprising to Libya, Qaddafi tried to deter EU forces from providing military support to the rebellion by warning that they were “bombing a wall which stood in the way of African migration to Europe.”
The EU's migrant deals have empowered authoritarian regimes.
Qaddafi’s argument was not unfounded. The unseating of dictatorships in both Libya and neighboring Tunisia resulted in the rapid increase in migrants traveling from North Africa to Europe, especially via the Italian island of Lampedusa. In the summer of 2011, 48,000 migrants reached the island; by 2014, the number had risen to over 170,000. Among them were people from all over the Middle East and North Africa who had chosen to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean via Libya because of its postrevolution reputation as an uncontrolled gateway to Europe.
The warlords of Libya’s civil war soon saw an opportunity of their own. In 2017, the Government of National Accord—the UN-recognized regime, albeit one whose reach was neither national nor met with much accord—signed a deal that offered it further recognition, credits, and even equipment in return for intercepting would-be migrants. Instead of having the opportunity to reach Europe, Africans have been held in Libyan detention camps that Amnesty International called a “hellscape” for their unsanitary and dangerous conditions. The European Union has struck similar deals with Sudan and Egypt, underscoring a fundamental point, that authoritarian regimes can get not only a free pass from the EU on many issues but also lucrative assistance, so long as they continue to keep migrants out.
Of course, such deals have also given these same authoritarian regimes the ability to threaten uncontrolled migration as a form of blackmail. After being flooded with refugees from the Syrian civil war in 2015, the EU agreed to pay the Turkish government six billion euros (some $6.8 billion) to host refugees on its own soil and not let them head farther into Europe. In the process, Brussels made its worries obvious, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had no qualms about exploiting. When the EU began criticizing the conduct of Turkish operations in northern Syria, he threatened to “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way” if they did not stop calling his Syrian offensive “an invasion.” The EU duly caved, watering down both its planned embargo on arms sales to Ankara and its language: the “invasion” was turned into a “unilateral military action.”
Likewise, when the Indonesian government became infuriated by Australian pressure to show clemency to two of its citizens facing the death penalty for drug trafficking in 2015, it threatened to stop cooperating to combat migration across the Timor Sea and unleash a “human tsunami.” The overall lesson was, after all, that migrants could serve as just another bargaining chip.
In an age of interconnected economies, shooting wars have been too costly, both politically and economically, for most countries. In their place have emerged a series of tools that can be readily turned into weapons, from sanctions to cyberattacks to the disruption of energy markets. Among these new tactics, the threat of unleashing migrants has become especially attractive.
In bringing Iraqis and Kurds to the Polish border, Lukashenko was not just turning migrants themselves into political weapons. He was also weaponizing several other components of modern interstate relations: communications, crime, and law. Whereas once migrants were more likely to head to neighboring countries or to follow well-established migration routes, in the age of social media and the Internet, rumors about new routes and potential destinations are able to spread extremely rapidly, and people smugglers actively spread disinformation to drum up business. What made Belarus distinctive was that there was not a naturally occurring flow of migrants but one that was generated by the government itself using information networks.
At the same time, Belarus drew on the role of criminal gangs in facilitating cross-border migrations. Although travel agencies and other commercial agencies played a key part in Minsk’s efforts to recruit would-be migrants, in at least some cases they were essentially front companies for well-established people-smuggling rings. When Minsk began to make it known through online channels that it was willing to issue short-term group tourist visas for the flimsiest of reasons and bus people from the airport to the Lithuanian or Polish border, it was these local facilitators—in some cases tipped off by agents of the KGB, Belarus’s infamous security service—who spread the word and drummed up business. Since they were fully or partially paid up front for their services, typically $7,000 to $15,000 a head, these smugglers didn’t care whether the migrants made it to Europe. They simply spotted a market opportunity and exploited it.
What made these migrants think they would be allowed to enter Europe? Whether genuinely fleeing oppression or simply looking for better lives, many of them planned to claim asylum and put their faith in legal processes, especially in Germany, which privileges the rights of people at risk. These aspirations were also exploited by Minsk, in a textbook example of “lawfare”—the use of law as a weapon—to the point of Belarusian officials actually advising migrants how to make the case for asylum once they were on EU soil.
On one level, then, this manufactured crisis is an example of the cynical malice of Lukashenko’s regime, seeking to punish the EU for its support for Belarus’s opposition movement and to force it to accept the legitimacy of his regime. In this particular instance, the strategy may have backfired. In mid-November, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to talk to Lukashenko to defuse the crisis, marking the first direct contact with him by any Western leader since Belarus’s fraudulent election. But Belarus seems to have gained no strategic advantage. Even Belarus’s close ally, Russia, has been increasingly exasperated by Lukashenko’s capriciousness. Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly called for him to talk to the opposition, and Russian officials privately contemplate how they could be rid of him.
Nonetheless, for Europe, the events on the Polish border should serve as a wake-up call. This tactic is unlikely to end with Belarus, even if few governments are likely to pursue it so brazenly in the near future. The EU itself has greatly facilitated the weaponization of migration by showing how the threat of migrant inflows can be used to extort billions in aid and political indulgence. And as many European countries struggle with populist movements that mobilize around anti-immigration sentiment, the pressure on their leaders to pay authoritarian governments to keep the flow of migrants at a manageable level is unlikely to go away.
More and more, the EU also seems willing to use external countries to do its dirty work on migration and in the process risks undermining the values that Western societies are meant to espouse. Although the conduct of the Polish government may have hit the headlines, the outsourcing of migration policing in North Africa has often meant turning a blind eye to overcrowded detention centers, huge numbers of deaths at sea, authoritarian regimes, and endemic corruption.
The lesson of Minsk’s cynical ploy is that as conflict leaves the battlefield and moves into every other realm of life, migration has become another weapon in an arsenal that ranges from strategic disinformation and the deliberate use of investment for political pressure to controlling access to water or power. Lukashenko is in many ways a very old-fashioned dictator, but his migrant war is a sign of things to come.
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