Belarus accused of ‘weaponising’ migrants, in row over EU border breaches

Belarus is becoming ever more troublesome for Europe, especially for its immediate EU neighbours, reports Andreas Rogal
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By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a Brussels-based journalist and copy editor

23 Aug 2021

Undeterred by repeated calls to stop sending migrants - flown on scheduled flights into Minsk from Iraq - across the borders into the EU, Belarus has been accused of an act of “hybrid warfare” by Estonia Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Last week, a video was published on social media showing Belarusian border guards pushing migrants over the border into Lithuania.

MEP and former Lithuanian Minister of Defence, Rasa Juknevičienė explained to the Parliament Magazine, “in Šalčininkai District, at the section administered by Gintaras Žagunis frontier station, Belarusian servicemen armed with shields and riot control equipment forcibly pushed a group of 35 irregular migrants into Lithuania and entered the territory themselves.”

The EPP Group deputy added that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime was also “implementing an information war and spreading various lies about illegal immigrants”, warning that "this is not migration as usual as we witnessed in 2015. In my opinion, the Kremlin is behind it, and is observing how we will manage this situation”.

When European Parliament President David Sassoli visited Lithuania’s capital Vilnius the day after the incident, he suggested that Belarus should face tougher sanctions.

Over the weekend, the prime ministers of Poland and the three Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia met via video conference to discuss the crisis. They issued a joint statement, expressing “grave concern”.

"This is not migration as usual as we witnessed in 2015. In my opinion, the Kremlin is behind it, and is observing how we will manage this situation” MEP and former Lithuanian Minister of Defence, Rasa Juknevičienė

Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, Lithuania’s Ingrida Šimonytė, Latvia’s Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš and Estonia’s Kaja Kallas - the latter two prominent former MEPs – stated that, “It is clear to us that the ongoing crisis has been planned and systemically organised by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

They continued, “Using immigrants to destabilise neighbouring countries constitutes a clear breach of international law and qualifies as a hybrid attack against Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and thus against the entire European Union.”

They argue that while the protection of the external EU border is a “duty” for Member States, it is also the “common responsibility of the EU, and that “proper political attention should be paid to it on the EU level and sufficient funding allocated”.

The four heads of government also called for the UN and, in particular, the Security Council, to address the issue, and for “the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to take active steps to facilitate the solution of this situation and to require the Republic of Belarus to comply with its international obligation… Belarus must assume its full responsibility for people whose arrival to its territory it has organised itself.”

At the same time, the prime ministers promised to “provide all necessary protection to persons who enter our countries on conditions under the international refugee law”.

However, speaking to the Parliament Magazine, Latvian ECR Group MEP Roberts Zīle commented that the vast majority of migrants were coming to Belarus on tourist visas from Iraq, and then mysteriously losing their visas and passports once they attempt or are led across the border into the EU.

“If you have a reasonable and genuine claim for refugee status and you are in Belarus, you can go to the EU embassy in Minsk; you don’t have to try to cross the border illegally.”

“It is clear to us that the ongoing crisis has been planned and systemically organised by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Using immigrants to destabilise neighbouring countries constitutes a clear breach of international law and qualifies as a hybrid attack against Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and thus against the entire European Union” Joint statement by Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki, Ingrida Šimonytė, Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš and Kaja Kallas

Latvian media reported that the country had taken in 41 migrants from Belarus for refugee status processing on Friday.

All three directly affected countries have started to install border reinforcements or are busy planning them. On Wednesday, Poland deployed 900 troops on the border with Belarus.

For his part, Lukashenka appeared unconcerned by the growing condemnation on Monday, with the Belarusian news agency BeLTA reporting him saying that Poland had, in fact, caused the border conflict.

He claimed that the latest migrants arriving at the border were Afghan refugees heading for the west who had “invited them and promised to welcome all of them”.

The agency quotes Lukashenka as saying, “What did the Poles do? They caught (I cannot put it differently) about 50 people on the territory of Poland. Those people said they were travelling to Germany following the invitation of Mutter Merkel. Threatening them with weapons, shooting in the air, the Poles forced them to move to the border with Belarus.”

But leading members of the European Parliament’s bodies involved in relations with Belarus, asked to comment for this article, were unconvinced by the Belarusian framing of the situation.

Polish S&D Group MEP Robert Biedroń, chair of the Delegation to Belarus, told this website that, “The despicable instrumentalisation of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, by the Belarusian regime is part of hybrid measures aimed at pressuring Brussels in response to its fourth set of sanctions, which have hit important parts of the Belarusian economy.”

“The despicable instrumentalisation of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, by the Belarusian regime is part of hybrid measures aimed at pressuring Brussels in response to its fourth set of sanctions, which have hit important parts of the Belarusian economy” Polish S&D Group MEP Robert Biedroń, chair of the European Parliament's Delegation to Belarus

Arguing that that there could be little doubt that the escalation of the border crisis has been orchestrated by Belarus in order to destabilise Eastern EU Member States, Biedroń said it was of “utmost importance” to find a joint solution to this crisis.

Following up on David Sassoli’s comments last week, Biedroń said the European Parliament “continues to insist that the EU must be more ambitious in the implementation of restrictive measures against the Belarusian regime.”

“The European Commission and the Council must proceed - without further delay - with the preparation of the fifth set of sanctions that would target a substantially larger number of entities, as well as officials responsible for or being complicit in human rights violations, including the malign organisation of illegal migration into the EU.“

In the medium term, most leading politicians of the affected countries are calling for, as Rasa Juknevičienė put it, “a new strategy to fight such hybrid threats, as well as a review of its migration and asylum policy”.

In the short term, a push-back strategy seems most effective, and will most likely be understood my most citizens as necessary self defence.

However, Polish expert on the rule of law, Jakub Jaraczewski of the Berlin based NGO Democracy Reporting International, sounded a legal word of warning via a Twitter thread on Monday:

”Push back on the Polish-Belarusian border - aside from all human rights/international law concerns, the law that allows the Border Guard to push back has been introduced by means of secondary legislation - a ministerial decree. That's squarely a rule of law issue.”

He continued, “Compliance with international standards aside, such law, since it limits human rights and freedoms, should have been introduced as an act of the parliament. We're seeing a pattern of the government in Poland sidestepping the legislative by employing secondary legislation.”

“This pattern goes beyond Poland, as we've identified in our recent study on covid-19 and the rule of law, with governments across Europe having increasingly embraced secondary legislation as means of tackling crises - and inevitably, limiting rights and freedoms.”

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