Migrants in Belarus challenge Europeans to show their values

One of President Joe Biden’s favorite refrains is that the defining geopolitical conflict of our time is between “democracy and autocracy.”

Such a struggle is currently being played out on the Polish-Belarusian border. The autocratic government of Belarus knows what it is doing: encouraging thousands of migrants from the Middle East to enter Poland.

Why we wrote this

President Biden’s struggle between “autocracy and democracy” is played out on the border between Belarus and Poland. But European democracies are vulnerable without a migration game plan.

But the reason why this is so sensitive is that democratic Europe does not not know what he’s doing. The European Union failed to agree on a humane and effective way to distinguish political refugees from economic migrants. Poland’s response, as a frontline EU member state, is therefore simply to roll out the razor wire, send in 15,000 troops and prevent everyone from entering.

If President Biden is right, this won’t be the last time countries like Belarus and its boss Russia will seek to poke their European neighbors. This could prompt democracies to agree on how to express their values ​​vis-à-vis foreigners seeking refuge.


US President Joe Biden has said so often that it has become almost a rhetorical refrain: that the defining geopolitical conflict of our time lies between “democracy and autocracy.” And that seems to be exactly the contest being played out this week in the heart of Europe, on the Belarusian border with Poland.

On the one hand, the Belarusian Kremlin-backed dictator is using thousands of increasingly desperate refugees and migrants from the Middle East as a political weapon against the European Union.

But within the EU, the crisis has raised questions about what its democratic values ​​really require of governments when it comes to welcoming – or not – those seeking refuge within their borders.

Why we wrote this

President Biden’s struggle between “autocracy and democracy” is played out on the border between Belarus and Poland. But European democracies are vulnerable without a migration game plan.

EU states show unity in the face of Belarus’ challenge. They are angry at the way its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has deliberately relaxed entry requirements for refugees and migrants from Iraq, Syria and Yemen and directed them west to the border with Poland, an EU member state.

His aim appears to be to pressure Europeans to remove the sanctions they have imposed since he was re-elected last year in what international observers called a rigged vote, which was followed by ‘a violent crackdown on the street protests that followed.

If so, this effort has failed. EU foreign ministers this week announced plans for new sanctions, pushing back what its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has called “the instrumentalization of migrants for political ends”.

Yet beneath the surface of EU unity lies a dividing line: between the founding Western European members of the Union and some of the newer members, like Poland, which were once in the Soviet orbit. and are now self-proclaimed “illiberal democracies”. “

While there was unanimous agreement on the need to hold Mr Lukashenko accountable for what is happening, some politicians and experts in Western Europe have criticized the Polish response: migrants and prevent aid workers, journalists and other outside observers to enter the area.

And with Belarus encouraging increasingly desperate refugees and migrants to attempt to cross the border, Polish troops haven’t just stood their ground. On Tuesday, they retaliated with tear gas and water cannons.

Nikolai Petrov / BelTA / Reuters

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko chairs a meeting on the migrant crisis on the Belarusian-Poland border, in Minsk, Belarus, on November 16, 2021.

European leaders, however, were reluctant to publicly criticize the Warsaw government’s strong reactions. And it is because they are afraid to expose a question fraught with values ​​and political challenges that they have been avoiding for years.

This question is how, if not if, a community formally committed to democracy and human rights should respond to those seeking protection in Europe against what international refugee law defines as “well-founded fear.” to be persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality. , membership of a particular social group or political opinion ”in their country of origin. And how to distinguish them from economic migrants in search of a better life.

Six years ago, a massive influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, over a million in total, tested the unity of the EU almost to the point of breaking up. The crisis subsided when Chancellor Angela Merkel took the political risk of admitting most of them to Germany.

But an attempt to put in place a “quota system” – under which other states would help resettle refugees – has met with resistance, particularly on the EU’s eastern periphery.

And the EU as a whole decided to do everything to avoid a new wave and the questions it would raise. The main thrust of this policy has been the payment of billions of dollars to the autocratic leader of his southern flank, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to deal with migrants and refugees in his own country, rather than letting them go. direct to Europe.

The EU’s inability to develop a refugee policy, as well as Poland’s particularly strong opposition to any immigration to the Middle East, made Europe vulnerable to Lukashenko’s use of refugees as a political weapon in its impasse with the EU.

And while Russia, Mr Lukashenko’s indispensable ally and financial backer, has insisted that this has nothing to do with the border crisis, Moscow, too, is clearly aware of the difficulties and divisions. of the EU on the matter. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, referring to the deal with Turkey, strongly suggested this week that the Europeans simply pay Lukashenko and the crisis would go away.

Yet Mr. Lukashenko is not the first to use refugees as political leverage. The Turkish president himself has periodically alluded to reopening the floodgates for refugees in times of tension with the EU or the United States.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin used the same tactic five years ago, allowing more than 1,000 migrants to leave Russia on the border with Finland, until Helsinki drops some of the sanctions it had. imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea to Ukraine.

Nor will it likely be the latest example of the “democracy versus autocracy” struggle highlighted by President Biden. This could be an additional incentive for democracies to agree on how to express their values ​​when it comes to foreigners seeking refuge.

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