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Refugees: a double-bottomed crisis

Migranti
©EPA-EFE/TOMS KALNINS  |   Detained migrants waiting in line for buying goods from an off-site store in a car at the migrant detention centre in Vydeniai, Lithuania, 02 August 2021.

In May 2020, Belarus, preparing for the presidential election, signed a readmission agreement with the EU, regulating the return of the parties’ own citizens and third country nationals. The approaching presidential elections forced Lukashenko into political maneuvers. However, the results announced in August 2020 caused a strong political crisis in Belarus, which in turn lead to a significant deterioration of the relations with virtually all the country’s neighbors, except Russia. In June 2021, the unrecognized President of Belarus announced the suspension of the country's participation in the Eastern Partnership and the refusal to comply with the readmission agreement.

This decision was a signal for a significant change in the migration policy of Belarus. The number of illegal migrants on the border between Belarus and Lithuania, the largest of the Baltic republics, has increased tenfold, as migrants sought a gateway to the EU. As it turned out, the travel agency "Center Resort", which is part of the State Administration of Belarus, organized the flow of illegal migrants. The vast majority of them are ethnic Kurds who aspired to get to the European Union heartland. The crossing point was not chosen randomly: Lithuania and Belarus have a 500-kilometer border that is not equipped with engineering structures, and that made it highly penetrable by thousands of migrants. In July, about 4,000 illegal immigrants found themselves in Lithuania, and the authorities were forced to place them in poorly adapted premises. The population of the Lithuanian hinterland was not enthusiastic about the appearance of illegal migrants.

The artificial crisis with migrants has several grounds. On the one hand, the suffering and wandering exile of people who have left their homeland evokes the empathy of many people within the EU. On the other hand, it causes an outbreak of xenophobia in the radical environment of the extreme right. Let me remind you that in 2015, about a million migrants from the Middle East and North Africa caused a migration crisis of European scale. Their movement from the Mediterranean coast to the "Promised Land" in Germany and other countries of Old Europe was accompanied by numerous human tragedies, outbreaks of xenophobia and information pressure from the Russian propaganda machine. Returning to Lithuania as a place of migration crisis, in 2021 its citizens faced the propaganda pressure and some of its messages aimed to enkindle xenophobia. This targeted disinformation campaign started  after the deployment of NATO units from the German Bundeswehr in Lithuania in 2016. This year, a Bundeswehr troop was withdrawn from Lithuania due to the misconduct of some servicemen, which caused a public uproar.

Human tragedies are used to fuel the disinformation campaign that accompanies the current crisis. On August 4, an Iraqi citizen, Jafar Hussein Yusuf, was killed on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, and Russian and Belarusian propagandists used the death for their own ends. Just a day later, the Belarusian media reported the rescue of another person, who was promptly provided with medical care. Belarusian border guards accompanying groups of migrants violated the border with Lithuania.

We must pay tribute to the Lithuanian leadership, which was able to quickly change the law, restricting the movement of asylum seekers around the country, and allowing army units to support border guards and representatives of the EU agency Frontex, which is involved in protecting the borders of the European Union. Not without creative solutions: the Lithuanian government announced its readiness to pay 300 euros each to asylum seekers who agree to return to their homeland. Ukraine handed over 38 tons of barbed wire to Lithuania for equipping the border as humanitarian aid - this specific commodity was in short supply in the EU. Belarusian border guards began to send migrants to Poland and Latvia, but failed to achieve the desired effect. The Latvian government has introduced a state of emergency in the regions bordering with Belarus.

However, as the migrant crisis mounted, Lithuania also faced some other hybrid manifestations, which allow us to reasonably assume that it was the target of a larger hybrid attack. On August 10, a rally was held outside the walls of the Lithuanian parliament with the participation of several thousand people protesting against the imposition of restrictions on citizens who refused to vaccinate. Also in August, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry fell victim to a powerful cyberattack, which caused the leak of a large array of classified documents. Such actions in cyberspace have long been the hallmark of the Kremlin.

Predictably, the next target of the hybrid attack was Poland, as hundreds of illegal migrants tried to cross its border with Belarus. Two dozen of them got stuck on the border between Belarus and Poland, attracting the attention of the media and human rights organizations. During August, about 2,000 illegal migrants tried to break through from Belarus to Poland, taking advantage of the lack of engineering facilities at the border. At the end of August, Poland began building a 2.5 meter high barbed wire fence.

On August 23, the prime ministers of Poland and the Baltic states issued a joint statement in which they stated that the flow of illegal immigrants was planned and organized by the Lukashenko regime as an element of a hybrid war against the EU. Officials called on the UN to take action against the leadership of Belarus, which encourages illegal migrants. Belarus, for its part, has stepped up accusations against Poland.

There are reasonable doubts that Lukashenko personally decided to spoil as much as possible his relations with his Western neighbors. It looks more likely that the Kremlin, with the help of a Belarusian satellite, decided to create an agenda for a humanitarian crisis in the summer of 2021. Several factors coincided at the time - the holiday season in Europe, the high interest in the event in and around Belarus, and the fundamental desire of the EU to protect human rights. Dunja Mijatovic, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, has already spoken out in defense of refugees. This time Russia is acting practically under a false flag, allowing us to answer the question “Why did Lukashenko quickly win the competition over Putin for the status of the last dictator of Europe?”. Belarus is becoming an instrument for reaching Russia’s goals. Obviously, one of the main goals of the main goal of Moscow (not Minsk) is to coerce negotiations with Brussels, not Vilnius or Warsaw.

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Updated at: 09 Sep 2021 12:38:04
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4 minutes read
  • The refugee crisis that erupted in the summer on Belarus’ border with its western neighbors has several components. We are looking at new tactics in Russia's hybrid actions with the cynical use of an ally and the desire to strike at the most consistent criticisms of Russia.
  • The artificial crisis with migrants has several grounds. On the one hand, the suffering and wandering exile of people who have left their homeland evokes the empathy of many people within the EU. On the other hand, it causes an outbreak of xenophobia in the radical environment of the extreme right. Let me remind you that in 2015, about a million migrants from the Middle East and North Africa caused a migration crisis of European scale. Their movement from the Mediterranean coast to the "Promised Land" in Germany and other countries of Old Europe was accompanied by numerous human tragedies, outbreaks of xenophobia and information pressure from the Russian propaganda machine.
  • There are reasonable doubts that Lukashenko personally decided to spoil as much as possible his relations with his Western neighbors. It looks more likely that the Kremlin, with the help of a Belarusian satellite, decided to create an agenda for a humanitarian crisis in the summer of 2021.
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