Mon. Dec 6th, 2021

In the forests on the Belarus-Poland border, a humanitarian crisis is emerging. President Alexander Lukashenko has his contemptuous tactics of “Instrumentalisation” of migrants to pressure the EU to ease sanctions against Belarus. Video footage showed Belarusian guards escorting columns of mostly Middle Eastern people to the fences on the Polish border. Warsaw accused Minsk of pushing the migrants across the border, refusing to accept them; Belarus will not take them back. Thousands of vulnerable people are now on the border. With temperatures dropping, many lives are at stake.

Lukashenko’s broader objectives are clear and clever: to widen rifts in the EU. Poland was one of several EU countries that rejected “quotas” of migrants during the mass influx from Syria and the Middle East in 2015. It was locked in a deeper battle with the EU over the rule of law. His Conservative nationalist government has publicly refused to help the EU’s Frontex border force deal with the crisis. Former Foreign Minister in the PiS-led government accused the EU of “pressure to take control of our border”.

The most urgent priorities are to prevent a disaster in the border area, and to preserve EU unity. One goal can strengthen the other. Brussels must make it clear through public and private channels that it is ready to provide support in dealing with and sheltering migrants, relocating those who qualify as asylum seekers, and returning to their country of origin those who do not. Both Brussels and Warsaw are wary of being seen giving in to extortion. But a Warsaw government that upholds its Christian values ​​must make the protection of human life its guiding principle, accept EU aid and during this time of crisis allow those stranded to move to its territory.

The next necessity, however, is for EU institutions and capitals to step up efforts to halt the flow of desperate people who are lured to Belarus under false pretenses as quickly as possible. It should not be difficult to prevent migrants from reaching a country surrounded by a country in Central Europe, but measures to date has clearly proved insufficient.

EU diplomats must pressure countries of origin such as Iraq to arrest traffickers and disrupt flights carrying migrants to Minsk – pointing out that their safety cannot be guaranteed and that many may eventually be returned. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says the EU will seek to target “third-country airlines” that help transport migrants to Belarus; it should expand to leasing companies and aircraft rental companies.

There are also concerns in the western capitals that meetings between senior Belarusian and Central Asian officials could indicate that Minsk is trying to open a new front by luring those fleeing the growing human disaster in Afghanistan. This makes it all the more important for the EU to be ready to accept credible numbers of Afghan refugees – and to avoid being sent to a Belarusian state that only intends to exploit them.

The EU, at last, must be clear that Lukashenko’s strategies will not lead to a relaxation of sanctions on its attacks on democracy in Belarus, but to a tightening. The block has already targeted senior officials and national carrier Belavia; it should be ready to step up restrictions on lucrative Belarusian exports such as petroleum products and potash, even if it harms the EU’s economic interests. Above all, the EU and its member states must defend their values ​​- by not falling to the same level of indifference to human suffering on their borders as the regime in Minsk displays.

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