The summer of 2021 is proving to be particularly worrisome for Lithuanians as their country faces an unprecedented influx of migrants. Over 4.000 migrants, mostly coming from the Middle East, have crossed the border by August and 10.000 are expected by the end of the summer. What has made the situation all the more convoluted has been the involvement of Belarus, which has been accused of using refugees as a ‘political weapon’ employed to influence Lithuania’s policies. Unravelling the causes of this crisis and overall strategic intentions is, therefore, central to understanding how this will impact the security and stability of the neighbourhood as well as how effective the European Union’s response was.
The early onset of the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Lithuania border has caught the EU off-guard. Ever since, it has been pondering how it should react to the artificial creation of a new route, particularly as a substantive amount of evidence indicates that Belarus was knowingly and consciously involved in this situation. While Belarus has unequivocally denied accusations of their involvement and instead shifted the blame back on Lithuania, it appears that the former has indeed provided significant support to migrants attempting to cross over to the latter. This is of particular significance as the video shows Belarusian border guards aiding migrants by concealing evidence of illegal entry. Reports further suggest that Belarusian authorities offer migrants, especially those coming from Iraq, government housing and transportation in exchange for money. If all these indications are valid, this would imply that Belarus has indeed taken action to create and misuse the crisis for political purposes.
Belarus’ confrontational behaviour only further increases the already high tensions with Lithuania and other neighbouring countries. The most recent sanctions the EU imposed on Belarus took effect in June of this year (prior to the increase in illegal immigration in Lithuania), after Minsk’s unprecedented move to force down a Ryanair flight in May, originally headed for Vilnius, in order to detain a dissident journalist. These sanctions were built upon a package of sanctioning measures against Belarus following the 2020 elections, which were the result of identified violence, repression, and election fraud. Considering such a context, it seems very plausible that Belarus, led by its long-term strongman Alexander Lukashenko, intended to put significant pressure on the EU at the expense of Lithuania in order to show that being at odds with his regime does not pay off. Therefore, the underlying goal of the Belarus regime would be to force Lithuania and the EU to back down and lift some of the sanctions that are currently in place.
How this issue unfolds and is tackled is set to have direct consequences on the stability of the region and the EU more broadly. So far, the European Council has condemned and rejected any attempt by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes. Besides the verbal note, the EU did take some action by distributing humanitarian support for those affected by the crisis via the European Civil Protection Mechanism. On top of that, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) is managing the reception and the processing of asylum applications; Frontex launched a rapid border intervention at Lithuania’s border with Belarus; and Europol is deploying staff to help safeguard European internal security. Although many EU member states have also expressed sympathy for Lithuania, with Angela Merkel even emphasising that the situation is comparable to a kind of hybrid confrontation, the EU has stopped short, at least for now, and refrained from taking more immediate action and introducing new sanctions against Belarus.
Nevertheless, what is clear is that Lithuania will not stop making the case for sharper action to be taken by the EU in response to the Belarus regime. This would not only fully bring the crisis to a close, but also send a message that similar endeavours will not be tolerated in the future. In fact, Lithuanian government officials, as well as their Polish neighbours, have implored the EU to consider imposing new sanctions on Belarus in the wake of the migrant crisis. From the Lithuanian view, it seems likely that there is a high risk that Belarus will continue putting pressure on Lithuania if no concrete action is taken. Also, Lithuania is a country which will not be able to sustain the migrant flows for an extended period of time on its own, particularly if the number of migrants increases substantially. This warning echoes most strongly in the immediate neighbourhood, which is why Poland, a country which has also been facing an increase in migration, declared a state of emergency in regions near the border with Belarus.
With all of that being said, the spread of weaponised migration can be considered to be a new phenomenon on European soil. Although fairly localised at this stage, if nothing is done to jointly address its development, it risks soon becoming an overall security and stability risk for the entire EU.
The author was an intern in the European Policy Centre – CEP
Photo credit: Taiwan News