The crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border seems to have eased, but it is far from over. Thousands of people desperate to enter the European Union are stuck in the border zone and waiting for Poland to at least examine their asylum applications.
Where are things now and what are some of the key players trying to achieve?
Lukashenko from Belarus: Accept me for who I am
President Alexander Lukashenko – affectionately known as “Europe’s last dictator” – caused the current crisis by enabling dozens of flights from refugee hotspots in Iraq, Syria and Turkey to Minsk. Through an organized campaign that began in June, his government lured thousands of migrants to Belarus with the promise of eventual resettlement in the EU.
Why? By triggering a migrant crisis, Lukashenko wanted to put pressure on Brussels to recognize its presidency, which the EU has been refusing to do since last year’s rigged presidential elections, brutally cracking down on peaceful demonstrators and hijacking an EU flight.
So far, Lukashenko’s move has not worked. Chancellor Angela Merkel explicitly referred to him as “Mr. Lukashenko” and not as “President” in the last few calls, which made him feel very unseen. Meanwhile, Washington and Brussels actually have Minsk with them more Sanctions in recent weeks, although some apply to travel agents, transport companies and airlines that have been transporting migrants from the Middle East to Eastern Europe in recent months rather than targeting Lukashenko and his cronies directly.
European Union: False outrage
In the meantime the situation has calmed down a bit, Minsk has given in to the pressure to vacate certain processing centers on the Polish border and to apply the brakes on incoming flights.
But these developments do not address the problem of what to do with the migrants who remain on the border. While some have already been sent back to Iraq, thousands remain stranded in swampy forest areas while Polish and Belarusian forces continue to play the tug of war. The number of deaths at the border is now 10 – and the trend is rising.
The basic problem is that, six years after the 2015 refugee crisis, the EU still lacks a coherent or effective policy on how to deal with migrants and, in practice, matters are largely left to individual Member States.
The European Commission had previously proposed a far-reaching immigration plan based on an “overriding solidarity mechanism” that would force each Member State to accept asylum seekers and share the burden of funding medical care and equipment in the arrival areas.
However, this proposal still has to be adopted unanimously in the European Council after consulting Parliament (a very complicated process). The stalemate remains because some state governments have rejected measures that would require countries to accept refugees, and the EU remains powerless to force them.
But not only so-called “illiberals” in Poland and Hungary see it that way. The data show that EU citizens view immigration from outside the bloc as a “problem” (38 percent) rather than an “opportunity” (20 percent).
Meanwhile, migrants remain suspended at the border. With the support of the Polish constituency, Warsaw is expanding its hardline position. Human rights groups say Poland’s actions violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. But even if EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants Poland to de-escalate so that at least some of the migrants can be settled in the EU, she continues to advocate this return Warsaw in its current series with Minsk.
What now? Lukashenko claims that he does not seek another confrontation with the EU that would make a “war inevitable”. So far the EU has not given in and says that the responsibility for ending the current crisis rests with Minsk.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the EU, for its part, has no mechanism to force member states to accept migrants, even if migration remains a critical issue throughout the bloc, not least because a major refugee crisis is already brewing in Afghanistan.