Europe

Is Belarus using migrants as part of a ‘hybrid war’ against the EU?

Belarus’ European Union neighbours are taking action as they deal with a sharp rise in the number of migrants crossing over the border from Belarus illegally.

Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all EU member states, also share a land border with Belarus, which has been accused of facilitating the flow of migrants.

The EU has accused Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko of trying to destabilise the EU by using migrants as a weapon.

Both Lithuania and Latvia have declared a state of emergency over the issue, while Poland’s president has called for action to protect the EU’s external borders.

Belarus has been rocked by a year of protest and repression following the reelection of Lukashenko, in an election rejected by much of the West as rigged.

Sanctions against Lukashenko have soured relations between the EU and the Belarusian regime, along with a number of other incidents over the past year, such as the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk and subsequent arrest of a journalist on the flight.

In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper, Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, said Lukashenko is “using human beings in an act of aggression.”

Claiming the sanctions are hurting him, Johansson told the paper he is “desperate” and has “nothing left except violence.”

During an eight-hour press conference on Monday, marking one year since his reelection as president, Lukashenko denied he was using migration as a weapon.

“Illegal migration: no, we don’t blackmail anyone, we don’t threaten anybody. You just place us under conditions, so that we have to react, and we react,” Lukashenko said, adding that he didn’t have the same resources as Russia, China or the European Union.

State of emergency in Latvia

On Tuesday, Latvia joined Lithuania in declaring a state of emergency at its Belarus border.

It has authorised its border guards and also armed forces and police to use physical force to return migrants to the country from which they came.

Previously only border guards could patrol the border.

The state of emergency will last for three months in a country that shares a 175-kilometre border with Belarus.

The Baltic News Service, quoting Latvia’s State Border Guard, said between August 6 and August 10 283 people were detained for crossing the border from Belarus, bringing the total for 2021 so far to 343 people.

Most of the migrants are from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Lithuania constructs border wall

Lithuania has started constructing a barbed-wire fence along its border with Belarus, as it tries to tackle a flow of migrants which has led to protests in border towns.

The European Commission said on Tuesday the construction of a barrier on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border was a “good idea”, but said no EU funding would be provided for it.

The Lithuanian government has asked for the EU’s help in dealing with the issue.

But a spokesman for Ylva Johansson said: “There is no contradiction between saying that building a fence is a good idea and refusing to finance it.”

The Lithuanian border guard service has reported at least 4,115 people have arrived illegally since the start of the year over the border, a huge increase on last year which was just 81 for all of 2020.

A crisis meeting has been organised for 18 August by the Slovenian EU Presidency in response to the “security threat” posed by the Belarusian regime’s use of migration against Lithuania.

The EU-27 interior ministers will hold talks by video conference with representatives of Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, the European Asylum Office and Europol, the EU’s police agency, a Slovenian spokesperson said.

The EU has also secured a “temporary” suspension of flights to Belarus from Baghdad.

Poland calls for assistance

Poland’s president has called for “urgent regional measures” to “protect the EU’s external border”, in a joint declaration with Lithuania’s president.

According to the Polish Border Guard, 349 migrants were detained illegally crossing the border with Belarus at the weekend, while for the whole of 2020 that number was just 120.

Poland’s government accuses Minsk of using migrants as “living weapons” in a “hybrid war”.

Tensions have risen between Poland and Belarus after the EU state granted a visa to Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who arrived in the country last Wednesday.

She sought protection at Tokyo airport after being ordered to return to Belarus from the Olympics, fearing she could face prison after publicly criticising her coaches.

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