Over the past few months thousands of migrants have attempted to cross the Belarusian border into its EU neighbours Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.  Belarus has been accused of facilitating their arrival, an allegation it denies.

There is political tension between Belarus and the EU. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have declared states of emergency and deployed troops to the border. Thousands of migrants are now stranded in freezing conditions without access to shelter and basic supplies.

This Insight examines what prompted this crisis and what the implications may be.

A response to sanctions?

Since August 2020’s disputed presidential elections in Belarus, in which President Lukashenko claimed a sixth term in office, Belarusian society has witnessed what the UN’s Special Rapporteur called an “unprecedented and systemic” state-led campaign of human rights violations, in efforts to silence dissent.

The actions of the regime have been widely condemned by Western governments and EU states, the UK, the US and Canada have imposed significant financial and economic sanctions on the regime.

In May 2021, President Lukashenko responded by saying he would allow migrants and drugs to flood into western Europe by no longer taking action to prevent illegal crossings. The EU has accused Lukashenko’s regime, however, of engineering the current situation.

In a recent speech to the European Parliament, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs said the regime was encouraging the arrival of migrants at the border by offering them travel and tourist visas to the country and then escorting them directly to the EU border. Media reports have suggested that armed Belarusian security forces are then helping migrants to illegally enter the EU. In the last few weeks thousands of migrants have arrived at the Polish border.

Belarus has denied such allegations and blamed the influx of migrants on organised crime networks operating within the EU.

Source: Political Map of Belarus, Nations Online Project (fair use)

States of emergency declared

European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has said “the instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes by Belarus is unacceptable.”

Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have all declared states of emergency and deployed the military to assist border guards in patrolling their borders. Border crossings with Belarus have been closed and fences have been erected to prevent illegal crossings. Poland and Lithuania have also reportedly  banned journalists and aid workers from their border zones, which has been widely criticised, including by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.  In August 2021, the Lithuanian Government called Belarus’s actions an “act of hybrid warfare”. That sentiment was echoed by Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative in a statement on 11 November, in which he expressed solidarity with “the Member States affected by this hybrid attack” and called for “a strong international reaction and cooperation in order to hold Belarus regime accountable”.

The EU is currently considering further sanctions against the regime and working with the UN and countries of origin to ensure migrants can be safely returned.

An impending humanitarian crisis?

Approximately 4,000 migrants, including children, are reported to be stranded at Belarus’s borders. The majority are being refused entry by the EU states, but equally are being prevented from leaving the border area by Belarusian border guards.

Conditions are freezing and people have no access to proper shelter, food, water and medical supplies. Since the start of the crisis in the summer at least eight people are reported to have died.

The UN Human Rights Commissioner has called the situation “intolerable” and called on all parties to allow humanitarian access and resolve the situation “in line with their obligations under international human rights law and refugee law”.

Risk of military escalation

There is increasing concern that an escalation of the situation could provoke a military response from any of the parties involved. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are NATO members, while Belarus has the political and military support of Russia.

NATO has indicated that it is closely monitoring the situation and remains “vigilant against the risk of further escalation”. There have been several calls for NATO to invoke article IV, which calls for consultation among allies when an alliance member is under threat. Following an agreement with the Polish Government, the Ministry of Defence Press Office tweeted that the UK has deployed a small team of military personnel to the country to provide “engineering support” at the border.

Russia has blamed the migrant crisis on previous Western intervention in Africa and the Middle East, suggesting that these “reckless actions generated unprecedented flows of refugees” and has called for the current crisis to be settled on the basis of the principles of international law.

Further reading

About the author: Claire Mills is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Russia, the former Soviet Union and defence.

Image: Border poles of Poland and Belarus seen from Mostowlany, © Fotokon – Adobe Stock #193580808

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