Belarus-Poland standoff, Channel tragedy put focus on EU’s poor migrant policy

Politics

December 2, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Belarus-Poland standoff, Channel tragedy put focus on EU’s poor migrant policy

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has told hopeful asylum seekers that Belarus would not force migrants to return home.

Over 30 migrants killed in the English Channel last week add to dozens of other migrants' deaths every month and even as thousands of migrants stay sandwiched between Belarus and European Union. The crisis shows up the EU's muddled up migrant policy, again.

Six years after it was faced with a crippling flow of migrants, from war-hit and natural disaster affected parts of Middle East and South Asia, Europe is having a tough time again with migrants. In the worst-ever such incident in decades, dozens drowned in the English Channel as they tried to make it to the United Kingdom, while across the EU, on its eastern fringe, thousands remain sandwiched between the European Union and Belarus.

Recently, Poland announced that it would start building a wall all along its border with Belarus, that extends to over 400 km, in order to counter the flow of migrants from third countries that have been trying to enter the European Union through Poland as well as Latvia and Lithuania. Poland says the wall, reminder of former US President Donald Trump’s infamous effort to build a wall on border with Mexico, would be completed within six months.

The migrant issue has seen tension between the European Union and the East European nation of Belarus continue to mount sharply over the past several weeks as the EU accuses Belarus of letting through migrants from third countries that have amassed in thousands at the border between Belarus and Poland, sparking off clashes between the migrants and the Polish border guards, some of whom have been accused of violently pushing back the migrants, injuring them seriously.

Belarus, for its part, has pleaded helplessness in the matter saying that it was doing what was necessary from a humanitarian angle and that neither the destination of the migrants was Belarus and nor was the country pushing the migrants westwards into the EU. Instead, it accused Poland of using military muscle on the unarmed civilians, injuring many and forcing thousands of people to stay for weeks in the bitter cold, out in the open forests on the border between the two nations.

Poland admits that at least eight migrants have died in the area over the past few weeks, but as it has barred journalists as well as human rights organisations from the area, there is no independent verification of the actual situation on the ground or even the number of migrants stuck in the area around the main border crossing of Kuznica in Poland.

The EU says that Belarus has purposely let the migrants come into its own territory, mainly from the Middle Eastern as well as Africa, in order to counter the pressure that the EU has been mounting on Belarus ever since the elections in that country in 2020 which the strong-arm President Aleksandr Lukashenko won, but which critics and EU observers called a fraudulent one and also criticized his violent repression of protests against the election result.

While there may be certain elements of truth in EU’s accusations against Belarus, notably that it is letting migrants come in, instead of turning them back from entering Belarus itself, but the entire crisis puts the focus back on EU’s handling of migrants and its poor human rights record in this respect. Also, it is unfair to accuse Belarus of creating the crisis as it is not Belarusians who are crossing into the EU, but migrants from countries far off from Belarus, whose destination was always the EU and not Belarus. In many ways, blaming Belarus for creating the crisis would be similar to the United States accusing Mexico of creating a migrant crisis if migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras trooped into the US, via Mexico.

The EU has tried to target airlines that ferry the migrants into Belarus in the first place and has succeeded in rare cooperation with Turkey which banned use of its airspace by some airlines noted for being the preferred ones of the migrants. Syria’s Cham Air, for instance, has stopped flying on the route.

The EU is alarmed over the situation as the crisis in Belarus reminds them of the spectre of 2015 when over a million migrants, fleeing wars in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, swarmed into the Union, mainly through Turkey. Initially, Turkey too did not hold them back, again partly due to rising tensions between Turkey and France. But subsequently the EU reached a deal and compensated Turkey for holding the migrants and repatriating them back to their country of origin.

As the huge number of migrants led to an outcry in the EU and a sharp rise in anti-migrant rhetoric of the extreme right in several EU nations, the EU tried to stem the flow at the origin, for instance by helping Libya in stepping up patrols by its coast guard and preventing migrants from leaving in the boats. There have been dozens of incidents of boats capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea, leading to thousands of deaths. Most EU nations have been sharply criticized by human rights bodies for their failure to respect basic human rights of the migrants and causing the deaths due to their callous policies.

Indeed, the EU and the other big magnet of migration, the US, need to review their migration policies and address the issue, not in a stop-gap and crisis mode, but with a long-term view, say over at least a couple of decades, in order to address the issue of migration, which is as old as humanity and which is not going to disappear just because the EU does not like it or does not want to accept it.

The migration is a result of several reasons and yes, most migrants are economic migrants, but partly the responsibility for this too lies at the doorstep of the developed nations which have failed to assist the developing nations reach a level of economic activity where their own citizens can be gainfully employed. And certainly, the EU and the US have been very guilty of setting off several wars and other crises, for a variety of reasons, which have forced more economic misery upon the countries, creating the flow of migrants.

And the EU also ought to recognise that migrants, on the whole, do bring a lot of value to the societies where they finally settle in. Thousands of examples can be cited in the US and the EU where migrants have been at the core of economic development of the host country. Moreover, almost half of EU’s nations are facing a severe ageing crisis which needs urgent attention if their economies are not to come to a grinding halt in a few decades. The only solution for these countries is migration.

Thus, it may be time for the EU and others to review their own long-term population and economic situation and take at least a couple of steps – to create a viable migrant policy which takes care of their own needs for several decades to come and which also creates fair conditions for many of the would-be migrants to stay back home. Both of these need strategic and long-term thinking as well as real political will in order to be able to stand up to critics and counter the rhetoric of the far-right, which is bound to come. Unfortunately, at least in the EU at the moment, there is hardly any leader in sight who may have the courage to do the right thing, by their country and by humanity.

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