Just before Poland joined the European Union in May 2004, Polish officials invited a group of journalists, including myself, to visit the country and see firsthand the preparations in place for accession.
We spent several days visiting farms and speaking to the locals. At one stage, we were taken to the border with Belarus. Our Polish hosts wanted to show us how the government was protecting the EU’s external frontiers. It was about getting Poland ready to join the Schengen area, which allows citizens of the bloc to travel throughout without restrictions.
There wasn’t really much evidence of a new wall being built between the pending new EU member states and Belarus, then as now ruled by the authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
There was the odd watchtower, some new border markings, and cameras. It was much the same in Lithuania, which also shares a border with Belarus.
How much has changed since this past August.
That’s when thousands of migrants from the Middle East—notably Iraq—were given visas to travel to Belarus, a country in lockdown not because of coronavirus but because Lukashenko has been crushing any kind of dissent against his regime. That didn’t deter the migrants—if they indeed knew what was happening in Belarus.
The violent crackdown began in August 2020, when Belarusians took to the streets to peacefully protest against the rigged presidential election and call for Lukashenko’s resignation, and has continued since.
The two EU countries most vocal against such draconian policies have been Lithuania and Poland. Both governments, especially Lithuania, have pushed the EU to impose sanctions against key individuals involved in the crackdown as well as directors of state-run companies.
This is where the migrants come in.
These hapless people were promised the prospect of reaching the EU via Belarus. They were bused to the borders of Lithuania and Poland. In a matter of weeks, Lithuania had to deal with an influx of migrants. The government quickly built some facilities. They criticized Lukashenko for instrumentalizing the migrants, to no avail.
In return, Vilnius and Warsaw fortified their borders, building steel or barbed wire fences. They are patrolled by soldiers. The two governments have been criticized by human rights organizations over their treatment of the migrants.
The Lithuanian government’s response is that the migrants are illegal. If they want to enter Lithuania, they can apply. In the meantime, villagers living along the border are angry and afraid.
Until recently, Lithuania and Poland had little experience of refugees or migrants coming from the Middle East, unlike southern EU member states, especially Greece, but also Germany.
Indeed, there was no common threat perception shared by all EU member states. Lukashenko’s instrumentalization of the migrants is changing that. Migration is now increasingly seen as a threat and not as an asset that helps address the growing labor shortage and rapidly falling birth rates across the bloc.
But instead of forging a common migration or refugee policy after German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave safety to nearly one million people fleeing the war in Syria in 2015, the EU has dealt with it by exporting the problem. It has paid Turkey to keep migrants and refugees in the country and strengthen its borders with the EU.
Egypt too has been “rewarded” for reinforcing its border controls. In September, the German technology company Siemens announced a $3 billion investment to build a state-of-the-art railway network in Egypt.
Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have made stability, combating terrorism, and stemming the flow of refugees to Europe their priorities when it comes to relations with Egypt. The dire human rights situation, which has become worse under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is a secondary consideration.
Germany has played a big role in ending several years of civil war in Libya. Again, the fear of uncontrolled migration and refugees trying to make their way to Europe has pushed Berlin to mediate in this conflict.
Stability—however it is achieved—is the EU’s priority when it comes to the Middle East. That is now a view shared by almost all EU member states because it is linked to the perception of migration.
This policy is a short-sighted one, as it often keeps authoritarian leaders in power. Such stability will breed its own instability if the economies of the Middle East cannot provide jobs, education, housing, decent health systems, and good governance. No wonder migrants, such as those pushed by the Belarusian regime on to the borders of Poland and Lithuania, pay smugglers and travel agents exorbitant sums of money to reach Europe.
Europe’s new walls are no panacea.