Belarusian border crisis highlights the reactionary nature of the EU

Over the past few months, a rising number of migrants have attempted to cross from Belarus into the EU via Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. The numbers are small – amounting to a few thousand people at most (roughly 4,000 entering Lithuania, 340 Latvia and 870 Poland). What has been the response of the EU, which presents itself as a paragon of democratic humanitarianism? It has given its member states on the Belarussian border the green light to meet the innocent victims of imperialism with barbed wire, the deployment of soldiers, imprisonment in prison camps and the construction of a wall along the border.

This disgusting hypocrisy is fully consonant with the criminal immigration policy of the EU in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. The imperialist ruling class of Europe, complicit in displacing these desperate human beings in the first place, treats its own victims as little more than a nuisance, whose presence in Europe would threaten to destabilise an already fragile political situation.

The EU has cast blame for the uptick in migration on the Belarussian dictator, Lukashenko, who it accuses of directly assisting this migration from Iraq and North Africa. It claims migrants are being flown directly to Minsk in an attempt to blackmail Brussels into ending the sanctions that the latter has imposed in an attempt to achieve regime change in Belarus. Lukashenko of course has his own interests. Undoubtedly he has taken note of how Erdogan in Turkey has made lucrative deals as the EU’s border guard, and has decided to similarly leverage Belarus’ position.

State of emergency

In response to the uptick in migrants crossing into the country, in July Lithuania declared a state of emergency. The government has since increased its military presence on the Belarussian border and has laid barbed wire in key locations. Plans are in place to build a permanent border fence topped with razor wire by September 2022, at a cost of €152 million to the public purse.

Lithuania’s Prime Minister, Ingrida Simonyte, said:

“The physical barrier is vital for us to repel this hybrid attack, which the Belarus regime is undertaking against Lithuania and the EU.”

The description of refugees, fleeing for their lives, as a “hybrid attack” speaks volumes about how the ruling class in Lithuania and the EU generally regards these innocent men, women and children as less than human. Since 10 August, the Lithuanian government has forcefully pushed migrants back into Belarus (a practice euphemistically known as ‘refoulement’). According to the interior ministry, 2,000 refugees have been denied entry in this manner.

The 4,000 refugees that have made it into Lithuania have been placed in detention centres under atrocious conditions. Reporter Ewa Wołkanowska described the situation at Kazitiskes refugee centre:

“123 people are being accommodated in an old school building, which has been abandoned for 20 years. It has broken windows, no hot water, no heating and widespread mold and damp. I’ve seen suffering, but I give you my word, I have never seen people held in such degrading conditions. There are six families sleeping in one classroom: adults and children. Half of the people are sick with various diseases. They've been asking for a doctor for two months now. The doctor is not coming.”

Belarus migrants 2 Image Ewa WołkanowskaThe images in this article are of the Kazitiskes refugee centre / Image: Ewa Wołkanowska

These refugees, trapped at the EU border, are now at genuine risk of not surviving the winter.

Last year, during the protest movement against Lukashenko’s regime, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, commenting on the decision to host Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said that in Lithuania people seeking shelter “can feel safe and no one would be handed over [to Belarus]”. When it suits the EU’s political interests, the latter fully respects the democratic right to asylum. But no such hospitality or solidarity is extended to families fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa.

In July, Lithuania passed a law that curbs the right of appeal for rejected asylum-seekers and makes it possible to deport refugees even while appeals are under consideration. Egle Samuchovaite, from the Lithuanian Red Cross, described this law as “a potential human rights violation... It enshrines the current bad situation in Lithuania’s detention centers in law and leaves vulnerable people in an even more vulnerable situation”.

Other planned changes to the migration system, described by Simonyte as “speeding up final decisions on asylum applications” even provoked criticism from the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatović. She said the changes “remove, in the case of an emergency situation, significant safeguards in the asylum procedure”.

Of course, under the EU’s bourgeois regime, ‘human rights law’ is like an umbrella full of holes: useless precisely when it is actually needed. The EU apparently has no problem with militarising its borders to keep migrants out, but it would like its member states – as far as possible – to keep a paper commitment to the right to asylum, in order to save face on the world stage. Such is the hypocrisy of the EU.

To be clear, Lithuania now has some of the harshest asylum laws on the planet. Coupled with a demonstrated willingness to repel refugees, it’s likely that most who make it into Lithuania will be deported, irrespective of whether this puts their lives at risk.

Refugees turned back at gunpoint

Following Lithuania’s example, Latvia also declared a state of emergency on 10 August. The government sent soldiers to the border and a 173km border fence, costing €30m, is now being planned. Soldiers have ordered refugees back into Belarus at gunpoint and had told them to walk tens of kilometers to official border crossings.

When questioned on these practices, the EU executive commented that:

“Such measures are acceptable, as long as the fundamental right of the persons concerned to be protected against refoulement (pushback) and access to the asylum procedure are respected at all times”(!)

What an eloquent expression of the perverse logic of the European bourgeoisie! One wonders what ‘fundamental rights’ are worth if they do not exclude this kind of treatment. This comment amounts to support for the brutal ‘measures’ used by border guards and soldiers, while totally ignoring the real situation in which refoulement is well underway and usual asylum procedures totally disregarded. After they are pushed back, many refugees find themselves trapped between borders in extremely precarious situations. Meanwhile, if they make it to an official border crossing they end up barred and ignored.

Elsewhere, the Polish government has doubled the number of troops on the border to deter migration and plans to build a 100km border fence, apparently modelled on Hungary’s 2015 ‘Serbian wall’.

Poland has faced criticism for its vicious handling of refugees trapped near the village of Usnarz. Soldiers are allegedly breaking the Geneva convention by ignoring verbal declarations from refugees that they want to apply for protection in Poland.

Belarus migrants 3 Image Ewa WołkanowskaImage: Ewa Wołkanowska

“People were asking the border guards for protection and the border guards were pushing them back,” said Piotr Bystrianin, a refugee advocate. 32 refugees, including a child, have been stuck in the small area between borders for three weeks with no clean water or shelter. Half of them are sick and some haven’t eaten in days.

Given the severe humanitarian situation, the EU Court of Human Rights has asked “that the Polish and Latvian authorities provide all the applicants with food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter.” However, they also clarified “this should not be understood as requiring that Poland or Latvia let applicants enter their territories”.

Calling for supposedly ‘civilised’ countries to show the most basic decency towards other human beings means nothing if in the next breath you affirm their right to block the border and push refugees back.

These are precisely the practices that are trapping refugees in the first place, and people are dying as a result. In encouraging harsh border control and accepting pushbacks, the EU is fully complicit in the suffering it creates.

In any case, many EU member states simply ignore Brussels’ directives and the empty rulings of its human rights courts. For example, Poland and Hungary’s have opted to simply ignore the EU’s demands on meeting immigration quotas and to respect gay rights.

Despite this defiance, the EU is quite happy to look the other way on various issues to preserve its tenuous ‘unity’. We may get platitudes from some corners of the EU establishment against the obvious brutality of border policy and the horrific treatment of refugees, but we’re never going to get any real action to protect them. As their continuing policy over Libya, Morocco and Turkey make clear, this is the exact border policy the EU actually wants, but which it cannot publicly admit.

While Brussels has confirmed that “we do not finance fences'', they clearly condone them on the Belarussian border. So far, they have released €36.7m to Lithuania to boost border control. Under pressure from Lithuanian PM Simonyte, who is trying to get EU support for the expensive fence project, EU commissioner Yiva Johansson has said the EU is now “ready to fund extra measures” to ensure “a good protection system for external borders”.

While the exact details of further financial support are still being finalised, Johansson’s wording foreshadows that the EU may break earlier promises and begin, not just supporting fence building projects, but financing them also.

Other forms of EU support include increasing the number of Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency) officers on the Belarussian border and sending Europol officers to investigate security risks. In fact, the EU is so desperate to stem migration that they’ve pressured Iraqi Airlines to cease its flights from Baghdad to Minsk.

Blaming Belarus

If the EU is to be believed, the situation is purely Lukashenko’s fault. He shouldn’t have told refugees that the EU-Belarus border is open when it is in fact guarded by soldiers, dogs and razor wire. In the EU’s eyes, whatever the plight of refugees, the borders of the union must be maintained.

It is true that Lukashenko, in supporting this migration, is using refugees as political pawns for his own ends. But he is only able to do so because the EU treats migrants like insects. It is the EU that is sending dogs and soldiers to meet them, and it is the EU who has been letting refugees drown in the Mediterranean for years, having even made it a criminal offence for ships to rescue them.

Last year's protests rocked the Belarusian regime to the core. Despite being a genuine mass movement involving hundreds of thousands of workers on the streets, right-wing liberals like Tikhanovskaya muscled their way into the leadership.

The EU has shown consistent support for Tikhanovskaya, no doubt confident that their business interests would be secured should her clique ever come to power. At the same time, the EU has adopted wide-ranging sanctions against Belarus. As is always the case, imperialist sanctions inflict indiscriminate hardship on ordinary workers, and actually strengthen Lukashenko by giving him a rallying call “against EU sanctions” to potentially build support around.

Given the economic links between Belarus and its neighbours, these sanctions are having unforeseen consequences in nearby EU countries. For example, in Lithuanian we’ve seen the near-closure of a health centre in Druskininkai.

As mentioned, a precedent has been set in the EU’s dealings with Turkish President Erdogan, who has threatened to allow refugees into the EU at various points in the past. Scandalously, every time the EU has come to some sort of agreement, whereby they pay Erdogan huge sums of money to hold back refugees by force.

Erdogan has become a loyal border guard. The EU leaders, in their constant attempts to block migrants, have shown themselves to be a vile, racist gang, despite all their ‘democratic’ pretensions. The EU also funds horrific detention camps in Libya and Morocco, paying huge sums to dubious Libyan militias to hold back refugees from crossing the Mediterranean by force.

It is no wonder, given this disgusting history of rotten deals, that Lukashenko might see migration as leverage to secure some sort of deal with the EU. The deal he is offering, which causes great chagrin to the EU leaders, is essentially to become the EU’s eastern border guard in exchange for overturning sanctions. However, given that the EU has so much riding on the possibility of regime change in Belarus, Lukashenko may never get such a deal. Whatever the eventual outcome, refugees will continue to suffer.

The EU tries to present a progressive image, but internal freedom of movement is supplemented by brutal exclusion of imperialism’s desperate victims, who arrive from further afield.

Demonising refugees

In light of recent events, the usual nationalist tropes and talking points are being wheeled out about “refugees stealing jobs”, or being “terrorists” in order to justify these anti-human policies. In Poland, Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz told reporters: “These are not refugees, they are economic migrants”. Meanwhile, Latvian politician Dainis Liepiņš has claimed refugees should not be accepted because they include “Islamic terrorists”.

Belarus migrants 4 Image Ewa WołkanowskaImage: Ewa Wołkanowska

The NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban takeover will only exacerbate the situation further, with many thousands of refugees fleeing the country, potentially hoping to enter the EU through Belarus.

Lithuania, Latvia and Poland were all involved in NATO’s imperialistic adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their ruling classes must also bear their share of the responsibility for the flight of refugees.

Imperialist aggression in the interest of the capitalist class creates huge misery, and millions of refugees. The capitalist nation state, standing in defence of its borders, then brutally blocks and deports refugees, creating yet more suffering. And the EU, as bosses club for the European capitalist class, has shown itself to be as bad as any in this regard.

As internationalists and Marxists we must always stand on the side of the oppressed masses. It is our aim to unite workers across borders in defence of conditions, we oppose immigration controls and fight for genuine freedom of movement, something only possible through socialist revolution, an end to class exploitation, and the overturning of the capitalist nation state.

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