EU Migrants Crises: The Winners, the Losers, and What the Future Holds

It is one of the worst humanitarian crises happening right now. Thousands of people want to enter the EU, and one country claimed it could make it happen. In this Wikistrat Insider episode, we dive into the crisis at the Poland-Belarus border. Elisabeth Braw joins us to talk about the EU's commitment to human rights, non-traditional weapons, and what we can expect from the newly elected German government on migration issues

Elisabeth Braw is a journalist and a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray zone threats.


Full Transcript:

Marina Guimarães:

It is one of the worst humanitarian crises happening right now. Thousands of people want to enter the EU and one country claimed it could make it happen. Today, we're talking about the crisis at the Poland-Belarus border. Ms. Elisabeth Braw will join us to talk about the EU's commitment to human rights, the biggest winner, loser, and what we can expect from the newly elected German government on migration issues. Stay tuned.

Marina Guimarães:

Ms. Elisabeth Braw is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and grey zone threats. She's also the author of "God's Spies: The Stasi's Cold War Espionage Campaign Inside the Church". Ms. Braw, thank you so much for talking to us about this important matter in human rights and geopolitics.


Elisabeth Braw:

Thank you for having me.


Marina Guimarães:

So my first question is, the crisis involving immigrants from several countries, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, intensified in November, with dozens of lives lost. We would like for you to give us a little context just for our listeners, why do they choose to go to Belarus?


Elisabeth Braw:

Yes, so as you know, the European Union is a key destination for migrants all over the world. And unlike the US, where most migrants, they arrive to work and they're sponsored by relatives or employers, what's different in the European Union is that lots of migrants arrive as asylum seekers, which means you arrive, you don't even have to have a claim to... You don't have to have a job there, but you need to be able to show that you're fleeing persecution, and many people are fleeing persecution. And not all of them managed to get into the European Union because it's just not that easy to get there.


Elisabeth Braw:

But at the end of May 2021, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus stepped into the fray. Now, what does he have to do with Iraq and Afghanistan, you might ask? Well, he was mad at the European Union as a result of them imposing sanctions against Belarus. And they imposed sanctions against Belarus after Belarus diverted a Ryanair flight flying from Athens to Vilnius, and his regime diverted the flight so that they could arrest a Belarusian opposition, a journalist who was on that flight. Well, you can't just divert a flight and force it to land in a different country, that's against all aviation rules. That's what the Belarusians did. And as a result, the European Union said, "Well, it's not acceptable to just force flights traveling within the European Union from one European Union city to another European Union city, to force that flight, or any such flight, to land in a different country and then to take people off that flight, it's unacceptable.


Elisabeth Braw:

So the European Union introduced imposed sanctions on Belarus, and then President Lukashenko said, "Well, I'm going to flood the EU with drugs and migrants." And that's what he did. His regime started issuing visas to anybody who wanted one, primarily in Iraq, and travel agencies started bringing these people, arranging trips for these people or flights for these people to Minsk. And then in Minsk, Belarusian authorities collected them and brought them to the border with Lithuania. And then after that also to Latvia's border and also to Poland's border. So all of a sudden, he had put into practice this enormous people smuggling network, if you will, the leader of a foreign country. And so these three countries found themselves with thousands of migrants trying to get into their countries, many thousands did get into their country. And that's where things culminated in November.


Marina Guimarães:

On December 13th, during an EU Council meeting, it was said that the domestic repression by Lukashenko's regime is getting worse. And the number of political prisoners has risen to more than 900. The European Union, as you mentioned, has already imposed sanctions against Belarus due to human rights violations. And now Poland, an EU member, is pushing migrants back to Belarus. What does that say about the EU's commitment to human rights?


Elisabeth Braw:

Well, so the EU is in a very tricky position. So this is not just the ordinary migration that you will see and the arrival of asylum seekers like you ordinarily see in Italy and Greece, where people arrive from all over the world, and request asylum or apply for asylum. This is something that's actually organized by a country or by a regime that is using it as a weapon against the European Union. And that's a tricky part because traditional weapons, guns and tanks, and so forth, you can just try to disable them to make the aggressor country stop. But if the aggressor country instead uses human beings, essentially, as shields, it's very difficult to know what to do. And that has caused enormous debate within the European Union. So some countries are saying, "Well, we have to take a soft approach," and Poland and Latvia and Lithuania have said, "Well, a country is trying to violate our borders, it's just that they're using non-traditional means to do so. But if a country tries to violate our borders, we have the right to protect our borders."


Elisabeth Braw:

So that's where things stand. And it's two, I think, very different views on what to do. And there is no consensus within the European Union, which is of course exactly what Lukashenko was trying to achieve, this sort of division within the European Union.


Marina Guimarães:

And some of the migrants are going back to their countries. So some of them are going back to Iraq or Afghanistan. And Iraq even provided flights, the Foreign Ministry of Iraq provided flights for them to come back. How is the situation going to be like once they are back? Are they under threat? Do we have this kind of information?


Elisabeth Braw:

Yeah. So most of the migrants, almost all of them have returned on flights are Iraqis who have returned either to Baghdad or to Erbil, which is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. And those flights have been arranged either by the Regional Kurdish Government or by the central Iraqi government. So because these are not people who are individually persecuted by the regimes, I think they would just go back to generally, as far as we entail, they've gone back to a generally pretty dire situation. They're not persecuted individually, but it's just a very hopeless situation, a struggling economy, very hard to get work. So that's where things stand. And as you say, the Belarusian regime essentially concluded at the end of November that this was not working anymore. So Lukashenko even had to tell these migrants, "I'm not going to risk a war with Poland or Germany to let you into those countries." And so what's the point of flying to Belarus and staying in Belarus, if you have very slim chances of getting to Germany, which is the destination they were aiming for.


Elisabeth Braw:

So this has subsided as a result, and people are flying back, and others have been moved from the border and are waiting to fly back. But I think that the key problem is that a number of countries, including Iraq, and of course, especially Afghanistan, it's just not a very desirable place to live. And with regards to Afghanistan, that's obviously a huge understatement, it's a terrible place to live. But a country such as Iraq certainly could make improvements so that people want to stay there because it can't be in the interest of any government to be such a country, such a terrible country, that people would do anything to escape.


Marina Guimarães:

If you could elect the biggest winner of the crisis and the biggest loser, who would you pick?


Elisabeth Braw:

Lukashenko certainly is a winner. So until this crisis unfolded, he was a nobody. Belarus is a pretty poor country. Even though it's located in Europe, it's poor. And he himself enjoys no respect among international leaders because he is a dictator who has cheated in elections, most recently in 2020, and that has allowed him to stay on. As a result, he enjoys no international legitimacy. And all of a sudden because he used these very shady means, everybody was paying attention to him. He got to influence the public discourse in the European Union and beyond. And he got the attention of European leaders, not just European leaders, but especially European leaders. And he got to speak on the phone with Chancellor Merkel of Germany. So that was, I think, a huge ego boost to him that he, all of a sudden, was a really important player in the news.


Elisabeth Braw:

So he's the winner, but in a sense, he's also the loser because he has gambled away any respectability he had. Now it's clear to every single leader around the world, and every single analyst, and indeed to every single Belarusian that he is absolutely just a criminal who's willing to use enemies to achieve his goals. So if he had any hopes of enjoying any sort of legitimacy within his country, that legitimacy is gone now, and of course, it's legitimacy abroad as well.


Marina Guimarães:

The immigration subject is not new when we talk about the European Union, as you mentioned earlier as well. The EU has already had issues with other countries regarding this specific subject. How different is it when we compare the situation that happened in Turkey and the situation right now happening involving Belarus?


Elisabeth Braw:

Yeah, so Turkey is a very different example. I mean, people often say, "Well, Erdoğan has already done things like this." No, it hasn't. What Turkey does, is it hosts hundreds of thousands of would-be asylum seekers in the European Union, Turkey hosts them on behalf of the European Union, they're Syrians mostly but Iraqis as well. And so they get to live there, and this is funded by the European Union. And through an agreement between Turkey and the European Union, so at least these would-be asylum seekers have somewhere to live outside their own countries. And so that gives Erdoğan the power to say, whenever he gets angry, he can say, "Well, I'm just going to tear up this agreement. I'm going to send these migrants to the European Union."


Elisabeth Braw:

And every now and then, he does that, he says that. And on a couple of occasions, he has sort of opened the doors for them to go to Greece, which is of course the most conveniently located EU member state from Turkey. But the big difference between him and Lukashenko is in case that he hasn't arranged for those, he hasn't fetched those people to come and live in Turkey, which is what Lukashenko did. He went all over the Middle East to say, "Wait, come, come and travel to Minsk so that we can bring it to the border." In the case of Turkey, those people are already in Turkey as a result of this agreement between Turkey and the European Union, and I think that's really important to remember.


Marina Guimarães:

Last but not least, looking forward, Germany just elected a new government. What can we expect from Olaf Scholz when it comes to immigration into the EU?


Elisabeth Braw:

That is an excellent question. So little is known really about what he believes in other than the balanced budget, which has been his main accomplishment of the past years when he has been Finance Minister and he has done a fantastic job. So he is a Social Democrat of the center-right wing within his party. There are also people on the far-left within his party, but he's of the right-wing within his party. So in the political spectrum, he is a true centrist. So what that means is, I think he will continue the policies that Angela Merkel pursued. Of course, famously she opened the borders in 2015, but in more recent years, has been stricter. She was stricter because integration turned out to be maybe a bit more challenging than she had expected. And he has also built himself as her successor, which he did in the election.


Elisabeth Braw:

He essentially sold himself to the elector as Angela Merkel's natural successor, which really tells you something because he's a Social Democrat, she's a Christian Democrat, so it shows you how much of a centrist he is and how much he wants to or plans to continue her policies. So I don't think it very much would change from her government to his.


Marina Guimarães:

Well, Ms. Braw, thank you so much for joining us here at Wikistrat, I really enjoyed this conversation.


Elisabeth Braw:

Thank you for having me.


Marina Guimarães:

This is Marina Guimarães for Wikistrat.


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