What's In Blue

Posted Thu 11 Nov 2021

Belarus: Meeting under “Any Other Business” on the Migration Crisis

This afternoon (11 November), Security Council members will discuss the situation in Belarus under “any other business” following the consultations on the Syria chemical weapons track. The meeting was requested by Estonia, France and Ireland with support from the UK and the US. No briefers are expected at the session.

The focus of today’s meeting will be the migrant crisis on the border between Belarus and EU member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The meeting was requested in response to the recent escalation along the Belarus-Poland border, following months of mounting tensions between Belarus and its neighbouring states. This week, the crisis has garnered increased international attention, as Poland bolstered its security presence along its border with Belarus in response to attempts by large numbers of migrants to cross into its territory. On 8 November, Warsaw announced that it had deployed approximately 4,500 border guards and 9,500 army soldiers to fortify its borders, following reports that thousands of migrants and asylum seekers were heading towards the “Bruzgi” crossing point on the Belarus-Poland border. Poland reported more than 1,000 crossing attempts over the course of Tuesday (9 November) and Wednesday (10 November).

The crisis erupted earlier this summer, following Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s announcement in June that Belarus will no longer take steps to prevent the illegal crossing of migrants into EU territory. The decision followed a deterioration in Minsk’s relationship with the EU, after the latter imposed sanctions on Belarus in response to its crackdown on protests in the wake of the contentious August 2020 presidential elections and the May incident in which Belarusian authorities diverted a Ryanair plane to Minsk to detain a passenger, a Belarusian dissident journalist. In August, the three EU members states bordering Belarus began reporting a significant rise in migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Asia attempting to cross into their territory from Belarus. In a statement today (11 November), Polish authorities said that there have been 4,300 recorded border crossing attempts since the outset of November alone.

Numerous migrants have been refused entry, with many left stranded along the Poland-Belarus border in freezing conditions and without proper shelter, medical attention and access to food and water. According to media reports, at least 4,000 people are currently trapped in the border areas between Belarus and its neighbouring countries. Since the start of the crisis, at least eight people who attempted to cross from Belarus into EU territory have reportedly died, including from hypothermia and exhaustion. Poland and Lithuania have both declared a state of emergency and have banned journalists and aid workers from their border zones. In a 10 November statement, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet described the migrants’ situation as intolerable and urged Belarus and Poland to take immediate steps to de-escalate and resolve the burgeoning crisis, in line with their obligations under international human rights law and refugee law.

EU member states have accused Lukashenko of abetting migration across the Belarus border to pressure the EU to lift the sanctions the bloc had imposed on Minsk. They allege that Belarusian authorities are orchestrating the crisis by encouraging migrants to travel to Belarus and facilitating their illegal crossing into EU countries. Lukashenko has denied these accusations, blaming the influx of migrants on organised crime and failed foreign interventions in the Middle East and North Africa region. In a 9 November interview, Lukashenko said that the transit of migrants is enabled by “a certain mafia-like structure” that operates within the EU. In a recent Facebook statement, the Belarus State Border Committee, which manages the country’s international borders, said that Belarusian authorities are taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety of migrants.

The crisis has further strained the relationship between Belarus and the EU. At a meeting yesterday (10 November) with US President Joe Biden, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the situation as “the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilise its democratic neighbours” and confirmed that the EU would expand its sanctions on Belarus as early as next week. She also mentioned that the US is preparing to impose sanctions on Minsk, which will come into effect in early December. According to media reports, the sanctions will target roughly 30 individuals and entities, including the Belarusian foreign minister and Belarus’ state airline, Belavia. In response, this morning (11 November), Lukashenko threatened to shut off natural gas supplies to Europe, including the Yamal gas pipeline, which carries Russian-owned natural gas through Belarus into Poland and Germany.

Yesterday (10 November), European Council President Charles Michel proposed that the EU fund the construction of walls along its eastern border. A position once strongly opposed in Brussels, the idea of funding physical barriers along the EU border has recently gained traction. On 7 October, 12 EU member states issued a joint letter encouraging the bloc to finance physical barriers along its borders. In August, Poland initiated plans, together with Lithuania, to erect a wire fence along its border with Belarus to curb illegal crossings. On 14 October, the Polish parliament adopted a bill designating over $400 million for the construction of a wall along its border with Belarus.

In a call yesterday (10 November) between German caretaker Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former underlined that the instrumentalisation of migrants by Belarusian authorities is “inhumane and unacceptable” and asked Moscow to exert influence on Minsk. On the same day, Russia dispatched two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace. In addition, NATO member states pledged their support to Poland during a 10 November closed-door meeting, according to media reports.

At today’s meeting, several Council members are likely to condemn Belarus for what they view as the manipulation of migration for political purposes. Several Council members, including those who are EU member states, are expected to argue that the migrant crisis between Belarus and its neighbouring countries is having a destabilising effect in the region and that it has broader security implications. This morning (11 November), in a joint statement by the defence ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the three EU members warned that the crisis “increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents that could also spill over into the military domain”. Council members may also urge states to uphold their human rights obligations, calling for unimpeded humanitarian access in the border zone.

Other Council members, particularly Russia, are likely to stress that the situation in Belarus is an internal affair which is beyond the Council’s purview. At a joint meeting of the Russian and Belarusian foreign ministries on 10 November, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed “the unacceptable nature of interference” in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. Moscow may also criticise plans to impose additional sanctions on Minsk, arguing that unilateral sanctions which have not received the Security Council’s endorsement are unacceptable.