This essay, on EU migration policy against the background of the flashpoint on the Belarus-Poland border, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 7 November 2021, under the headline “Lukashenko is a handy villain to mask the cruelty of Fortress Europe”.
A company of men in dark uniforms and balaclavas, all carrying clubs. They are battering a group of people, repeatedly clubbing them on their arms, legs and backs. They push them into a river that marks the boundary of the European Union. “Go,” they yell. “Go.”
It’s not an incident on the border between Belarus and Poland, the latest migrant flashpoint on the EU border, and one now dominating the news. It happened 1,000 miles to the south, between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And it’s been happening for months, but with much less publicity or scrutiny than that afforded the events in Belarus.
The uniforms worn by the men in black on the Croatia-Bosnia border carried no insignias. An investigation by a consortium of European newspapers, broadcasters and NGOs has exposed them as members of special Croatian and Greek police units. Their job? To use violence to force undocumented migrants out of the EU and into non-EU states.
The operations are deemed “pushbacks”, a euphemism for illegal, violent expulsion. They happen all along the EU’s south-east border. Not just on land but at sea, too. Men from elite units in the Greek coastguard, again all dressed in black, wearing balaclavas and with no identity markings, regularly seize migrants, put them on orange life rafts, provided by the EU, push them out to sea towards Turkey and leave them to their fate.
To put in context the current events on the Belarus-Poland border, it is important to understand not just the nature of the Belarusian government but also the wider scope of EU migration policy. Belarus is a brutal, unforgiving regime, its president, Alexander Lukashenko, a butcher whose security forces have beaten all protesters into submission and tortured and imprisoned any opposition figures. Lukashenko’s use of migrants to put pressure on the EU has left some 2,000 undocumented people trapped on the border with Poland.
However odious Lukashenko’s actions, the humanitarian disaster on the border is not the result simply of one nation’s actions. Polish forces, too, have trapped the migrants. Warsaw has imposed a state of emergency, denying migrants food, water or medical aid and refusing journalists access. New laws allow police to ignore asylum requests. Officially, eight people have died in sub-zero temperatures; the true figure is likely to be much higher.
In her State of the Union speech in September, the EU president, Ursula von der Leyen, condemned the regime in Minsk for having “instrumentalised human beings”, a claim echoed last week by the US and European delegates to the UN. It’s true that Lukashenko is using migrants as pawns in a cynical diplomatic manoeuvre. But “instrumentalising human beings” is exactly what EU migration policy has been practising, too, for the past three decades. “Fortress Europe” has been created by turning people into instruments of policy, viewing migrants not as living, breathing human beings, but as flotsam and jetsam to be swept away from Europe’s beaches and borders.
To maintain Fortress Europe, the EU has funded a huge kidnap and detention industry right across Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, from the Mediterranean to beyond the Sahara. The “Khartoum process” is a deal the EU stitched together with countries in the north and east of Africa to detain migrants before they can reach the Mediterranean. States involved include Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan, all countries facing civil war and mass famine. The EU has given money to Omar al-Bashir, the former leader of Sudan indicted by the international criminal court for war crimes, and to Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean dictator whose viciousness outstrips that of Lukashenko. The Janjaweed, a militia that pursued genocidal violence in Darfur, now calls itself the “Rapid Support Forces” and hunts down migrants for the EU rather than rebels for Bashir. Europe’s policies have turned migrants into a resource to be exploited.
Even worse is the situation in Libya, where the EU funds and trains coastguard units whose job is to capture and detain migrants fleeing in boats. Many are militias rebadged to win access to EU money. The number of migrants held captive in Libya is impossible to ascertain. In one week alone in October, 5,000 were arrested and detained. All are imprisoned in the most degrading of conditions, many subject to torture, sexual abuse and extortion, practices of which European governments are fully aware and in which they are complicit.
The EU has long instrumentalised people by using aid as a weapon to enforce its migration policies. Countries that agree to detain anyone thought to be aiming for Europe receive money. Those that refuse to accept deportees lose funding. Niger has become the EU’s biggest recipient per capita of aid, not because it is the poorest nation in the world but because it is “Europe’s migration laboratory“, in which domestic policies are defined by the EU’s migration aims. The consequence has been a distorted economy, the flourishing of armed groups and the introduction of border checks on locals in their own country, because Europe demands it.
Meanwhile, in Europe, undocumented migrants are treated as vicious criminals, even mass murderers. In Greece last week, the trial began of two survivors of a boat that capsized in the Aegean. The two were among 24 people fleeing Afghanistan. One, N, lost his six-year-old son in the disaster. The other helped steer the boat in a desperate attempt to save it. N is charged with “endangering the life of his child” and faces 10 years in prison. Hasan could be jailed for 230 years for the “transportation of 24 people into Greek territory”. Earlier this year, another migrant received a 142-year sentence in similar circumstances.
These are not trials to exact justice. They are designed purely to send a message – “this is what will happen if you come to Europe”. As much as Lukashenko, the EU exploits people as instruments to pursue a cruel policy.
From balaclava-wearing thugs beating people up to show trials to instil fear, Europe’s migration policies might receive an admiring glance from Lukashenko. The Belarus dictator is a vicious tyrant whose actions are unconscionable. We should not, however, allow the EU to use his immoral actions to whitewash its own, equally cynical, equally brutal, policies.