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.


  1. And since the Sahel is already suffering drought and extreme heat, this will only get worse. There is a direct link between Germany’s coalburning, the result of perverse nuclear shut-downs, or between the planned expansion of air transport within the UK, and the slavemarkets of Libya

  2. Steve Cairns

    Is there any possible alternative to a “fortress” other than freedom of movement ? That is to say people, being permitted to travel London, Paris or Berlin and claim asylum or seek residency and work, with dignity rather than be forced to walk or to paddle across or around borders as if modern travel had never existed.

    You may already be aware of the role of EU Directive 2001/51/EC in this. Hans Rosling explains it extremely well in this video from 2015:

    Post Brexit there is nothing obliging the UK to comply with this directive other perhaps than some political and cultural similarities with Eastern Europeans that many Brits may prefer not to acknowledge.

  3. tony

    What is the use of an essay that offers only emotive hand wringing but no ideas for a solution? Typical journalism.

  4. colinhutton

    “We should not, however, allow the EU to use his immoral actions to whitewash its own, equally cynical, equally brutal, policies.”
    And in what way is the EU doing that???

    • Can you point me to where EU officials accept their instrumentalization of human beings, or even acknowledge the consequences of their policies in Africa?

        • Perhaps I don’t understand your question, then. Do you want to repose it? Do you mean “How is the EU using Lukashenko’s actions to whitewash its own policies” (which is what I took it to mean)? Or, do you mean “Why are EU policies cynical and brutal”? Or do you mean something else?

        • colinhutton

          In this, your second response, you query whether you understood my original question correctly.
          I can confirm that you did then (and do now) understand my question correctly.
          By implication, you did (and still do now) actually believe that your first response adequately answered my question.
          Frankly, that strikes me as improbable.

        • The EU denounces Lukashenko for instrumentalizing migrants, and tries to occupy the moral high ground. EU policies also instrumentalize migrants. So, to your question “In what way is the EU [using Lukashenko’s immoral actions to whitewash its own policies]?” my response was “Can you point me to where EU officials accept their instrumentalization of human beings, or even acknowledge the consequences of their policies in Africa?” In other words, the EU’s claim that Lukashenko, and Lukashenko alone, is instrumentalizing human beings, is a means of allowing it to whitewash the realities of its own migration policies. If you imagine that it’s “improbable” that I could think my “first response adequately answered [your] question”, that’s probably because you’re too quick to impute bad faith in people. Whether you write in good or bad faith, I don’t know, though let’s say I’m somewhat sceptical given your curt dismissal here, but some of us are ever-hopeful of good-faith discussions.

  5. yandoodan

    Is the EU treating asylum seekers as instruments, hapless tools used in a larger political game? Belarus certainly is. But the EU, it strikes me, merely wants the asylum seekers to go home and stop bothering them. If the EU were using them as instruments in a larger game, then this cruelty could be stopped only by addressing the larger game, or the game players will simply shift their focus to another target. But if there is no larger game, then the solution to vicious immigrant policies is to replace them with non-vicious ones, period.

    I would like to see an analysis of why Europeans think this comparatively small scale threat to be such a major crisis that is requires the level of meanness we expect from totalitarians. Perhaps we will then understand why a people smuggler gets a sentence 676% higher than Breivik.

    • Policies that create a huge kidnap and detention industry across northern Africa, that fund warlords, dictators and genocidal groups to act as EU migration police, that tie funds to the willingness of non-EU governments to lock up anyone who may be migrating to Europe, that distort economies of north African and Sahel nations, that hold showtrials for rescuers and victims of boat tragedies in the Med – this isn’t a case of “merely want[ing] the asylum seekers to go home and stop bothering them” but policies that instrumentalize human beings.

      • Steve Cairns

        Not that brutal cruelty is acceptable even as collateral damage, but clearly the aim of the EU policy is to prevent migration to Europe and not to prop up warlords or dictatorships, nor to use fear of migrants to increase their internal power-base or to undermine the stability of their neighbours’. They are not “instrumentalizing” migrants in that respect. To equivocate between the EU’s motivation or action & Lukashenko’s (or Putin’s) is neither helpful or accurate, rather it masks the root problem, and so fails to offer any solution whether in the long or the short term.

        I welcome your analysis of these abuses as systemic and applaud your defence of human rights. I’m less impressed with a defence of what (by your high standards) I find a flawed and one-sided argument in this particular respect.

        The EU don’t maintain comparatively high standards of public health, social cohesion and welfare in order to attract migration. I’d even question that it does so, by extension to excuse the funding of dictators and criminals who manage that migration (and allow access to the likes of Shell or Rio-Tinto.) –

        Even if that is a simplified account of part of the cycle that keeps resources and wealth flowing into the hands of a privileged few & a trickle of charity returning to the impoverished many… It is not the EU who designed it. Rather the EU is an institution or instrument to protect our common self-interest as Europeans in maintaining a certain standard of living and way of life.

        The idea that it’s EU or ECB aid programmes that have destabilised nation states & established trans-national warlords (rather than multiple UK /US/ NATO military interventions allied to corporate “investment”) is an interesting one. I find it substantially unsupported (or at least unexplored) in your argument however. I think it puts the cart before the horse, unless you credit the EU as being the source of Capitalism itself rather than a moderating (if deeply flawed) collective response to it.

        I admittedly speculate myself here, but I doubt you will find China, Russia or India’s record of foreign intervention and investment particularly focused on maintaining human rights or free movement either.

        If we put aside bias, we might discover the EU to be the best of a pretty bad bunch…. and historically that would include the UK even if it no longer operates (economically or politically) at the same level of influence.

        • First, the use of funding to force countries to detain people who may be coming to Europe, withholding funding from countries that won’t accept deportees, and holding showtrials of rescuers and victims of boat tragedies purely to send a message, are all about instrumentalizing migrants. Second, it’s true that the EU’s aim is not primarily to prop up warlords or dictators (at least in this context), but the fact is it is willing to do so, as well as use genocidal groups, to maintain its war on migrants. Yes, Western military intervention has destabilized countries, but I think that you, like many people, fail to recognize the sheer impact of EU extra-territorial migration policies on countries from the Mediterranean to the Sahel to the Horn of Africa and into the Middle East. And finally, no, China or Russia’s foreign intervention is clearly not “particularly focused on maintaining human rights or free movement”. But I’m not sure that they should be the moral standards by which to judge EU policies.

  6. Steve Cairns

    We probably agree on most of this. I imagine certainly we agree that Europe (inside and outside the EU) persecutes migrants or (immigrants as they become) in an attempt to deter inward migration. I maintain that the process you describe is in fact the instrumentalisation of aid and financial support. It matters because the equivocation between this and Lukashenko’s use of migrants is false and potentially dangerous if believed.

    Not least because for all their failings the EU’s record on human rights, whilst not exemplary, is significantly better than Lukashenko’s and for that matter the UK’s where a comparison of instrumentalising foreign aid and domestic policy to persecute migrants or immigrants would be more fair.

    By all means unpack or investigate the process you describe. It is a part of the horrendous human consequences of trading with tyrants from behind a secure border. Bombing them doesn’t seem to work either. Maybe it’s time to try letting people travel freely? Or do you have another solution?

    • I am not equating a dictatorial regime with democracies. What I am doing is pointing out that the EU’s migration policies are worse than despicable; indeed its policies in Africa lead to far worse treatment of migrants than that which is happening on the Belarus/Poland border. We may have different perspectives on what amounts to the instrumentalization of migrants. But, yes, I have written plenty both on UK aid policy and its immigration and refugee policy. As for freedom of movement, that would require a democratic mandate if it is not to backfire. That’s why we first have to recognize the reality of “deterrence” policies, and change the whole framework in which migration is discussed.

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