The EU-Belarus border crisis: Why the EU is increasingly vulnerable to threats of mass migration

Daniela Movileanu, 89 Belgium

The information and views presented in this article are those of the authors only, and do not reflect the positions and opinions of their former or current employers, or of any organisation they were or are affiliated with.

Executive summary

Since May 2021, Lukashenko’s Belarus has been using migrants as a bargaining chip in retaliation for the economic sanctions imposed on his government by many countries after the Ryanair flight diversion. This article analyses such events through the theoretical lens of migration diplomacy and argues that EU institutions and Member States have been making the EU vulnerable to threats of mass migration from authoritarian leaders due to their failure to agree on solid asylum and migration policy and their endorsement of or failure to condemn far-right Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant governments. The article first explains what happened in the EU-Belarus border crisis, then it locates this crisis within the broader context of engineered migration, and finally uses these theoretical insights to show how the EU and its Member States are to be blamed for having made the bloc vulnerable to such threats.


Images of Afghans and Iraqis freezing in the Belarusian forests while trying to enter EU territory have brought the issue of migration back to public attention. Some EU leaders and media outlets are treating Lukashenko’s manipulation of human lives as a new or, at best, rarely used instrument of hybrid warfare. This understanding is problematic, as it suggests that this is an isolated case attributable to the vagaries of an authoritarian leader, when in fact the situation at the Belarusian border is just one example of a systematic phenomenon that scholar Kelly Greenhill has called “coercive engineered migration” [1]. The expression “coercive engineered migration” refers to “those cross-border population movements that are deliberately created or manipulated by state or non-state actors in order to induce political, military and/or economic concessions from a target state or states” [2].

This article argues that, if we look at the Belarus-EU dispute not as an isolated but as a systematic phenomenon, we realise that the EU and its Member States are responsible for the casualties and suffering at the border just as much as Lukashenko’s government. This is because EU institutions and Member States, by failing to agree on coherent asylum policy reforms and by endorsing the hard-line responses of far-right Eurosceptic governments such as Poland’s, signal to illiberal leaders how destructive the threat of mass migration could be for the whole of the EU and thereby make themselves vulnerable to such threats. To support this argument, this article will first summarise the events leading to the border crisis, then show how they fit into the broader phenomenon of coercive engineered migration, and finally use Greenhill’s theory to identify the factors that expose the EU to such threats.

The border dispute: Facts and responses

The situation at the EU-Belarus border is the result of a geopolitical conflict in which governments on both sides have been playing with human lives for political gains. In May, Lukashenko threatened to allow drugs and migrants into Europe if the EU increased sanctions against Belarus following the hijacking of Ryanair flight 4978, which led to the arrest of opposition activists Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega [3]. As many countries banned flights from, over, and to Belarus and imposed new sanctions on members and supporters of Lukanshenko’s government and on state-owned companies, the number of people attempting to cross the Belarus-Lithuania border spiked to around 470 in June and 2,600 in July, a significant increase compared to the 81 crossings recorded in all of 2020 (see fig.1 for an overview of the trend) [4].

Migrants – mostly Iraqi and Afghani nationals (fig. 2) – arrived in Minsk on direct flights from Middle Eastern cities such as Istanbul, Baghdad, Beirut, and Dubai, operated by Belarusian airline Belavia and Turkish Airlines [5]. They then reached the borders of Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia by land, in the hope of continuing to more attractive destinations such as Germany. Backing Lithuania and Poland, the EU has accused Belarus of hybrid warfare, claiming that Lukashenko has engineered the new migratory flux through the simplification of visa procedures and the escorting of migrants to the border. Lukashenko admitted that Belarusian authorities “may” have helped migrants cross the EU border, but he denied having “invited” them [6].

Figure 1

The costs of this conflict are disproportionately borne by migrants. Trapped in the freezing Belarusian forests without food, water, and other necessities, migrants receive slim humanitarian support and are exposed to violence by local authorities on both sides of the border. Unlike Lithuania, which has allowed media, NGOs, and humanitarian packages into the border zone, Poland has blocked access within three miles of the border, even for EU officials [7]. Meanwhile, these countries have abstained from calling for EU-wide solutions such as redistributing migrants across the EU, which would run counter their Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant propaganda. On the contrary, they declared a state of emergency, legalized indefinite migrant detention and pushbacks at the border, and started planning the construction of a border wall.

Figure 2

The question of who should fund the border wall has created internal divisions in the EU. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen firmly ruled out the option that EU funds could be used to build “barber wire or walls” [8]. However, several other EU actors took a different position. In October, twelve Member States called on the Commission to prioritize border barriers. The following month, European Council President Charles Michel argued that the EU could legally fund a wall. Despite these disagreements, the EU has agreed on the following measures against Belarus: an extended sanctions regime to target those who facilitate irregular border crossings, an amount of €700,000 in humanitarian assistance, and a proposal to blacklist carriers involved in human smuggling and trafficking [9]. Despite these measures, Belarus has declared its intention to keep migrants at the border by providing them with food and clothing instead of repatriating them [10]. 

Is Lukashenko’s manipulation of migration something new?

It is not uncommon to read news articles that describe Lukashenko’s strategy based on the manipulation of migration for foreign-policy purposes as something new or surprising [11]. Even those commentators who are of a different view usually refer to just two precedents to demonstrate that Lukashenko’s strategy is nothing new, and these are the events at the Greek-Turkey border and those at the Morocco-Spain border [12]. In fact, the manipulation of migration as a diplomatic strategy to achieve foreign policy objectives has a much older pedigree.

To be sure, Erdoğan’s Turkey often threatened to loosen control over migratory flows if it did not receive greater support for migration management – the country is, indeed, among the top refugee hosts globally. In early 2020, for instance, the prospect of a new migratory wave from Syria pushed Erdoğan to open the borders, with the result of some migrants being shot by Greek authorities [13]. The closure of borders due to the COVID situation in the following months helped to scale down the crisis. Similarly, Morocco allowed over 8,000 migrants into Ceuta on 17 and 18 May 2021 to send a political message concerning Spain’s and the EU’s foreign policy towards Western Sahara [14]. Once the message was sent, the situation settled and cooperation between the two countries continued as usual.   

While these are the most recent examples that affected the EU, the full list of such cases extends well beyond the EU’s borders and the EU’s recent history. In her work on coercive engineered migration, scholar Kelly M. Greenhill identified over 70 cases in which states used displaced people as an instrument of foreign policy since the adoption of the Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951 [15]. In about three-quarters of the cases identified, coercing states succeeded in achieving at least part of their objectives – a higher success rate than for more traditional coercive tools such as economic sanctions.

To mention some of the cases reported by Greenhill, former Cuban president Fidel Castro successfully sent to Florida around 125,000 Cubans during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift and allowed some 35,000 Cubans to embark for the US in the balseros crisis of 1994-1995 in order to obtain political concessions [16]. Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi succeeded, at least in part, in getting concessions on issues such as military and economic aid and lifting of arms sanctions in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010, before losing power and being killed in the 2011 NATO-led military intervention. In a less successful attempt in 1999, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic pushed Kosovar Albanians to areas where the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army was strongly present in order to stop NATO’s bombing campaign. In short, what is happening at the Belarus-EU border is much less novel and surprising than one may think.

Why is the EU particularly vulnerable to threats of mass migration?

What emerges from the examples mentioned above is that coercers are usually weak actors who cannot use conventional instruments of influence such as economic sanctions and military threats, whereas the targets of coercive engineered migration are often liberal democratic states. As Greenhill explains, the reason why Western democracies are particularly vulnerable to such threats is linked to the high value that such states place on pluralism, transparency, and human-rights commitments compared to more illiberal states [17]. First, a pluralist and transparent decision-making process makes it relatively easy to anticipate the extent to which a migratory influx would create political contestation within a liberal democracy and, as a result, to assess the government’s possible responses to a crisis. Second, because liberal democracies have entrenched legal commitments to human rights, they expose themselves to criticisms of hypocrisy if their response to migration inflows is not in line with such commitments.

Greenhill’s theoretical framework has a powerful explanatory potential when one considers the question of why the EU is so vulnerable to threats of mass migration. While issues of migration governance have proven to be a political bombshell for the EU since its early days, never have they been more polarising than since the Schengen crisis of 2015. As arrivals to the EU’s southern borders topped one million that year, Member States started blaming each other for either being unable to control their borders (in the case of Southern states) or for failing to act in solidarity with main refugee-recipient states (mostly referred to Eastern states). Populist governments in countries such as Hungary, Poland, and – from 2018 to 2019 – Italy kept polarising the migration debate along cultural-nationalist lines and therefore blocked structural EU reforms which would have allowed for a more equal distribution of asylum responsibilities in 2018 [18]. These events have signalled to authoritarian leaders from Morocco to Belarus that migratory inflows, however small, can freeze the political machinery of the EU.

At the same time, the EU and its Member States have already exposed themselves to criticisms of hypocrisy with their responses to migration. Some well-known examples are the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016, renewed in 2021, and the Italy-Libya agreement of 2017, renewed in 2020. In the former case, the EU has made promises such as accelerated visa liberalisation and admission talks in exchange for Turkey’s support in preventing migrants from entering the EU. The agreement has received wide criticism for leaving refugees in the hands of a government with a low human-rights record [19]. The Italy-Libya agreement is arguably even more controversial, as it provides economic and operational resources directly to the Libyan Coast Guard, which is renowned for its human-rights violations [20].

Similarly, in the context of the border dispute with Belarus, the European Commission has announced that it will relax the EU’s migration and asylum provisions for Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, allowing, for example, for longer detention periods at the border [21]. This decision is likely to receive criticism from a rights-based perspective, as was the case for the Commission’s New Pact of September 2020 which proposes similar border procedures. Thus, while liberal democracies do sometimes resort to illiberal policy instruments to tackle migratory flows, by doing so they fuel internal contestation which exposes their leaders to criticism.

What’s next?

Given the political obstacles to asylum reforms that would make the EU less vulnerable to coercive engineered migration, most Member States and EU officials in Brussels seem to have opted for an increasingly hard-line approach to migration management. This trend is evident if one considers that Member States, from Italy to Poland, have become more and more hostile towards NGOs over the years. In the case of Belarus, Poland has systematically prevented NGOs from supporting migrants at the border, and some EU actors are backing its stance concerning the management of the crisis – including through the relaxation of EU asylum and migration law – and the construction of the border wall. Far from solving its longstanding problems with asylum policy, the EU is thereby continuing to expose itself to the threats of authoritarian leaders at the expense of migrants’ lives.


[1] Greenhill, K. (2010). Weapons of mass migration : Forced displacement, coercion, and foreign policy (Cornell studies in security affairs). Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[2] Greenhill, K. (2016).  Open Arms Behind Barred Doors: Fear, Hypocrisy and Policy Schizophrenia in the European Migration Crisis. European Law Journal : Review of European Law in Context, 22(3), 317-332, p.320.

[3] Evans, J. (2021). Belarus dictator threatens to flood EU with drugs and migrants.

[4] Thebault, R., & Dixon, R. (2021). Why are so many migrants coming to one of Europe’s smallest countries? Blame Belarus, officials say.

[5] BBC News (2021). Belarus border crisis: How are migrants getting there?.

[6] Rosenberg, S. (2021). Belarus’s Lukashenko tells BBC: We may have helped migrants into the EU.

[7] Jilani, H. (2021). The Poland-Belarus Border Crisis Is a Harbinger of the Future.

[8] Barigazzi, J. (2021). EU’s external walls are dividing bloc internally.

[9] European Council and Council of the EU (2021). Restrictive measures against Belarus.

European Commission (2021). EU proposes blacklisting of transport operators involved in facilitating the smuggling or trafficking of people.

[10] Euronews (2021). Belarus will not force migrants to return home, says Lukashenko.

[11] Bloomberg (2021). How Russia and Belarus are weaponizing migration.

[12] Braghiroli, S. (2021). “Lukashenko didn’t invent anything new.” Lithuania as a litmus test for EU migration policy – opinion.

AP (2021). EU “stands in solidarity” with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland over Belarus.

[13] Kucukgocmen, A. (2021). Two migrants were killed at the Turkey-Greece border: Amnesty.

[14] Edwards, S. (2021). Morocco uses migrants to get what it wants.

[15] Greenhill, K. (2016).

Greenhill, K. (2010).

[16] Yoo, A. S. (1998). The Mariel Boatlift.

Miami Herald & Santiago, F. (2014). 20 years ago, 35,000 “balseros” fled Castro’s Cuba on anything that could float.

[17] See pp.4-5 in Greenhill (2010).

[18] Williams, M. (2018). Will Italy’s refugee stance bring down the EU?

[19] Terry, K. (2021). EU-Turkey Deal, Five Years On.

[20] Amnesty (2020). Libya: Renewal of migration deal confirms Italy’s complicity in torture of migrants and refugees.

[21] Hanke Vela, J. (2021). Brussels Playbook: Fortress Europe Weakens Asylum Rights.

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