National Review, November 16, 2021
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is waging war on his western neighbors, European Union members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. But he’s not using tanks and planes.
He’s using migrants.
Belarus has eased its visa rules to attract migrants from Iraq and other countries in the Middle East and Africa. These migrants are then bused to the country’s western border, where they are given instructions on how to cross into EU countries. On some occasions, they are even supplied with wire cutters to break through any border fencing they might encounter.
Lithuania and Poland have deployed police and soldiers to stop them; they have erected barricades and are even considering more-formidable barriers, too. (Perhaps they might call us. We have plenty of the relevant material that has just been gathering dust since Biden halted construction on Inauguration Day.)
While Lukashenko’s purpose is not to unleash a band of terrorists into the EU, it’s likely that there are some among the migrants. Take the 2015 migrant crisis sparked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s invitation to Syrian refugees, which resulted in the illegal immigration of more than 1 million people, most of them not even from Syria.
Instead, the migrants themselves are the weapons, in what amounts to a form of asymmetrical warfare. The goal is to impose on the EU what political scientist Kelly Greenhill in her 2010 book Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy, calls “hypocrisy costs,” defined as the “disparity between a professed commitment to liberal values and norms and demonstrated actions that contravene such a commitment.”
In other words, Lukashenko — like many a dictator before him — is trying to blackmail the EU. He has them in an unfortunate bind of not wanting to make a choice between, on the one hand, admitting millions more from the third world — which would doubtless fuel further political upheaval from voters sick of crime, welfare cheats, and the foreignization of their societies — and, on the other, seeing its talk of a “right to asylum” exposed as the high-minded piffle that it is.
The EU has been punishing Lukashenko for some time now, and he was bound to push back. He has been the target of sanctions in the wake of his recent rigged “reelection” and, more recently, his forcing down a European airliner passing through Belarus’s airspace to arrest a dissident. He’s betting that the EU will blink in the face of coverage by its anti-borders media of desperate and freezing migrants stuck in a no-man’s-land on the border. (Belarus authorities won’t allow the migrants to retreat from the border, leaving them without supplies and exposed to the elements.)
This is not the first time Lukashenko has considered this. Twice before, in 2002 and 2004, he threatened to unleash a migrant wave on the EU to extract money or other concessions. On neither occasion did he follow through. Now he has.
It’s likely that he has now pulled the trigger, as it were, because he has seen how the tactic has worked elsewhere. Turkey, for instance, profited from doing the same in 2015. While it was Merkel who first sparked the crisis of that year, Erdogan finally shut down the flow of “Syrian” “asylum seekers” only once the EU had offered him a large enough payoff. The EU has continued to bribe other nearby countries, such as Libya, to stop illegal aliens before they get to Europe’s borders. Lukashenko just wants his cut of the action.
This form of aggression by the weak against the strong — or maybe more accurately, by the ruthless and authoritarian against the liberal and squeamish — is not confined to Europe. Cuba’s Fidel Castro engineered large migration flows in 1980 and 1994 to punish the U.S. and extract concessions — successfully, on both occasions.
Greenhill lists 64 instances of such “migration-driven coercion” worldwide from 1953 to 2006. These were not movements of people as the result of war, but rather movements of people that were the war, initiated by state or nonstate actors to extract political concessions from another, usually stronger, party. Greenhill adds that in this form of warfare, “costs are inflicted through the threat and use of human demographic bombs to achieve political goals that would be utterly unattainable through military means.”
Lukashenko may not ultimately succeed in using illegal immigration to get the EU to lift sanctions; he’s been especially crass and obvious, forgoing even the thin veil of “Nice continent you got there; it’d be a shame if uncontrolled mass migration should happen to it.”
But democracies are always going to be uniquely vulnerable to such measures because they’re governed by civilized people. There are, however, steps that the U.S., Europe, Australia, and other countries can take to limit the effectiveness of such weapons of mass migration. The most important is to end the current asylum regime — an anachronism that may have made sense in the aftermath of World War II and the start of the Cold War but which has no place today. As one observer has noted, “now its usefulness to Europe’s enemies has been proven, the post-war asylum regime looks like a relic of a different era.” Or, as the headline of a recent piece by the former head of the U.N.’s population division put it telegraphically, “Right to asylum: Bye-bye.”
International law is not a suicide pact. It’s time to withdraw from the U.N. refugee treaty, signed a lifetime ago in a different world. This will allow us to redefine the concepts of asylum and “non-refoulement” — the non-return of people likely to suffer harm — in ways more consistent with the defense and security of democratic countries. The need for such a reconsideration is urgent.