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The Belarus border crisis shows it’s getting easier to ‘weaponize’ refugees

Countries like Belarus are counting on E.U. governments to see refugees as a security threat

- November 21, 2021

Thousands of refugees and migrants became pawns at the border between Belarus and Poland in recent weeks. Many had flown to Belarus anticipating a route into the European Union but couldn’t proceed farther because of Poland’s hard-line policies barring them entry. A number of stranded migrants died of cold and a lack of access to food and health care.

The increasingly volatile situation became a U.N. Security Council priority after the United States and other Western governments criticized Belarus’s autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko, for “the orchestrated instrumentalization of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger.”

Belarusian authorities have moved many of those trapped at the border into shelters and say they plan to repatriate 5,000 of them — but a government spokesman said Lukashenko expects E.U. countries to accept 2,000 refugees.

Why are we seeing a rise in the use of vulnerable populations as “ammunition” in broader political conflicts? This isn’t the first time countries have weaponized migrant and refugee movements for political and material gain. From Turkey to Morocco and Jordan, recent research, including my own, has demonstrated how countries can capitalize on refugee flows.

Morocco ‘weaponized’ migration to punish Spain. That’s more common than you think.

Turkey and Morocco are other examples

In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “open the gates” for millions of Syrian refugees eager to flee to Europe unless Turkey got more international support. Earlier this year, Morocco encouraged migrants to cross the border into Spain to retaliate against Spain’s decision to admit Moroccan separatist leader Brahim Ghali for medical treatment.

In the Belarus case, most analysts view the decision to weaponize thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa — with Belarus issuing visas on arrival — as a form of retaliation against sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States.

There are two big reasons more countries appear to be taking this approach: the framing of migrants and refugees as national security threats in the West, particularly after the 2015-2016 Syrian refugee crisis; and the failure of the modern refugee system to provide incentives for nations to share responsibility for refugees. Treating people as weapons is increasingly possible because refugees and migrants are becoming more “weaponizable.”

When refugees become ‘security threats’

Early media coverage of Syrian refugees arriving in 2015 brought the horrors of the Syrian conflict to the doorstep of European governments. Public outrage over the suffering of refugees drove a brief period of support in which some countries such as Germany welcomed hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. These inclusive policies, however, were soon followed by a backlash characterized by a resurgence of nationalist and populist movements.

Why the sudden shift? Several events in 2015 and early 2016 drove many Europeans to see refugees as a threat to national security. In November 2015, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds, producing a deep-rooted fear of terrorists masking as refugees. French President François Hollande denounced the attacks as an “act of war.” Shortly after these attacks, 31 U.S. governors publicly opposed President Barack Obama’s plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States.

Media and police reports about hundreds of men of “Arab or North African appearance” robbing and sexually assaulting women during the 2015 New Year’s celebrations in Cologne, Germany, proved pivotal. In news reports, narratives about refugees started to focus on irreconcilable “cultural differences” between German citizens and refugees from the Arab world.

The E.U. is furious that Belarus allowed more than 4,000 migrants to cross into Europe

Then came suicide bombings in Brussels in 2016, which the New York Times called the “bloodiest attack since World War II.” Though several of the perpetrators were Belgian citizens, one commentator framed the attacks this way: “The problems of a fragmenting Middle East are fast-becoming Europe’s.” Heightened anxieties over terrorism and a growing populist backlash against refugees and migrants led E.U. countries to progressively tighten their national borders.

Who benefits from this weaponization?

Weaponizing refugees and migrants has become a political strategy for countries at Europe’s periphery. Fears in the broader population about refugees have allowed nations hosting refugee populations to extract concessions from Western countries and international organizations, and to increase their bargaining power on the international stage.

In some cases, this strategy works. In 2016, Turkey negotiated an unprecedented $7 billion in foreign aid and other concessions in return for keeping Syrian refugees within Turkey’s borders. My recently published research finds that Jordan also leveraged its Syrian refugee population and became the seventh-largest recipient of global development assistance in 2017. “We continue to provide [funding to Jordan] because we don’t want refugees on our doorstep,” a representative from a European donor organization told me during an interview at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis.

The modern refugee system is failing

At the heart of the issue is a failure of the international refugee regime to provide incentives for countries, particularly Western nations, to share responsibility for the welfare of refugees — a legal classification for “persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution.” According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a U.N. protocol that sets the foundation of the modern refugee system, the principle of non-refoulement prohibits host governments from returning refugees to a country in which they may face persecution.

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But governments are under no obligation to support refugees residing in the territories of other countries. This means that countries in geographic proximity to a crisis are frequently left to shoulder the responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers with little international support.

Perceptions of refugees and migrants as security threats have further impeded international collaboration. Described by one legal expert as a “global cop-out” on refugees, the United Nations’ 2018 Global Compact on Refugees failed to radically address the lack of incentives for responsibility-sharing among countries. The United States and Hungary dropped out of the consultations altogether. Increasingly hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric during the Trump administration culminated in a U.S. travel ban for citizens from five Muslim-majority countries.

Whether the thousands in Belarus find safe passage to the European Union, the absence of binding legislation for responsibility-sharing means it is likely that the weaponization of refugees and migrants will become an increasingly common occurrence at tremendous human cost.

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Sigrid Lupieri is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Her current book project looks at the effect of security and diplomatic interests in the Middle East on humanitarian health efforts.