Belarus, the EU and weaponising refugee stories

The border between Belarus and the European Union (EU) nations has become a crisis point over the last few months. Refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Mali and other war-torn have been attempting to enter the Schengen area from Belarus.

The EU nations, namely Poland, Lithuania and Germany, have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, of deliberately weaponising the refugee issue to promote discord within their ranks.

The Belarusian government responded by stating they are simply retaliating for EU-imposed sanctions and hostility from EU member-states, and denied using asylum seekers as a political tactic.

The refugees, trying to cross into the Schengen zone, face barbed wire fences, Polish and Lithuanian troops, and are stuck in a no-man’s land where they face harsh and life-threatening conditions. The governments of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have rushed to militarise the border, and have portrayed refugees as an ‘invading influx’.

Retaliation against the EU by relaxing border controls is certainly a cynical move on the part of Minsk – but weaponising refugee and migrant stories, and turning immigration into a toxic issue, is not. In fact, Minsk is simply following in the footsteps of the major capitalist powers in turning the refugee-migrant issue into a political football.

In fact, the Australian government has used the harsh treatment of asylum seekers as a vote-gaining tactic for successive decades. The mandatory detention of refugees in offshore camps by Canberra has not only promoted anti-immigration xenophobia, but has also inspired the EU nations – and in particular far right forces – to advocate for the same restrictive policies.

Demonising refugees and migrants as ‘invaders’ is a long-term political device employed by Australia’s major parties. EU nations, such as the Baltic states, have followed this example, denouncing the Iraqi and Afghani asylum arrivals from Belarus as a threat to be repulsed. Heavily militarised borders have made their return, in the name of stopping refugees – decades after East Berliner refugees were hailed as brave escapees for having successfully negotiated the Berlin Wall.

The Polish government’s mistreatment of migrants, stranded at the Polish-Belarusian border, has come under increasing criticism from human rights organisations. Warsaw has deliberately cultivated an atmosphere of anti-immigrant xenophobia, portraying the refugees as dangerous elements. Warsaw has stopped journalists and aid-workers from accessing the 3-kilometre deep borderland area – and deployed thousands of troops to deal with what it calls an emergency.

Médecins Sans Frontières – Doctors Without Borders – have noted at least eight deaths of migrants, stuck in harrowing conditions with a lack of food, water, medicine – in a densely wooded area in subzero temperatures. While the EU nations are pushing refugees back to Belarus, Minsk is refusing to take them.

Minsk’s retaliatory measures are deplorable, but not without extensive precedent. Turkish President Recep Erdogan ‘threatened’ to allow refugees from the Middle East to enter the EU from Greece in order to extract European assurances for Turkish policy in Syria. Erdogan’s cynical gesture was a perverse exploitation of Islamophobic stereotypes – playing up the anxieties of anti-immigrant advocates inside the EU of a putative ‘Muslim invasion.’

Eastern European nations, since the dissolution of the Eastern bloc in 1990-91, have become hotbeds of ultranationalist and anti-immigration political rhetoric. Right wing politicians, such Hungary’s Viktor Orban, have promoted Islamophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theories, accusing non-European nations of using migrants as an intrusive force intent on ‘taking over’ Christian-majority Europe.

Such rhetoric only feeds the hysteria against refugees – who are fleeing the consequences of imperialist wars overseas. These American-led wars, such as those against Iraq and Afghanistan, have been strongly supported by the same Eastern European governments now turning away refugees.

I am old enough to remember a particularly cynical PR campaign in the late 1980s exploiting a refugee group for political purposes – the campaign to ‘liberate’ Soviet Jews. The latter, facing restrictions on their ability to travel, were no better or worse off than other nationalities in the former Soviet Union. However, the George Bush administration (1988-92), following in the footsteps of the Reagan administration, turned the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration into a PR effort.

Feigning concern for the human rights of Soviet Russian Jews, the Bush administration loudly asserted the right of Russian Jews to emigrate – ostensibly to Israel, but from there, other nations were the intended destination, such as the United States. Private Zionist organisations in the US helped to fund such a campaign, President Bush and his colleagues gave fiery speeches about the importance of liberty, and Russian Jews were turned into sympathetic refugees. This was part of a deliberate effort to turn former Soviet nationalities, particularly those of a right wing bent, into a cause célèbre.

Never was there any expression of anxieties about the new non-Christian immigrants failing to assimilate. At the same time, the US was actively supporting and funding dictatorial regimes and death squads in Central American nations, which created an outflow of Hispanic refugees.

As long as the EU regards itself as a fortress, repelling refugees as an ‘invading’ force, crises such as the one currently unfolding on the Belarus-EU area border will arise. The crisis is not one caused by the asylum seekers, nor is it a crisis because refugees are arriving. The crisis is caused by the inhumane and repressive policies of the EU.

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