Tuesday

21st Sep 2021

Lukashenko's refugee-abuse to see new EU sanctions

  • Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
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Fewer Iraqi and Afghan migrants are crossing the EU border from Belarus, but new sanctions on Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko are coming anyway.

Some 638 people tried to enter Poland between 1 and 5 September and 41 of them were detained, according to Polish figures.

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These came after some 3,500 attempts and 1,000 detentions in August.

Just eight people entered Lithuania in the past two weeks, compared to more than 4,000 who arrived earlier this year, according to an EU source.

And no one entered Latvia in the same period, after 377 people came there from Belarus in recent months.

The people seeking refuge are mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan and they are vulnerable.

Two Afghan boys, aged five and six, recently died in Poland after their mother accidentally fed them poisonous mushrooms.

Others are living rough in no man's land between Belarus and Poland in conditions which "pose a grievous threat to the migrants' lives," the International Organisation for Migration, a UN body in Geneva, has warned.

They are there because Lukashenko has been flying people in from Baghdad, Dubai, and Istanbul, and using armed force to push them into neighbouring EU states.

The numbers eased after Iraq suspended Lukashenko's flights in summer. It also agreed to take back 690 people from Belarus.

And EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell pressed the issue on a visit to Baghdad on Monday (6 September) and Tuesday, an EU source said.

"Migration was discussed during the meeting in Baghdad again and in depth. Iraqi partners said they were shocked to see Iraqi citizens were being brought to the Lithuanian border over false promises that they would soon end up in Europe, and most payed huge sums for this," the source said.

"He [Borrell] recalled [the] need for readmission and asked for permanent suspension of flights," the source added.

But EU diplomacy aside, Lukashenko's own calculations might also be a reason for the lower figures of incoming refugees.

He now has thousands of asylum seekers trapped in Belarus after EU states built fences and sent soldiers to guard their borders.

And he has "belatedly" reached out to the EU for talks on immigration, another EU source said.

But for all that, the EU is still drafting a fifth round of sanctions against his regime.

"There will absolutely be more sanctions and, as before, they will touch individuals who [financially] support Lukashenko," the EU source said.

The EU, earlier this year, imposed economic sanctions on Belarus and blacklisted dozens of regime members after Lukashenko began waging war on pro-democracy protesters.

The next round of measures will be imposed specifically for his use of refugees to attack EU borders.

And they might target commercial firms involved in Belarus' refugee-transit operation, but these were harder to nail down because they kept changing, EU sources said.

Crackdown

At the same time as making his EU immigration-talks overture, Lukashenko also jailed two key opposition figures, Maria Kalesnikava and Maxim Znak, for over 10 years this week, however.

The EU and US issued statements calling for their release, but few believed it would make a difference.

"We seem to be publishing statements like this [on new political prisoners] about once a week these days and, frankly, we are running out of ideas on what to say," one of the EU sources told EUobserver.

Asked if Lukashenko might try to use political prisoners as hostages to trade for EU concessions on sanctions, the source said: "He's living in a bunker mentality and it's possible he might try to do something like this".

But such tactics would not work because the EU has spelled out much more far-reaching conditions for sanctions relief, the EU source added.

Meanwhile, the latest jailings might be aimed more at a Russian audience anyway.

Lukashenko is meeting his main financial sponsor, Russian president Vladimir Putin, on Thursday.

And the Belarusian leader needed to maintain face to negotiate future relations, the EU source said.

"Lukashenko needs to show Putin that he can master the situation on his own territory in order to keep Russian money flowing," the source said.

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