Brussels, Belgium – Whenever the number of refugees along the borders of the European Union rises sharply, the debates flare up in Brussels.
Despite having a Common European Asylum System, EU leaders are bickering about how to implement it in a unified way.
In recent months, a migration crisis has raged along the EU-Belarus border, with thousands of people stranded in the cold and denied entry into the EU.
The bloc has accused Belarus of “arming” migrants — luring people from the Middle East in to dump them at EU borders, in retaliation for targeted EU sanctions.
According to some EU officials, this episode has again been chaotic due to political differences.
“We continue to scramble from one refugee crisis to another, blaming other countries for our problems and denouncing the reality. Instead, EU countries must implement the common asylum policy in a united manner,” MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld told Al Jazeera.
“What the Belarusian regime is doing is cruel. But if EU member states cannot agree on a common migration policy and try to externalize migration management, other countries can easily take advantage of that,” she said.
This situation escalated last week when images of thousands of people walking towards the border between Poland and Belarus, hoping to enter Poland, went viral on social media.
“This is a hybrid attack. No migration crisis,” tweeted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Bram Frouws, head of the monitoring group at the Mixed Migration Center (MMC), explained that such a response contributes to a war narrative.
“With von der Leyen calling it a hybrid attack, I think that’s exactly what Lukashenko was hoping for. Even though we are talking about a few refugees and migrants trying to get into Europe, the language is all about war arising out of political panic,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The moment you start calling refugees and migrants as bargaining chips and as weapons of people being instrumentalized, their freedom of choice is taken away and people are dehumanized,” he said.
Sanctions to save?
With the aim of stopping undocumented migration from Belarus, the EU has also imposed a new list of sanctions on all persons and entities it believes are helping the Lukashenko government bring people to the border.
These new sanctions come despite threats from Lukashenko to cut off gas supplies to the EU.
While the list of sanctions targets is yet to be finalized, Josep Borrell, the bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, welcomed the decision.
“It reflects the European Union’s determination to stand up to the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes,” he said.
EU diplomats have also reached out to the countries that have been transition stops for migrants and refugees in Minsk.
Such diplomatic lobbying has proved fruitful; Turkish authorities have banned citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen from boarding flights to Belarus. Iraqi airlines and Syrian Cham Wings Airlines have also suspended flights to the country. The United Arab Emirates have also restricted flights to Belarus.
“This is when, in a sense, Europe counts our friends. We are very happy to see that we have a lot of them,” Margaritis Schinas, the vice president of the European Commission, told reporters in Lebanon.
The three EU countries surrounding Belarus – Lithuania, Latvia and Poland – have fortified their borders by increasing the presence of guards and announcing plans to build a wall.
Speaking to journalists at a recent meeting of EU foreign ministers, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis suggested making Minsk airport a “no-fly zone” and encouraged people to to repatriate.
The Iraqi government’s first repatriation is expected to leave Belarus on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Polish border guards have started using tear gas and water cannons against people to prevent them from entering.
“It is shocking to see the EU show solidarity with Poland as the country unfolds a humanitarian crisis,” Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch’s representative for Europe and Central Asia, told Al Jazeera. “These people have been manipulated into this plan. The EU should ask itself how to help them and not just how to respond to Belarus.”
Human rights and migration experts made comparisons between the current situation and the European refugee crisis of 2015.
“In 2015, it was the first time that refugee policy in Poland was discussed at the national level. Right-wing groups started fueling anti-immigrant sentiment by branding migrants as terrorists who would destabilize Poland and the EU,” Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer in Warsaw, told Al Jazeera. “But people who are afraid of refugees often know nothing about them.”
She explained how the local population has been stopped from helping the people along the border between Poland and Belarus.
“Many people who live in this border area are old and have experienced the Second World War. They know what it’s like to be a refugee. Initially, they kept their doors open to help those stranded in the forest, but Polish border guards ordered them not to,” Gorczynska said.
This crisis is also taking place against a tense background as Poland confronts the EU with the primacy of EU law.
According to MEP in ‘t Veld, Warsaw is playing a dangerous game.
“It is interesting to see that Poland, which has been one of the strongest opponents of the EU’s common asylum system, is now asking the EU to help fund a border wall,” she said.
“We are talking about a few thousand migrants. A wall is not the solution. It is time for EU countries to speak with one voice when it comes to migration. Nationalist dialogues are pushing the Union to the brink.”
As political tensions simmer, refugees continue to bear the brunt.
An EU spokesperson said the bloc is coordinating with the United Nations to provide immediate humanitarian aid and aid the safe return of people to their countries of origin.
But Gorczynska called on the EU to stop the pushbacks to Belarus and instead develop safe and legal routes to allow for migration.
Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel has also held a dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s main ally, to de-escalate the situation.
Speaking to journalists on Monday, EU foreign affairs chief Borrell said: “I don’t think Lukashenko could do what he’s doing without strong support from Russia.”
The Kremlin has denied any involvement and encouraged direct communication with Belarus.
Bram Frouws of MMC said: “The dialogue is always good with Putin, Lukashenko and also with the countries of origin from which the migrants come to Minsk. But a wall and militarization is never the right approach. It only escalates the situation and makes the EU very weak.”