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Belarus is fomenting a tragedy on its border

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In the forests on the Belarus-Poland border, a humanitarian crisis is in the making. President Alexander Lukashenko has escalated his contemptible tactic of “instrumentalising” migrants to press the EU to ease sanctions on Belarus. Video footage has shown Belarusian guards escorting columns of mostly Middle Eastern people towards the fences on the Polish border. Warsaw has accused Minsk of pushing the migrants across the frontier, and refuses to accept them; Belarus will not take them back. Thousands of vulnerable people are now on the border. With temperatures plummeting, many lives are at stake.

Lukashenko’s broader aims are clear, and cleverly targeted: to widen fissures in the EU. Poland was one of several EU countries to reject “quotas” of migrants during the mass influx from Syria and the Middle East in 2015. It is locked in a deepening struggle with the EU over rule of law. Its conservative-nationalist government has publicly refused assistance from the EU’s Frontex border force in dealing with the crisis. A former foreign minister in the PiS-led government has accused the EU of “pushing to take control of our border”.

The most pressing priorities are to prevent a calamity in the border area, and preserve EU unity. One aim can reinforce the other. Brussels should make clear through public and private channels that it is ready to provide support in handling and providing shelter for migrants, resettling those who qualify as asylum seekers, and returning to their country of origin those who do not. Both Brussels and Warsaw are wary of being seen to yield to blackmail. But a Warsaw government that touts its Christian values should make safeguarding human life its guiding principle, accept EU help, and during this crisis period allow those stranded to cross into its territory.

The next imperative, however, is for EU institutions and capitals to step up efforts to stem the flow of desperate people being lured under false pretences to Belarus, as quickly as possible. Preventing migrants from reaching a landlocked country in central Europe ought not to be hard, but measures to date have clearly proved inadequate.

EU diplomats must press countries of origin such as Iraq to clamp down on people traffickers and pause flights carrying migrants to Minsk — pointing out that their safety cannot be guaranteed and many may ultimately be returned. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, says the EU will seek to target “third country airlines” helping to ferry migrants to Belarus; this should extend to charter and aircraft leasing companies.

There are concerns in western capitals, too, that meetings between senior Belarusian and Central Asian officials may indicate Minsk is attempting to open a new front by attracting those fleeing the mounting human disaster in Afghanistan. That makes it all the more important for the EU to be ready to accept credible numbers of Afghan refugees — and avoid them instead being funnelled towards a Belarusian state that intends only to exploit them.

The EU, finally, should be clear that Lukashenko’s stratagems will lead not to a loosening of sanctions over his assaults on democracy in Belarus, but to a tightening. The bloc has already targeted senior officials and the national carrier Belavia; it should be ready to toughen restrictions on lucrative Belarusian exports such as petroleum products and potash, even if this does some harm to EU economic interests. Above all, the EU and its member states must defend their values — by not sinking to the same level of indifference to human suffering on their borders as that being displayed by the regime in Minsk.

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