Migration in Europe: how the crisis shifted shape

Key factors were the change of power in Afghanistan and the EU's worsening relations with Belarus

A Kurdish family from Dohuk, Iraq, in a forest near the Polish-Belarus border, as they wait to try to cross into the EU. AFP
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It was a year that economic migrants and asylum seekers from conflict zones located well east of Europe demonstrated their refusal to give up on the dream of finding a haven in stable and safer states.

They came despite the suffering of migrants who were documented freezing and starving on frontiers, suffering the violence of being beaten by border guards or facing the perils of drowning at sea. More than 2,700 migrants died while trying to reach Europe in 2021, UN data shows, making it the deadliest year since 2018.

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan prompted a rush for asylum and the Belarusian leader’s bid to destabilise the EU by “importing” migrants and sending them to the borders has given rise to a new crisis in itself.

The EU had previously imposed sanctions on Belarusian individuals and bodies over a crackdown on protests after the disputed 2020 election and the isolated nation responded with a new visa policy that unleashed a scramble to enter western Europe via new routes.

Dr Agnieszka Kubal, a lecturer in sociology at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London, said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is playing on the fractious relationship between his neighbour Poland and the EU.

Belarus is 'playing a dangerous game' with EU

“Lukashenko is not stupid. It’s not rocket science that the Polish government does not have the best relations with the EU,” she told The National.

However, she said his retaliatory actions against the EU for its sanctions risks backfiring.

“Lukashenko is playing a very dangerous game,” she said. “Why? Because look at the population of Belarus — it is eight million people, it’s a regime that is highly unstable given the protests of last year.

“Would Lukashenko really risk bringing thousands and thousands of people without realising that this can have negative repercussions and destabilising repercussions for his own regime?”

The migration landscape in Europe was altered in 2021 as new routes opened up for people hoping to build a new life on the continent, either due to economic woes, persecution, war or other issues in their homeland.

She said it is clear the Russian-backed Belarusian leader “not only wants retaliation but also to perhaps get money from the EU” to keep migrants back from the bloc’s border, in a deal similar to the 2015 agreement between Brussels and Turkey.

Thousands of migrants remain stranded on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland, after Mr Lukashenko established a network to bring migrants from Iraq and other places, promising them safe passage to the EU.

“I saw adverts on social media advertising the trip, saying the bigger the group the bigger the discount for those visas,” Dr Kubal said. “It is smuggling of people on a state scale. It is a provocation, a retaliation.

“We have seen examples of it in history. Libya’s [former ruler Muammar] Qaddafi was doing exactly the same thing with Italy, using migration as a bargaining chip for foreign direct investment. We even saw Russia in 2015 pushing migrants to the border with Norway, in the north again, as a retaliation for the EU sanctions after its alleged military involvement in Ukraine. ”

The Polish-born scholar predicted the continuation of illegal migration to Europe via Belarus, but said Mr Lukashenko would probably change tactics as authorities have become overwhelmed by the huge influx of newcomers.

She said rather than flying in thousands of foreign nationals and taking them by bus to the Polish border, Belarus would revert to its previous tactics and push smaller groups to the fence to fend for themselves.

Authorities on both sides of the border have confirmed migrant deaths since the crisis began, figures which could rise when the cold subsides.

“Snow will melt in spring and we don’t know how many bodies will be there,” Dr Kubal said.

Afghans have been among those trekking across forests and fields to reach Europe’s frontier with the former Soviet nation. After the Taliban rolled into Kabul in August, amid the departure of US-led coalition troops, thousands of men, women and children descended on Kabul International Airport.

The UK evacuated around 15,000 people on RAF flights and helped a further 3,000 Afghans leave in the following weeks.

The US evacuated the largest number of Afghans in August, rescuing 113,500 people, many who feared Taliban reprisals for their work and co-operation with foreign troops.

While Canada, Germany, Italy and France took in thousands more, campaigners say the figures were a drop in the ocean and have called on leaders, particularly those in Europe, to accept more refugees.

In addition to its Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy, the UK government has pledged to resettle 20,000 Afghans in the coming years under the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme.

Nooralhaq Nasimi, founder and director of the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association in Feltham, west London, said the UK government should be working faster to rescue more Afghans suffering under the Taliban regime.

His association offers Afghans in the UK support on how to settle into their new life and navigate bureaucracy and this year saw demand for services increase exponentially in the fallout from the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

“In August, since we are the only Afghan community centre in the UK, we became the main contact point for thousands of people. Our organisation became similar to Kabul Airport,” he recalled.

“Hundreds of people every day were queuing to get advice and help to repatriate their family members. They were crying, very unhappy, very emotional.”

European countries are ‘hostile’ towards migrants

Mr Nasimi said if ministers did not take the threat facing Afghans seriously, it would drive thousands of desperate people into the hands of smugglers, who put their lives in danger by sending them across the English Channel in flimsy dinghies.

“This is not something new, it’s been happening for a long time,” he told The National. “Even myself, I came the same way 22 years ago.

“We came from Belgium, my wife and I, with our baby and two older children aged 4 and 7. It was a 10-hour journey in a refrigerator.”

Asked about the record-breaking number of migrants who have arrived on UK shores in 2021 in small boats from France, he said: “The journey is very dangerous, they know that, but what can they do if the other countries are hostile to them?

“The UK is a better country, it is the best society in the world. In the UK there are a lot of equal opportunities, employment is available for people, business, education. We can’t have similar in other countries.”

Figures from Migration Watch, a British-based monitor, show that as of December 15 there were 26,767 migrants who had made the perilous voyage from northern France to the UK since the start of the year. The figure is more than triple the total for 2020.

The drowning of 27 migrants trying to reach Britain in November prompted a diplomatic spat between London and Paris over who was to blame for the migrant crisis spiralling out of control.

Dr Ben Greening, executive director of Migration Watch, told The National that the row was yet another “shambles” caused by France and the UK’s incompetence on tackling illegal migration which had led to tragedy at sea.

“The crossings will continue until the British get their act together and basically see this as a giant problem and step up patrols on French beaches, for instance together,” he said, referring to the UK’s proposal for joint border patrols in northern France. “And the French need to get their drone surveillance sorted.

“The UK government should be ashamed of its record in tackling this problem.

“We’ve had promise after promise after promise from the Home Office that the route would become unviable, that the crossing would become an infrequent phenomenon, that people coming across would be sent back to Europe. But that has not materialised and it’s no wonder that the public are very frustrated and concerned about this.”

He said the UK has a host of “pull factors” for migrants, compared with European countries, including a “more liberal black economy” that allows people to find work more easily.

The UK’s asylum system also offers hope of a new life to people fleeing persecution, as more than half of applications are accepted in the initial decision — much higher than France’s acceptance rate of between 20 and 30 per cent.

While the UK’s more welcoming atmosphere for migrants is likely to continue to serve as a catalyst for rising illegal migration numbers, the EU’s change in rhetoric could also be a factor.

‘Hybrid attack on Europe’

Emily Venturi, a fellow at Chatham House think tank, covering migration and refugee issues in Europe and Asia, said 2021 marked a turning point in how EU leaders spoke publicly about migration on the continent.

Belarus’s decision to mass migrants on the borders with Poland and fellow EU member states Latvia and Lithuania has created a security threat to the bloc.

But Ms Venturi said politicians in Brussels failed to acknowledge the plight of migrants on the frontier and instead chose to “weaponise” the situation to gain an advantage over Mr Lukashenko. She called the tactic “extremely dangerous”.

“Migration has been treated as a national security issue in Europe for a long time. What is new is the escalation of militarised rhetoric within official European Union Commission messaging,” she told The National.

“We’ve seen EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowing to fight back on what she has called a hybrid attack to destabilise Europe. We see notions of hybrid warfare and hybrid attacks.”

She said some political factions in Europe have jumped on this to claim migration poses and “imminent threat to Europe, to European way of life, to national security”.

“What we see in Europe is the result of a politics of fear around migration. That has rendered migration a very delicate and sensitive spot for European politicians,” she added.

Polish Border Guard officers secure a closed crossing on the Polish-Belarusian border in Kuznica, eastern Poland. EPA

She said the crisis on the EU’s frontier with Russia-backed Belarus is possibly “the most severe case of what happens when human beings are treated in transactional terms, both by Europe and by Belarus”.

Rather than speaking about the migrant crisis in such terms, Ms Venturi said the EU could “disarm the Belarusian government from having any pressure claim on Europe” by admitting the migrants and offering asylum to those with a credible case.

She said the diplomatic crises over migration would continue to blight relations between the EU and its neighbours unless leaders re-evaluate their approach to the contentious issue.

In May, Moroccan authorities temporarily loosened border controls, allowing thousands of illegal migrants into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. The move was seen as a retaliatory blow for Madrid after it offered health care to a Western Saharan independence leader.

Ms Venturi said it was an example of the transactionality underpinning EU deals with third nations to keep out illegal migrants.

“It’s very worrying and the choice to use human beings within a political stand-off is morally reprehensible,” she said.

Updated: January 06, 2022, 4:43 PM