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The Weaponization of Refugees

By Mitchell Wolf


Refugees huddled together, unable to reach a safe haven with their families,  stuck between an armed force that does not want them and a border that will not let them through.  This scenario has become far too familiar in a number of regions across the globe; Syria-Turkey, Yemen, Africa, and South America.  This type of humanitarian problem is present at the Belarus and Poland border where a complicated refugee crisis is still developing. Away from the traditional immigration ports on the Mediterranean, Poland is faced with thousands of refugees that have been transported into Belarus to be used as political weapons.


The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, constantly seeks to use hybrid warfare against western Europe which he deems as his greatest threat. In his recent revenge plot, as a response to sanctions imposed on him personally and Belarus by the European Union (EU), the Belarusian government facilitated the transport of thousands of migrants to its borders with the EU creating a crisis for European border security at a point normally uncrossed by refugees.  This was a deliberate act by President Lukashenko to leverage political pressure.


The refugees being exploited by Belarus have been gathered from across the Middle East as a result of the Syrian Civil War, displaced Afghans, and refugees from Iraq. Traditionally, refugees and migrants attempting to reach the EU prefer to travel overland through Turkey and Greece, or by sea across the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach islands controlled by EU nations such as Italy or Greece. Therefore, it has been alarming to see refugees showing up at an EU border hundreds of miles away from traditional points of migration. This flood of refugees left the Polish government woefully unprepared to accommodate these migrants, or secure their borders. This also led to Poland declaring a state of emergency at their western border in an attempt to halt the migrants.  


Migrants and refugees across the Middle East were lured to Belarus with false claims, primarily via media outlets, that they could seek safe refuge in Belarus. These messages came through official channels of government and state-sponsored businesses such as the Belarus national airline. The Belarus government used its state airline to ferry people to Belarus. The number of direct flights from Iraq, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates to Belarus has more than doubled, including Syrian and Iraqi charter flights. Once migrants arrived in Belarus, reports have overwhelmingly indicated that Belarusian forces directed, forced, or personally transported these migrants to the border. In many accounts, Belarusian forces cut down border fences and threatened migrants and refugees to not return to Belarus, creating a flood of desperate people in search of safety. These exploited individuals were ultimately met by Polish security personnel with their futures locked in a political battle over relations between the EU and Belarus. 


Why use refugees? As a political tool, refugees serve Belarus’s twisted goal of retaliating against EU sanctions and causing a policy crisis for the EU.  Rejecting the refugees would be hypocritical to the EU’s open policies to accept the refugees. If the EU were to simply accept all refugees, it is unlikely that Belarus would stop sending them. The use of refugees in this situation is a calculated political decision by the Belarusian government which offers numerous advantages for Belarus. It puts Lukashenko’s enemies in the west at conflict with their humanitarian values at very little cost to Belarus. Yes, the blame is ultimately on Belarus. It did not take long for western intelligence and media sources to put together how these refugees and migrants ended up in the EU. Other than playing the “blame game,” Belarus put the ball into the EU’s court to determine a course of action regarding the refugees. 


After Belarus turned this human wave of political weapons on the west, there was little more for them to do. There is also the added advantage that no Belarusian lives are directly at risk over this crisis. Instead, it is a group of foreign refugees that no one seems to want on their side of the fence. These refugees also give Belarus a talking point for blame. Even though Belarus is directly working in the background, these refugees are not citizens or soldiers of Belarus. The redirect out of Minsk is that this is a crisis caused by the west due to their failed policies in the Middle East and their inability to promote humanitarian values as these refugees freeze on the border in makeshift camps. 


It is important to address the man behind this madness and the political environment that has contributed to the mass of migrants ending up on the EU/Belarus border.  Alexander Lukashenko has been the president of Belarus since 1994.  He is the country’s first and only leader. Also known as Europe’s “Last Dictator”, the legitimacy of his long tenure has been frequently questioned by the international community as well as Belarusian citizens. Because of this, Lukashenko sees the west as his primary threat to power. Belarus is constantly faced with criticism and sanctions from Western Europe and the United States. To leverage against threats from the West, Belarus has utilized various tactics such as cutting off Russian gas to western Europe in addition to the recent utilization of refugees as political weapons.


Many of the actions from Belarus can be attributed to its close alignment with Russia. Russia is the only “true ally” of Belarus and is the primary reason why the Lukashenko regime persists. Unlike most of the former Soviet Union members, it stayed close to Russia while other countries became more aligned with the West and the United States. A way of describing the relationship between Russia and Belarus draws on the analogy of Dr. Evil and Mini-Me in the Hollywood movie, “Austin Powers.” The current leadership of both Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko are authoritarian regimes that have rigged their political systems to stay in power and control their people with information suppression, political suppression, and state control of media. The use of hybrid warfare is also a preferred tool by Putin and the Kremlin. This type of action can also be seen with Russia sending Syrian refugees to the Russian-Norwegian border in 2015. Russia has developed the use of hybrid warfare within its military and political doctrine as a means of achieving its goals, such as the annexation of Crimea in 2014. This development of Russian strategy, along with Russia’s close ties to Belarus, has brought this mindset to Minsk and the Lukashenko regime. 


The close relationship between the two states can also be demonstrated by the constant rotation of Russian troops within Belarus. Historically, Belarus has promoted itself as a strategic foothold for Russia by having forces support Russian troops in Kaliningrad. The two states frequently include one another in major military exercises. This can be observed in the current standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine. This relationship gives Russia the significant advantage of putting forces within Belarus, only a short distance from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. This has escalated as of February 24th, as Russian forces stationed in Belarus crossed the Ukrainian border to invade the sovereign nation. Since the start of the war, Belarus has been used as a launchpad for Russian forces to attack and resupply its forces in Ukraine. These actions have led to further sanctions on Belarus for its role in the war.


A significant political event that contributed to the direct tensions between Belarus and the EU was the action by the Belarus government to arrest Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist living in exile, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. The two were traveling on a RyanAir flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania on May 23rd, 2021. The aircraft was forced to divert to Belarus due to a supposed bomb threat from the Palestinian Militant Group, Hamas (who denies any involvement). The flight was eventually escorted by a Belarusian air force aircraft and landed in Belarus. Once on the ground, Protasevich and Sapega were immediately arrested by Belarusian officials. In response to this crackdown on “freedom of the press” and the illegally forced landing of the RyanAir airliner, the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus and Belarusian officials. Shortly after these sanctions were enacted, refugees began to show up at the border with Poland up to 30,000 attempted crossings by November. 

Poland was strategically chosen by Belarus due to its membership in the EU, its long border with Belarus, and because of the already tense relationship, Poland has with refugees and migrants. Belarus knew Poland would likely take a hardline stance against refugees crossing its border, thereby deflecting blame internationally to the Polish/EU response. In the EU, Poland is known as one of the least-open states for refugees and migrants and is constantly under fire from EU officials and other EU nations for their lack of openness. Poland’s policy has been criticized by the international community as well. When the crisis began, Poland took a hard-line stance at the border, many Poles actually supported the government’s response with 54 percent in favor of the government’s response. 


However, this response was also very divisive in Poland with a large number of Polish citizens protesting the government’s actions and showing support for the people trapped on the border. The international community also had issues with Poland’s response of shutting down all media access. During this crisis Poland enacted a state of emergency for 183 towns and villages within two miles of the border, blocking all access to this area for journalists, civil society organizations, volunteers, and others. A key element to Putin’s hybrid warfare strategy used by Belarus is to facilitate the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment in western countries by facilitating the migration itself.


The involvement of refugees as a tool of hybrid warfare complicates the efforts of diplomacy and policy standards of nations facing similar scenarios as the  EU and Poland. Nations are faced with the political dilemma of simultaneously viewing people as refugees/migrants and as instruments of political warfare. In a traditional refugee scenario, the human-rights doctrine stipulates that nations should accept refugees into their country on the grounds that migrants are seeking asylum from danger. This is certainly true for the current situation in Poland. The issue that emerges is that if EU nations continue to accept the refugees that Belarus is using as a political tool, they are directly aiding Belarus’s efforts to disrupt the EU and the flow of refugees will likely never stop. The unfortunate other option that EU nations are supporting is for Poland to lock down the border and reject the refugees. In the grand setting of international relations, this is a very practical and blunt action to halt Belarus’s overt efforts to attack the EU. However, the unfortunate reality on the ground is that thousands of refugees are suffering in a European political game. There are serious consequences if the west were to give in to the demands of Belarus. This would set the precedent that this type of action is effective toward achieving political goals, encouraging Belarus and Russia to continue these kinds of attacks and encouraging other nations around the world to adopt these policies. 


This situation has also presented an interesting change-of-opinion regarding Poland within the EU. Prior to the crisis, Poland had been looked down upon by many European nations and the international community over its immigration policies. Poland was often viewed on the “lower end of the totem pole” regarding supporting immigration issues in Europe. However, Poland is now seen as a defender of Europe against Belarus’s attempts to get revenge against the West. Polish policies have not fundamentally changed, but now the overarching narrative supports their position. The new narrative is that Poland is denying the tools of Belarus’ hybrid warfare into the EU. Although the refugees’ intentions are purely to flee danger in their native region, all of this is overlooked as they are regulated to pawns in a larger political game.


 Various nations also have very different opinions on how Poland should operate in this situation. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) detest the response to the current situation. The state-of-emergency that Poland has enacted on its border region is of particular concern to many NGOs because under these emergency powers the Polish government is able to restrict access to its border from the press and NGOs. Although many NGOs may be disgruntled by this lack of transparency, numerous western nations are in support of Poland’s efforts to counter actions by Belarus and to an extent Russia’s influence. This is especially true as Poland continues to become a larger strategic partner in deterring Russia with increased military spending, deployment of NATO forces, and the acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. 


A major concern in the aftermath of this situation is the dangerous precedent that could be taken from this crisis. The unfortunate reality is that it was effective for a country to entrap innocent migrants from another part of the world and make them a political tool in a game that they were never meant to be a part of. The globalized world is becoming more and more dangerous for migrants as conflict, natural disasters, and climate change have had detrimental impacts on the movement of people. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of displaced people with United Nations estimates projecting “84 million” in the world and nation-states still seeking new ways to defeat their enemies. This event has opened Pandora’s box for the use of refugees as a tool of hybrid warfare. Due to these situations unfolding, with the political goals of nations overwriting any sense of aid to help migrants, future refugees will certainly pay the price. 


How can this be prevented? In the future, the international community must develop policies and measures to protect refugees from being exploited in this way. At a minimum, NGOs should be allowed to respond to this type of crisis by receiving access to the affected area to provide humanitarian aid to refugees. When migrants are lured by a nation into this type of hybrid warfare, the international community should be allowed to coordinate and prevent refugee travel on airlines and other forms of transportation that have been directly linked to these routes. This type of coordination would have greatly aided the current crises by preventing Belarus’ state-sponsored airline from transporting migrants throughout the Middle East. Also, an aggressive media campaign is needed to address the intentions of countries using this despicable tactic. It is unforgivable for the international community to allow refugees to be used as tools of hybrid warfare within our current geopolitical environment. Belarus attracted refugees to come to Belarus with the promise of safety and prosperity. In the end, nothing could be further from the truth. 

About the author

Lobo Institute, Intern 
Mitchell is a Master’s student at Oklahoma State University’s School of Global Studies and Partnerships. Working towards a Masters of Global Studies with an emphasis in Global Disaster and Crisis Management. 
He graduated from Hardin-Simmons University in 2021, where he received a bachelor’s in Political Science and a minor in Leadership Studies. While in undergrad he served as an intern at Global Samaritan Resources, Abilene, Tx, and studied abroad in both Ireland and Austria.
The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute