The exploitation of migrants in international diplomacy: the Belarusian case.

Since mid-November the world has been witnessing yet another humanitarian crisis due to massive flows of people moving towards European borders searching for a better life. This time the protagonist witnessing hundreds of people forcibly camped in the forests on the Polish borders is Belarus. According to the Polish authorities between 3,000 and 4,000 people were encouraged by the Belarusian government to reach the western borders, towards Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. They come mainly from conflict-torn countries, such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. Last August the Belarusian government relaxed visa regulations, thereby facilitating access to European borders. Not only: Belarus had also facilitated the arrival of migrants of the territory through flights managed by the state airline -directed to Minsk, the capital - and hosting some migrants directly in hotels managed by the government. Moreover the New York Times reports that the Belarusian security forces have provided the migrants with instructions about how to cross the borders and tools (wire cutters and axes) to break down fences. 

The purpose of the actions of Belarusian President Lukashenko is, in reality, to use the pressure exerted by migrants on European borders to push the EU towards the removal of the sanctions imposed on its government. The sanctions date back to last year when the president was re-elected: the EU sanctioned Lukashenko, his son Victor (national security adviser) and other 179 people and entities, both considering the presidential elections fraudulent and due to the subsequent repression of pro-democracy protesters. The accusation of illegitimacy derives from some exit polls of the August 2020 elections which suggest that Lukashenko's main political opponent and opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, had managed to grab up to 80% of the votes. Lukashenko, however, declared victory, cracking down on protests that broke out across the country and forcing Tikhanovskaya into exile in Lithuania while imprisoning other opposition leaders. Despite the Belarusian effort to exert pressure on the neighbor countries via migrant groups, the vast majority of those currently at the border are stranded there, forced to sleep in makeshift tents and out of warm clothes suitable for the winter, while EU countries refuse them entry.

Yet another use of migrants for political purposes risks pouring gasoline on the fire, encouraging right-wing nationalist policies that, in recent years, have wedged themselves at the forefront of the management of countries such as Poland. In fact, after the shock that crept into European souls starting from the migration crisis of 2015, the leaders of the Union have progressively implemented measures to prevent unlimited access to its territories by people fleeing wars, poverty and climate disasters. Poland and Lithuania, the two countries affected by the most recent crisis created by Lukashenko, have already declared a state of emergency, banning unauthorized travel within three miles of the Belarusian border, allowing guards to take extra measures to prevent migrants from entering and legalizing the indefinite detention of migrants. The abuses committed against migrants by Lithuanian and Polish forces are reported by activists in the area, who currently denounce their collective expulsion, torture and denial of the right of asylum. Lithuania, for its part, has made a proposal to the Union to change the rules on migration, in order to legalize the refoulement of irregular migrants when a country claims to be in extreme conditions.

However, exploiting flows of migrants instrumentally for political issues is not new: over the years, in fact, the EU has institutionalized the practice of establishing agreements with border countries - Libya and Turkey are emblematic examples - in order to prevent massive and uncontrolled arrivals, despite the humanitarian costs. It's the so-called migration-diplomacy, a term that encompasses the link between the cross-border mobility of the population and the diplomatic objectives of the state. Many countries use migration to influence the politics of other specific states, or use their ability to mobilize masses of migrants to change or challenge the measures adopted by a government, to intervene in its elections, to dissuade that country from bringing to complete a certain policy, or to bring it to support its own policy. Migration-diplomacy does not investigate on the internal functioning of international organizations, of medias and social actors, such as NGOs, however it is possible to apply the concept to international state actors such as the EU or even the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees.

Migration diplomacy is not synonymous with migration policies, which are based on decisions such as travel restrictions or, on the contrary, more or less total freedom of movement, and which are included in the framework of a state's foreign relations. On the other hand, diplomacy, is based on negotiations: in this case, states directly include their capacity to manage the cross-border mobility  of populations, in their international relations, or use diplomatic means to obtain specific objectives relating to migration. Concerning the migration-diplomacy, issues such as internal displacement, regulation of immigrants' citizenship status or access to rights, tariff rules that determine what goods migrants are able to transport, diaspora policy and the well-being of refugees are relevant only to the extent that they impact interstate interactions Negotiations that see migrations as a founding tool are usually carried out by states that have an asymmetrical power relationship, i.e. those states that lack fundamental capabilities in other specific areas may attempt to leverage their control of migration flows to improve their negotiating position towards more powerful states.

This type of negotiations is neither new nor purely European: since the early stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union has used restrictive policies to completely restrict the movement of Jewish citizens, while, on the other side of the world, regulation the migration of Mexican workers to the United States has historically been a central issue in the bilateral relations of the two states.  However it is Europe that has mostly been affected by such a demographic bombardment: it hosts one tenth of the world population and one third of the international migrant, due to both its geography close to Africa and the Middle East, and its liberal democratic values.  For this reason the tendency of the EU to resort to migration diplomacy has increasingly characterized its relations with border countries.

Translated by Valeria Pasquali


Why Belarus is using migrants as a political weapon - Vox

At-Risk Migrants: Political Tools In The European Union – The Organization for World Peace (

Migration as a weapon: Why Europe cries ‘Enough!’ -

The Poland-Belarus Border Crisis Is a Harbinger of Migration's Future (

Lithuania wants EU to legalise migrant pushbacks - LRT

Refugees as Weapons: The Political Exploitation of Refugees (

A “Political Weapon" vis-à-vis the EU: The Worsening Refugee Crisis in Europe | INSS

Europe cannot talk its way out of the refugee crisis | Opinion – Gulf News

Adamson F. B., Tsourapas G. (2019), Migration Diplomacy in World Politics, International Studies Perspectives 20, pp. 113–128

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  • L'Autore

    Sara Scarano

    Sara Scarano, classe 1996, è laureata con lode in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage all’Alma Mater Studiorum di Bologna, dove ha conseguito anche la Laurea Triennale in Sociologia. Femminista, ambientalista, con un forte interesse per la cooperazione e la politica internazionale, la questione migratoria, e in generale i Diritti Umani. Sogna una carriera negli organi internazionali o nelle ONG.

    Sara Scarano, class 1996, graduated with honors in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the Alma Mater Studiorum of Bologna, where she also graduated in Sociology. Feminist, environmentalist, with a strong interest for international policy and cooperation, migration, and Human Rights in general. She dreams of a career in international bodies or NGOs.


From the World Europe Sections Human Rights International Organizations Society


#lukashenko European Union Migration borders #Belarus

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