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North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
Behind the Frictions at the Belarus-Poland Border
Behind the Frictions at the Belarus-Poland Border
A displaced malnourished mother and her children sit on the ground waiting for food in Bama's camp for internally displaced people (IDP), Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, 30 June 2016. AFP/STRINGER
Commentary / Africa

North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout

Children are dying in Bama, a town in Borno state, north-east Nigeria, suffering from lack of food, clean water and medical care. They are the most tragic manifestation of the humanitarian fallout of the Boko Haram insurgency and the state response to it, a crisis that now impacts the lives of millions. The insurgency itself, the aggressive military response to it, and the lack of effective assistance, both national and international, to those caught up in the conflict threaten to create an endless cycle of violence and depredation. Unless efforts to contain and roll back the current crisis are quickly scaled-up, peace is likely to remain a distant prospect in this region of Nigeria.

Once a city of 300,000, Bama is now an army-controlled camp of 30,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), some forcibly moved there by the military. There are around a dozen sites like Bama, hosting at least 250,000 people living under the security forces’ scrutiny. The number will likely grow as military campaigns continue.

Neither the army, nor the Nigerian emergency services are up to the task of caring for them. There have been – and still are – too many bottlenecks. Authorities must pay more attention and commit more resources, clarify and rationalise the country’s assistance structure, improve aid governance, promote transparency (more NGO and media reporting), facilitate humanitarian access and address the widespread suspicion that many IDPs support Boko Haram.

Humanitarian agencies have also struggled to respond adequately, both in recognising the scale of the problem and reacting sufficiently promptly. For their part, UN agencies and international humanitarian NGOs need to engage authorities more proactively and improve their collaboration in responding to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. Doing so will mobilise more international funding – currently grossly lacking – and make better use of international expertise.If the humanitarian crisis is not addressed soon, it will have serious security and political implications. In the short term, it may push people back into areas under Boko Haram’s control, or to other parts of Nigeria whose capacity to sustain them is questionable, or across international borders, from where some could be trafficked into an already vulnerable Sahel region, and on to Libya – an important gateway to Europe. In the long term, it could leave the Nigerian state and its international partners tainted, undermining further their legitimacy and capacity to control violence in the north east and the Lake Chad region.

Dying in a “Safe Area”: The Situation in Bama

Situated 72km south east of Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, Bama was once a major trade hub on a main road to Cameroon. Overrun by Boko Haram in September 2014, the army recaptured it in March 2015. Most of its inhabitants had already left by then and thousands had been killed by Boko Haram, but the army began bringing in civilians it found during operations in the surrounding rural areas. Citing security concerns, the army has itself been running the Bama camp, notionally the responsibility of the Borno State Emergency Management Agency (BOSEMA). It has banned IDPs from travelling in the camp’s vicinity or to other “safe areas”. The security forces and state-supported civilian self-defence groups, known as vigilantes, also have been “vetting” the newly arrived.While Bama camp is safe from the Boko Haram threat that hovers over the wider local government area, it is, for many, a place of death. In June, the rate of severe acute malnutrition was 19 per cent among children – the emergency threshold is 3 per cent. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 244,000 children are suffering from acute malnutrition in Borno state and on average 134 die every day from this. A few health ministry officials have been brought in under military escort for short stays and some humanitarian partners have been intermittently giving the army supplies to distribute to the IDPs, though with little supervision. This is not enough and with major deficiencies in water, sanitation and hygiene and the rainy season (June-September) under way, many are concerned that a cholera epidemic could break out. The rains, furthermore, will make many roads and tracks impassable.

The Humanitarian Costs of Insurgency and Counter-insurgency

Most officials blame Bama’s dire humanitarian crisis on Boko Haram: people began starving while they lived under the insurgents’ control, and the military rescued them. The insurgency has indeed done terrible damage to the lives and livelihoods of many in Borno state, as well as in neighbouring Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe states. Boko Haram ruthlessly targeted some communities, particularly those that set up vigilante forces or helped the military, killing many civilians and forcing many more into exile. Those who tried to stay and live under Boko Haram’s control faced significant difficulties. The insurgents heavily taxed communities, plundered and forcefully recruited among them and fighting disrupted harvests.But the humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by the nature of the counter-insurgency campaign. An aggressive, regional military operation has deliberately stifled economic activities, denying Boko Haram supplies, trade and income from protection rackets. Military operations have also made producing and accessing food a lot more difficult for all living in and close to Boko Haram-controlled areas. Trade and mobility, essential for making a living in the Sahel, have become extremely difficult and dangerous.

Attitudes toward those Displaced

Many among the military and many civilians are quick to look with suspicion on people coming from Boko Haram-held areas. Though there is no evidence to suggest a deliberate attempt to punish a population suspected of complicity with the insurgents, there are alarming signs that their welfare is not being prioritised, whether out of a lack of capacity or concern or due to security concerns. Even women captured, abused or forced into “marriage” by Boko Haram bear the stigma of their association, and their children are suspected of having “bad blood”. This fear of “contagion” and, more concretely, of suicide attacks by women and children, is part of the problem. This is one reason the only IDPs the army lets into Maiduguri, which already hosts an estimated 1.5 million, are children requiring sustained medical support, though sometimes without their carers.Conducting security operations should be kept distinct from humanitarian actions. If not, those in genuine need of assistance risk being denied help; while entire communities stand in danger of neglect. In such an environment, people are likely to feel increasingly alienated from the state, driving them to seek support elsewhere. Humanitarian assistance must remain impartial and needs-based; while security measures must be proportionate to the risk – which will likely be reduced, not increased, by greater freedom of movement – and non-discriminatory.

Inadequate National and International Assistance

At the end of 2015, 3.9 million people in north-east Nigeria out of a total of 5.2 million across the Lake Chad Basin were in urgent need of food assistance. In April 2016, the Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima and UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer visited Bama. Shettima said afterward that his state was “hanging between malnutrition and famine …. People [were] dying like flies”.

Of the $248 million required for the emergency response in north-east Nigeria in 2016, less than 20 per cent was available by May. Donor pledges were higher for Chad and Niger, where the number of persons in need was smaller. The World Food Program (WFP) supported fewer than 2,000 people in the north east in March 2016; that figure had increased to 50,000 in May, but was still way behind target given that more than half of the 1.5 million IDPs just in Maiduguri are judged by the UN to be malnourished, and the situation in rural areas is often worse. In neighbouring Cameroon, also affected by Boko Haram, UN agencies helped four times as many people (90 per cent of the most food insecure). In July, the total number of IDPs in this part of Cameroon was around 190,000. Recent reports of the shocking conditions in Bama did draw some attention, but it took a controversial 22 June communiqué by Médecins Sans Frontières to bring the starving into the limelight.

The Nigerian government’s response has been hampered by constrained resources and multiple pressing security problems. It is facing a resurgent rebellion in the Niger Delta, separatist agitation in the south east, and increasing violence in the Middle Belt, including recent clashes between pastoralists and farmers over land and water, as well as a severe economic and budgetary crisis. Neither the National Emergency Management Agency nor its state-level counterparts have the funds or the capacity and experience to manage a prolonged, large-scale humanitarian operation. Already overwhelmed by IDPs in Maiduguri and other established sites, Nigerian agencies have struggled to serve new camps.

Attempts to improve the government’s response have lagged. The Victims Support Fund (VSF) is constrained by the lack of clarity in Nigeria’s overall framework for humanitarian response. In July 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari established a Presidential Committee on North-East Interventions (PCNI) to coordinate domestic and international humanitarian efforts, but as of July 2016, the committee had still not been inaugurated. Some government sources say the president is waiting for the National Assembly (federal parliament) to create the North East Development Commission (NEDC), which includes a humanitarian portfolio, but some interviewed by Crisis Group fear it may become merely another platform for the region’s elite to share patronage rather than for boosting humanitarian aid.

Many implementation partners of UN agencies lack the capacity to work in the region’s remoter parts where the terrain is extremely challenging and where they do not enjoy the relative protection of Maiduguri (which itself faces significant humanitarian needs). So far, humanitarian workers have been unable to establish credible contacts with Boko Haram to negotiate access and obtain guarantees that can reduce risks to acceptable levels. Particularly in areas of Borno state outside the Maiduguri metropolitan area, some organisations, including from the UN, have depended on the army for protection, assessments of local security conditions and sometimes humanitarian service delivery.

Nigeria, with Africa’s largest population and economy, is sensitive to foreign criticism and, understandably, keen to ensure that foreign support in addressing the crisis does not compromise its sovereignty. Many officials remember the civil war (1967-1970) when Nigeria was condemned for the terrible famine in the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra and some secessionist supporters provided military aid under the guise of international humanitarian assistance. As a result, authorities are sensitive to outside aid or reporting. Yet the lack of reporting has made it difficult to mobilise international support for resources.

The Risks Ahead

Failure to adequately support IDPs, in part because of suspicion that they support Boko Haram, may push them back into, or discourage them from leaving, insurgent-controlled areas. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that Boko Haram’s attacks and suicide bombings in and around IDP camps are attempts by the insurgents to staunch the flow of people from areas under their control. It may be working to an extent. Some IDPs reportedly are choosing to return to their home areas, despite the risk of Boko Haram attacks, rather than staying in dire camps.In the long term, failure to help those in need could further undermine the state’s legitimacy and capacity to control violence. While the Nigerian military and its regional and international partners may be able to contain Boko Haram, unless the state addresses poor governance and other structural factors that drove people to support the movement, there is a high risk either that Boko Haram will be revived or similar groups will emerge.

What Should Be Done

To prevent the current humanitarian emergency from claiming more lives, prolonging the conflict and fuelling longer term insecurity in the region, the government must match its military campaign against Boko Haram with strong commitment to addressing the immediate humanitarian needs and longer-term development and reconstruction assistance to rebuild the north east. That includes granting access to, and facilitating, independent local and international reporting and assessments. This is necessary not only for proper resource mobilisation, but even more importantly as a way to provide independent analysis of outstanding emergency relief requirements.

Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima and President Muhammadu Buhari, as well as some army commanders, have been remarkably willing to talk to journalists. However, the president should pay special attention to the governance of aid. Reports of the embezzlement and diversion of food and other aid need to be properly investigated and officials found to have stolen or mismanaged aid must be sanctioned. For example, the report of the Borno state House Verification Committee into allegations of aid diversion, which should be completed soon, should be made public and quickly and openly acted upon.

The government and international partners should have fewer qualms about bringing assistance closer to the war zones. It is possible that some of it could leak to Boko Haram members, but this marginal price should be balanced with the immense relief it would provide, the lives it would save and the goodwill it would generate for the government. Furthermore, improved assistance would probably be more efficient in attracting civilians to government areas than military mop-up operations. Where Boko Haram can no longer use the “rhetoric of plenty”, as it once did, offering feasts of meat and cold drinks to potential recruits, authorities now have that card to play.

Equally, the reluctance to allow IDPs encamped in secondary towns like Bama to move around should be revised. The arguably marginal benefit in security which the ban on movement provides will be far outweighed by the humanitarian gains and goodwill generated by easing up this restriction. As an immediate measure, all those most in need should be allowed to temporarily move to Maiduguri or other cities where appropriate treatment is available.

‪While vigilante groups have done much to defend their communities, Borno state authorities should stop using these irregular forces to vet IDPs. Further, the Federal Government should begin to put in place a demobilisation process lest longer-term problems result, including increased risks of communal violence based on revenge between vigilante group members and displaced persons.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

International partners must drastically increase their humanitarian response, including by releasing all funds pledged to the UN and other humanitarian agencies for the emergency. They must lend greater support to the government, preferably in a high-level forum that includes the military, UN agencies, international NGOs, as well as local civil society and NGOs. This forum should provide a platform for all actors to share knowledge, including their assessments of the gravity of the humanitarian situation and areas of greatest needs as well as clarify guiding principles and improve working relations.

The Buhari administration for its part needs to be far more proactive. A clarification of its assistance framework is pressing, and senior officials need to make clear that they regard the unfolding humanitarian crisis as a first-order priority. The government should accelerate the implementation of its response, for instance in disbursing the 12 billion naira (about $41 million) which it announced, in May 2016, would be used to rebuild the north east and also in implementing the programs of the Victims Support Fund. It is also essential that accountability mechanisms are strengthened.

The authorities should not forget that they announced the North East Marshall Plan (Nemap) in October 2015 with the aim of providing “intermediate and long-term interventions in emergency assistance, economic reconstruction and development” – a vital component of efforts to bring peace to the region. The first action of this ambitious plan should target camps for the displaced. In order to rebuild state legitimacy, the authorities should scale down reliance on security forces to manage the camps and give greater room to civil authorities.

Finally, periodic visits by senior leaders, including President Buhari himself, to the camps and major communities hosting IDPs are essential to begin breaking down the suspicion faced by the newly displaced, and to affirm to them, as well as to state and government officials, that as Nigerian citizens and victims of the insurgency, they should not be left without food or medical assistance. Governor Shettima’s visits are welcome moves. He should make more and his fellow governors should follow his example. Without a visible and genuine commitment to providing the humanitarian support needed in these areas, insecurity will persist – and could become worse – and peace will remain far out of reach.

Contributors

Consulting Senior Analyst, West Africa
vincentfoucher
Director, Sahel Project (Sabbatical Leave)
jhjezequel
Senior Adviser, Nigeria
NnamdiObasi
Migrants gather in a camp near Bruzgi-Kuznica checkpoint on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus, November 18, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia

Behind the Frictions at the Belarus-Poland Border

Thousands of people looking to enter the European Union have massed at the Belarusian frontier with Poland. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Oleg Ignatov explains how the events relate to tensions between Belarus and its ally, Russia, on one side, and Western governments on the other.

What’s going on at the border between Belarus and Poland?

Since the late summer, women, men and children, most of them Kurds from northern Iraq, have gathered at the Polish-Belarusian border. They are hoping to cross into the European Union (EU) in Poland and, in most cases, move on to Germany, where many have relatives or acquaintances. In the last month, most of the migrants made camp near the Bruzgi Kuznica crossing in the Grodno region of Belarus. Poland has refused to let them cross into its territory and declared a state of emergency in its border areas. Brussels has backed Warsaw. (“Migrant” here refers to the entire transient population at the border, without making judgments about how it breaks down among refugees, economic migrants and others. While some reporting suggests a significant portion of economic migrants among this population, other reports indicate that it includes refugees.)

By late fall, the situation on the border was tense and increasingly dire in humanitarian terms. In recent weeks, migrants clashed with Polish border guards, the former throwing rocks and trying to break through fences, and the latter responding with water cannons and tear gas. With most of the migrants living in tents, and children and several pregnant women among them, the approaching winter cold will soon make the crisis even more acute, if it continues. The Red Cross already reports at least ten deaths on the Polish-Belarusian border. Belarusian authorities have now placed some of the most vulnerable people in a special logistics centre, where they receive warm clothes and food, although there have been reports of a COVID-19 outbreak at the centre. Iraqi authorities are also helping several hundred migrants who have accepted an offer to return home.

An earlier stage of the crisis unfolded on Lithuania’s border with Belarus in the spring. Migrants primarily from Iraqi Kurdistan massed in Grodno, with illegal crossings increasing from dozens to hundreds in June and from hundreds to thousands in July. Despite Lithuanian authorities’ efforts to deny entry, more than 4,000 crossed the border in 2021 (compared to 81 in 2020), leading Vilnius to declare a state of emergency and reinforce the border. Migrants also gathered on Belarus’ border with Latvia, which followed neighbouring Lithuania’s lead in declaring a state of emergency and strengthening border security.

Who is behind the crisis?

There is little doubt that the Belarusian authorities are fomenting the crisis.

It has been widely reported that Minsk is facilitating travel for people from the Middle East to Belarus, and then to the border with Poland.

It has been widely reported that Minsk is facilitating travel for people from the Middle East to Belarus, and then to the border with Poland. Belarusian authorities have formally simplified tourist visa procedures for citizens of several countries, informally eased them in other cases and declined to expel those overstaying their visas. 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. Belarusian guards have done nothing to impede those seeking to cross into Poland; indeed, reports suggest that guards have promoted such efforts, escorting large groups to the border and perhaps even pushing them to cross. In October, Belarusian authorities suspended an agreement with the EU that obliged Minsk to take back third-party nationals who had crossed into EU member states but were denied entry. The Polish defence ministry states that the Belarusian soldiers are orchestrating all the events at the border.

Belarus makes no secret that it will not block anyone trying to enter the EU, but places blame for the situation elsewhere. It claims that the crisis is the result of the West’s failed policy in the Middle East, and accuses the EU and member states of violating humanitarian principles, including their own commitments under a variety of UN and EU instruments, to allow people to seek asylum.

Why is Belarus doing this and is it working?

Minsk appears to believe that the crisis will give it leverage to extract concessions from the EU and its member states. It has drawn an analogy between the present situation and the Greek-Turkish border crisis in 2015. In that crisis, more than a million refugees from the war in Syria entered the EU, and Brussels cut a deal with Ankara to halt further entries. It committed to provide €6 billion in exchange for Ankara’s agreement to prevent the migrants from leaving its territory. While the parallel to Turkey is hardly compelling – Belarus, unlike Turkey, is not adjacent to conflict-affected countries – Minsk is angling for a deal of its own.

Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka wants the EU to recognise him as president and to ease economic sanctions that have squeezed the Belarusian economy. These issues both became points of friction after Lukashenka ordered an unprecedented and often violent crackdown on opposition members and protesters in the wake of Belarus’ 9 August 2020 presidential election. Lukashenka, who has been ruling the country since 1994, claimed to have won that contest with more than 80 per cent of the vote.

The EU, U.S., UK and Canada refused to recognise Lukashenka’s victory, due to evidence of manipulation. They, along with Switzerland and Norway, imposed sanctions – in the EU’s case, four packages thereof – targeting both a wide range of officials individually and sectors of the Belarus economy, including Belarusian exports to the EU and UK. In justifying the sanctions, they pointed to a range of human rights violations, including Minsk’s violent repression of civil society, the democratic opposition and journalists. Hardest-hitting are the sanctions on Belarus’ main exports – petroleum products and potash fertilisers. On top of these measures, after Belarus diverted a Ryanair plane en route to Lithuania in May 2021 to arrest a dissident who was on board, the EU banned access for Belarusian airlines to EU airports and closed EU airspace to them. Western officials have called the incident an act of “state piracy”.  

Before they lift the sanctions they have imposed, Western states demand that Lukashenka stop repression, release political prisoners and start a dialogue with the opposition about fresh elections, steps the Belarusian leader considers equivalent to giving up power.

Sanctions are hurting Belarus already and they are poised to bite harder.

Sanctions are hurting Belarus already and they are poised to bite harder. New U.S. sanctions against Belarus’ largest fertiliser producer, Beloruskali, are due to take effect in December. Taken together, new and old sanctions could lead to a complete halt in exports from Belarus to and through the EU. Minsk estimates the damage from the present sanctions at 2.9 per cent of GDP. Some experts believe that, if new penalties are imposed, Belarus’ losses could exceed 7.5 per cent of GDP per year.  The EU plans to adopt a fifth package of sanctions soon, and the border crisis has led European officials to threaten additional measures on top of those.

In his speeches, Lukashenka has said the migrant crisis will end when the West comes to its senses, stops strangling the Belarusian economy and negotiates. He has in any case gotten European leaders to talk to him. On 14 November, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei spoke by telephone with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. The next day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Lukashenka. Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets reported that, during the call with Merkel, Lukashenka demanded to be recognised as president and the lifting of all sanctions. Minsk, however, denied this account. Two days later, on 17 November, the EU announced it would allocate €700,000 for emergency aid to refugees on the Belarusian border.

What is Russia’s role in the crisis?

While some European officials are convinced that Moscow is driving the crisis from behind the scenes, there is no reliable evidence that Russia is directly involved in either orchestrating events or moving migrants.

Still, European leaders have been quick to point to Moscow’s involvement. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said Lukashenka is following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s orders. Poland also believes that Russia has helped aspiring EU immigrants enter Belarus, including by flying them in on the Russian state carrier Aeroflot. Lithuania’s president has claimed that people from the Middle East are entering Belarus via Moscow. Russia has denied all these accusations and responded angrily to news that the EU is considering sanctions against Aeroflot.

Even if it is not helping with the transport of migrants, Russia has consistently supported Lukashenka throughout this episode and promoted his talking points. Russian officials have also taken pains to argue that Western responses to the crisis are hypocritical. Moscow says European capitals talk of human rights, but refuse to take in individuals it characterises as refugees and even use water cannons to block their entry.

Putin has also urged direct dialogue between Lukashenka and European countries, and offered to facilitate it. Indeed, Putin and Merkel spoke at length before the latter spoke to Lukashenka. Moscow has also suggested that the EU respond to Belarus as it did to Turkey in 2016, when it provided billions in aid to support millions of refugees in Turkey rather than allow them to move on to EU states. “Why can't Belarusians, who have certain needs, be helped in the same way so that refugees, whom Poland and Lithuania in no way want to let onto their territory, can somehow live in normal conditions?”, asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia has been supporting Belarus and its economy, and eased sanctions would enable the Kremlin to reduce its spending.

Russia has its own reasons for wishing to see a change in Western policy toward Belarus that would entail recognising Lukashenka and lifting sanctions. One is economic: to help it through its current straits, Russia has been supporting Belarus and its economy, and eased sanctions would enable the Kremlin to reduce its spending. Russia’s political tensions with the West also play a large role in its calculations. The Kremlin sees Western pressure on Lukashenka as aimed at changing the leadership in Minsk, and believes this pressure to be part of a broader effort to destabilise and increase Western influence in Russia’s periphery and – by extension – Russia itself.

Could things escalate further?

They could, but there is also a chance they settle down.

While Lukashenka seeks talks and recognition, he has also framed his struggle to stay in power as a struggle with the West. He portrays all opposition to his rule as flowing from an international, Western-backed conspiracy. He frames Western sanctions as an outgrowth of conflict with the European Union, and stokes fears of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aggression to justify repression and consolidate his hold over the security apparatus on which his government has increasingly relied since August 2020.

Against this backdrop, Lukashenka has up to now been willing to escalate tensions with the West in pursuit of his goals. On 11 November, he threatened to cut off Russian natural gas exports to Europe, which pass by pipeline through Belarus. This was in response to new EU sanctions and Poland’s statements that it might close the border with Belarus completely. President Putin rapidly intervened, noting that blocking gas transit to Europe by Belarus “would be a violation of our transit contract”, indicating that Russian support, consistent as it has been, has its limits. Belarus did, however, reduce Poland’s oil supplies for unscheduled maintenance on 17 November and cut off electricity to Ukraine the following day. Warsaw, for its part, demanded that Minsk stabilise the situation on the border by 21 November, threatening that if it did not, Poland would close the railway checkpoint in Kuznica. On 21 November, Poland also threatened to close the border entirely.

A tendency on all sides to militarise their responses to the crisis is also troubling. Poland’s 20,000-strong deployment to its frontier with Belarus includes soldiers as well as border guards. On 10 and 11 November, Russia’s defence ministry sent two long-range Tu-22M3 bombers and two Tu-160 bombers, respectively, to patrol over Belarus. The next day, Moscow deployed a paratrooper unit to conduct exercises in Belarus’ Grodno region, which borders Poland and Lithuania, ostensibly as part of a snap inspection of the unit’s combat readiness. In the same timeframe, British military engineers arrived on the Polish-Belarusian border to help strengthen the barriers. The British media reported that London is prepared to send 400-600 additional soldiers to Poland. Ukraine has also sent about 8,500 soldiers and policemen to its border with Belarus, and Estonia is dispatching about 100.

Even if some migrants return to Iraq and other countries in the near term, the crisis could resume if Minsk again seeks to dial up pressure.

That said, it is difficult to see these deployments leading to armed clashes in and of themselves. It is true that further worsening of the already very tense situation in Ukraine between Moscow, on one hand, and Kyiv and its Western partners, on the other, could spill into the Belarus standoff. In the near term, though, any escalation is more likely to be economic and diplomatic. Moreover, with dialogue between Minsk and European capitals under way, and some prospective migrants en route back to Iraq, there is hope that things will settle down. At the same time, Lukashenka’s insistence that sanctions are eased or lifted, without releasing prisoners, entering talks with his opponents or meeting Western conditions, will almost certainly preclude a genuine settlement to friction between him and EU leaders. Even if some migrants return to Iraq and other countries in the near term, the crisis could resume if Minsk again seeks to dial up pressure.

What’s the solution?

There are no easy answers. Not only are Minsk’s demands unacceptable to Western powers, but Lukashenka, along with Moscow, is likely to read any concessions by the latter as evidence that his strategy is working. Although there appear to be people fleeing war, violence or repression among those at the border, EU countries, notwithstanding their international obligations, are united in supporting Polish efforts to stop people entering. In their eyes, allowing entry would be succumbing to a crisis manufactured by the Belarus leader. Still, if solutions are hard to come by, it is still worth Western governments talking to Minsk.

While Minsk and Moscow may see dialogue as a path to extracting concessions from the West, this does not necessarily have to be the case. Indeed, the EU has already started a dialogue with Lukashenka without signalling any intent to lift sanctions or formally recognise the Belarusian president unless he meets the EU’s conditions. At the same time, it has sent aid for people at risk near the border. This mix of political engagement and humanitarian support seems to be having some positive effect on the border situation. In the near term, European states’ goals should be, at the very least, to ensure that people are able to return home safely and do not face undue hardship. Lukashenka faces his own constraints – he is limited in the extent of Russian support he enjoys and his own country’s capacity to sustain large numbers of people from the Middle East and other war-torn countries.

If the EU and other states hope to change Lukashenka’s behaviour, in addition to dialogue, they will need to clearly link any new sanctions and threats of sanctions to very specific actions Belarus can take to ensure they are lifted or averted. In the meantime, however, they should be prepared for more provocations and challenges.  

 

This Q&A was corrected on 26 November 2021. Belarus diverted the Ryanair flight to Lithuania on 23 May 2021, not in June, as previously stated.