Tuesday January 18, 2022

Weaponised refugees

September 13, 2021

Refugees and asylum seekers provide rich pickings for demagogues and political opportunists. The Australian approach politicians their plight by arguing that they are illegitimate depending on the way they arrive, namely, by boat. The twentieth anniversary of the MV Tampa’s attempt to dock at Christmas Island with over 400 such individuals inaugurated a particularly vicious regime. Intercepted by Australia’s SAS forces in August 2001, it presented the Howard government with a stupendously cruel chance to garner votes. And my, did that government garner them with gusto.

Various European countries have also adopted an approach akin to this: naval arrivals from the Middle East and Africa are to be contained, detained, and preferably processed in third countries through a range of agreements. The common theme to all: firm border controls and deterrence.

Belarus has added another option to the armoury of refugee use and abuse. The country, under Alexander Lukashenko, has hit upon a shoddy plan to harry countries sympathetic to his opponents and responsible for imposing sanctions upon his regime: swamp them. First: entice refugees and migrants from a number of countries -- Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Cameroon -- to arrive on tourist visas. Mobilise said people to move across the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian borders.

Descriptions have been offered for the strategy. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis considered the acts on the part of Belarus as a ‘hybrid war operation’ that threatened, he claimed with dramatic effect, “the entire European Union”. In July, he told Deutsche Welle that the refugees concerned were being used as ‘human shields’ and a type of ‘hybrid weapon’. Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavicius resented his country’s border guards “acting as a kind of hotel reception for the migrants for a long time. That had to stop.”

Member states have been sharing experiences on how best to deal with the surge in these Lukashenko arrivals. In a meeting between Landsbergis and his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in June, much solidarity was felt in discussing how to combat a common threat. Human rights proved to be less important than territorial integrity and European defence. As the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry stated, both ministers “underscored the importance of European solidarity and the need to pay attention to the processes in the EU neighbourhood, as well as to be ready to respond to dangerous threats emerging from the EU’s neighbourhood.”

Guards along the Lithuanian border had, up till August, intercepted approximately 4,100 refugees and asylum seekers this year alone. Last year, that number was a mere 81. The numbers prompted the Baltic state to declare a state of emergency in July. The resources of Frontex, that less than transparent body otherwise known as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, deployed personnel with haste that same month to aid policing the border with Lithuania and Latvia.

According to Frontex, the initial support would involve “border surveillance and other border management functions. The operation will start with the deployment of 10 officers with patrol cars, and their numbers will be gradually increased.”

The agency’s executive director Fabrice Leggeri was brimming with praise for the organisation’s military-styled prowess, suggesting aid in the face of threatening barbarians at the frontier of Europe. “The quick deployment in support of Lithuania and Latvia highlights the value of the Frontex standing troops, which allows the Agency to quickly react to unexpected challenges, bringing European solidarity to support Member States at the external borders.”

Humanitarianism is the last thing on Leggeri’s mind as he speaks about the role of “additional border guards and patrol guards by Frontex” as they “work side-by-side with their Latvian and Lithuanian colleagues” to “protect our external borders” in common cause.

Earlier this month Poland joined Lithuania with alarmist fervour, declaring a state of emergency. It served the purpose of needlessly militarising the situation even as it appealed to the inner jingo. Tellingly, it is the first such order since the country’s communist era, proscribing mass gatherings and limiting people’s movements within a 3 km strip of land along the frontier for 30 days. Marta Anna Kurzyniec, resident of the Polish border town of Krynki, described an atmosphere that was “generally violent”. There were “uniformed, armed servicemen everywhere … it reminds me of war.”

Excerpted: ‘Weaponised Refugees and Hybrid Attacks’