The EU’s Border With Belarus Has Become a Deadly Rampart of Fortress Europe

This spring, Belarus announced that it would retaliate against European sanctions by loosening its border controls. Neighboring EU countries have responded with a brutal crackdown on asylum seekers — with deadly consequences.

Migrants, who are mostly from Iraq, in a camp near the border town of Kapčiamiestis, Lithuania, July 18, 2021. (PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Belarus’s grounding of a Ryanair plane this May, procuring the arrest of oppositionist Roman Protasevich, has in many European capitals become synonymous with air piracy. If last August’s fraudulent elections already provided Brussels grounds to impose sanctions, the forced landing offered the opportunity to accelerate its “fourth package” of restrictive measures. Beyond asset freezes and travel bans against dozens of figures accused of orchestrating the crackdown on anti-government demonstrators, Belarusian airliners have been banned from European Union airspace.

Yet the naive aura of EU claims that sanctions would pressure Alexander Lukashenko’s into “initiat[ing] a genuine and inclusive national dialogue with broader society” soon evaporated. Rather, the longtime president retaliated in spring by announcing that Belarus would loosen border controls against Western-bound migration and drug trafficking: “Now you will catch them yourselves,” he presaged. In the borderlands between Belarus and neighboring Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland — all EU member states — this warning was soon realized.

Border crossings were up already in early 2021. But if around ninety migrants made it from Belarus to Lithuania by May, over summer this figure skyrocketed. In June, the Lithuanian government portrayed the influx of supposedly “illegal” migrants as a conscious policy choreographed by Lukashenko. Interior minister Agnė Bilotaitė asserted that migrants flown to Minsk paid “enormous sums” to Belarusian officials, who then guided them to unguarded portions of the heavily wooded border. Unable to control the crossings, the Lithuanian government resorted to building a four-meter-high metal fence topped with razor wire along the four-hundred-mile-long frontier.

According to this narrative, Lithuania has become a target in the “hybrid warfare” waged by Lukashenko’s cronies, conniving with state-owned travel agencies to offer tourist visas, set up flights, and transport people from Minsk to the Lithuanian border. Belarus denies these allegations: in July, its representative to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe claimed that the increased numbers stemmed from tensions in the migrants’ home countries and the easing of COVID-19 lockdowns. Blaming “the lack of genuine cooperation” from Europe, he accused Lithuania of “politicizing” the issue.

The weaponization of migration is nothing new. We need only recall Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threats to allow “millions of migrants” into the EU, even bussing them to the Greek border in order to extract European support for Turkish policy in Syria. However, this is a more novel development on the EU’s northeastern border, itself a source of migration since the bloc’s mid-2000s eastward expansion. Until recently, most migrants entering the EU did so from the south, via the Mediterranean or the Balkan route. But today the bloc’s eastern flank is evolving into a point of entry to “Fortress Europe.”

It is true that people crossing or trapped in these borderlands are caught up in schemes authored by the Lukashenko regime and exploited by criminal state-affiliated and private networks. However, beneath the narrative that construes Lithuania and its EU neighbors as innocent victims of hybrid warfare lies the reality of mass detentions, collective expulsions, the politics of fear, and mounting xenophobia. If this “border crisis” has been chronicled with reference to Poland, it was in Lithuania that it started. And this crisis has been aggravated by the rhetorical and policy stances of a conservative-liberal government that not only vaunts its differentness from post-Soviet authoritarians but also boasts of its devoted “Europeanism,” seemingly light-years away from the ploys of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz or Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice.

At the time of writing, well over four thousand irregular migration cases have been recorded in Lithuania thus far in 2021 — compared to just seventy-four in 2020. Out of 2,800 asylum applicants, not one has been granted protection. Besides 320 rejected claims, an additional 325 have been “discontinued.” Put differently, many migrants have either absconded or gone home voluntarily.

“Deceived Masses”

This zero rate of successful asylum applications owes not only to the interview process, designed to reject as many claims as possible, but also the government’s portrayals of those entering Lithuania — inaccurate depictions which themselves shape asylum policy.

In its plea to discourage border crossings, Lithuania’s government continually treats all asylum claimants as “economic migrants” as opposed to “refugees.” Yet to label someone an “inauthentic refugee” on these grounds is to advance a spurious depoliticization of the economic sphere and its connection to violence and persecution.

As sociologist Raia Apostolova observes, such a claim evokes two distinct spatial zones. The first denotes the space where refugees come from, where we encounter falling bombs, beheadings, and normalizations of murder. The refugee’s flight is therefore involuntary. In contrast, supposed economic migrants’ flight is essentially voluntary, because the economy is a realm of choice and free will. Enduring the strains of poverty, inequality, and unemployment is even necessary to foster our “more entrepreneurial” selves. So rather than flee, one should instead wait until the market clears and economic burdens vanish. Once it is accepted that the economic sphere is a world away from violence, we in Europe have no obligation toward people who flee even the most brutal capitalist exploitation.

Alongside this convenient tactic, the Lithuanian government has labelled the entrants as “deceived masses,” mere pawns in Lukashenko’s geopolitical games. Consider foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis’s remarks on Facebook addressed to potential migrants, emphasizing Belarus’s efforts to deceive them, rob them of money, and exploit their credulity or ignorance — unable to comprehend the subtleties of the realpolitik between the EU and Belarus. Therefore, none should expect asylum.

Here, the foreign minister’s rhetorical gymnastics relegate migrants’ individual stories to the peripheries of public attention. Yet behind the juxtaposition of “economic” and “genuine” migrants (and the minister’s cool erasure of their agency) lies a more subtle codicil.

Most entrants crossing the Lithuanian border to date are Iraqi citizens. Many boarded direct flights from Istanbul and Baghdad to Minsk and received Belarusian tourist visas upon landing. From there, some are said to have crossed into Lithuania and applied for asylum, while others sought to reach other European destinations. But two further caveats need adding to the Lithuanian government’s story.

For one, among the arrivals from Iraq, a sizable proportion are Iraqi Yazidis — the survivors of the Islamic State’s attempted genocide in a region enveloped in ongoing fighting. As one Yazidi currently inhabiting a so-called migration center reminds us, “If you want to live in Sinjar, you must have a weapon . . . we don’t know at which time someone will kill you.”

Another seldom acknowledged detail is that many of these arrivals took part in the popular protests that engulfed Iraq in 2019, expressing anger at endemic corruption, high unemployment, dire public services, and US imperialism. During the demonstrations, more than four hundred people were killed and seventeen thousand injured. Numerous activists have been threatened, harassed, kidnapped, and killed since.

Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon are the other nationalities most represented among the “migration center” detainees. Unlike the Iraqis, they did not leave their country overnight to come here, with most reportedly spending several weeks in Belarus on student or tourist visas. One oft-repeated motivation for their arrival in Belarus has been the need to flee the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Others indicate that, as students in Belarusian universities, they have encountered racist attacks and thus headed to Lithuania in search of safety.

Another sizable proportion of entrants hail from Mali, a country where Lithuania has deployed troops in the ongoing MINUSMA operation. Considered the UN’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission, with over two hundred soldiers killed in action so far, it is supported by the French-led Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgency mission that aims to support the governments of the Sahel region countries of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad in fighting Islamic terrorism.

While even this cursory glance at the composition of the people currently detained in Lithuania subverts the image of “deceived masses” crossing the border out of sheer opportunism, it should be added that around one-third of these migrants are children. Reports indicate that at least five hundred of them are younger than ten years old, with a further 150 arriving unaccompanied. According to children’s rights ombudswoman Edita Žiobienė, some have “serious conditions, such as developmental issues, cerebral palsy, autism, or epilepsy.” Life behind bars in modular housing units with no adequate spaces to play and exercise is a major burden on both their mental and physical well-being. In September, Lithuania registered the first death of an asylum seeker — a ten-year-old child who had suffered a head injury last year and was still recovering.

Protecting the Fortress

As Joy Neumeyer explains, the current situation is further proof that “in ‘fortress Europe,’ enclosure is the new normal.” To the recent allocation of funds to Turkey and Libya to keep out migrants, heightened Mediterranean patrols, and the installation of new border fortifications by Austria, Greece and Bulgaria, we can now add the construction of fences on the borders separating Belarus from Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. This enclosure of Fortress Europe’s northeastern flank is cemented by both legislative measures and underreported violent pushbacks, leaving migrants trapped on the EU’s borders.

This June, seeking to curb migration, Lithuania’s parliament passed legislation rare even in the most authoritarian governments’ playbooks. The hastily designed law bans any release of migrants from detention for at least six months after their arrival. This was followed by the removal of the right of appeal for rejected asylum seekers, and the attendant stipulation that migrants can be deported while their appeals are still being considered. The legislation further removed most rights accorded to migrants, including the right to a translator and to obtain information about their status and the asylum process.

Violating both Lithuania’s constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, this measure reduces every migrant crossing the border to a second-class human being, stripped of the most basic rights. But it also introduced a visible selectivity to Lithuania’s asylum policy. Just last year, Lithuanian authorities were portraying themselves as staunch defenders of human rights after the opening up of the “humanitarian corridor” for Belarusian oppositionists fleeing persecution. However, on Interior Ministry orders, people who found themselves at the border this August were being pushed back into Belarus — supposedly a safe country for non-European asylum seekers.

This also came with further repressive measures, with border guards authorized to use force against those attempting entry. Minsk soon retaliated by closing the country’s border to prevent the migrants turned away by Lithuanian officials from getting back into Belarus. The result was to leave migrants trapped between the two countries’ borders.

The consequences of this callousness surfaced in late September, when four people were confirmed to have died of hypothermia and exhaustion along the Poland-Belarus border. These deaths occurred in a border zone subject to a state of emergency and thus inaccessible to journalists, NGOs, and even medical staff. It is likely that similar preventable tragedies will soon be recorded on the Lithuania-Belarus border.

Hostile Environment

Lithuania’s government seems to have done its utmost to abrogate international law and imitate, if not surpass, the behavior of the regimes that it supposedly deplores. It is sending a clear message to people in war-torn regions that Europe is ready to turn them all away — even if, to the dismay of some of its ministers, Lithuania did have to accommodate over four thousand entrants.

Today the country’s asylum regime appears to be guided by the attempt to scaffold a hostile environment that will allow it to fast-track getting rid of migrants. This is to be achieved through threats pressuring migrants into “voluntary” returns, housing them in degrading conditions, and even exploring plans for offshore detention centers.

As revealed by reporters from Lithuania’s public broadcaster, officers visiting “migrant centers” have conducted ad hoc interviews with the aim of intimidating asylum seekers into agreeing to return home. They present one Cameroonian national’s testimony that “Migration Department officials said during the interview that Lithuania is like Belarus, many here are racist,” and therefore “you have two options, either you leave voluntarily or we will deport you by force.” The story is corroborated by viral footage of MP Laurynas Kasčiūnas — head of the parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defense — quarreling with a group of asylum seekers who, he insists, receive more money than Lithuanian pensioners. The migrants are warned that they will receive “two years in prison” for illegally crossing the border unless they accept deportation. In fact, under international law, people who cross the border illegally to seek asylum are not criminally liable.

The bid to stoke fear and resentment is also reflected in the decision to house new entrants in intolerable conditions. While restricted access to migrant facilities has long made it difficult to gather information about their living conditions, the recent report by the parliamentary ombudsman’s office offers some insight. It cites migrants being housed in tents and hangars that were not properly sealed — resulting in many having to sleep on damp mattresses and sheets during the rain. Meanwhile, those inhabiting modular housing units were compelled to share showers and toilets without locks, and indeed survive without hot water. At least sixty-seven asylum seekers had to live in a former school gym, which they could leave only for fifteen minutes a day. The ombudsman notes that such restrictions violate the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. While all entrants to Lithuania were only entitled to the necessary health assistance, and thus could not receive daily medical attention, the needs of vulnerable groups were ignored, with no special treatment for those with Down syndrome, schizophrenia, and other disabilities. The report’s epilogue unsurprisingly characterized migrants’ living conditions as “inhumane” and “degrading”.

The last part of the “hostile environment” comes with the proposal for offshore detention centers outside of Fortress Europe. According to Social Democrat MP Dovilė Šakalienė — a member of a party that describes itself as Lithuania’s only progressive, left-wing political force — migrants should be “screened” in these centers before arriving in Europe. This draws on what the opposition MP considers a “best practice” from Denmark, whose parliament this year approved legislation allowing the establishment of similar centers in third countries. Foreigners en route to Denmark would receive decisions on their applications offshore, without setting foot in Fortress Europe. Yet another innovative possibility would be to grant asylum in the countries where the centers are established. In the Danish model, this means Rwanda — a country heavily reliant on Western aid, and thus unable to refuse such an enticing deal.

If some see a best practice from Denmark as a pragmatic solution, such exclusion measures merely export Europe’s human rights crises to the Global South. As Gražina Bielousova poignantly argues, these proposals relocate the burden of responsibility to third countries, which can guarantee human rights for neither migrants nor their own citizens — a long-standing feature of Western powers’ exploitative colonial policies. Migrants become human waste, and the Global South becomes a wasteland where they can be readily dumped.

Beneath the Rising Tide of Xenophobia

It should be clear by now that the lexicons that Lithuanian authorities mobilize to narrate the “border crisis” have no lack of xenophobic and racist overtones. Apart from the instances recounted above, migrants have been accused of spreading the Delta variant of coronavirus, dubbed the “little green men” (reference to the masked Russian soldiers) deserving imprisonment, and suspected of engagement in criminal and terrorist acts.

Such sentiments are not universally resonant among the wider Lithuanian public. Alongside anecdotal evidence from ordinary Lithuanians’ reflections in television interviews that migrants “don’t pose any threat” — as well as the stories of village inhabitants offering food to those crossing the border — we can refer to the donation campaigns organized by charities and NGOs as well as activist organizations like the Foreigners’ Support Network Lithuania.

Yet recent months have also seen a rise in xenophobic reactions. In late July, the residents of Rūdninkai, a village just ten miles from the outskirts of the capital, protested against government plans to set up a camp accommodating up to 1,500 migrants, attempting to block the road to stop trucks with items for the tent camp from passing through. Others have hung anti-migrant banners outside their homes, with slogans including “We demand that none are accepted,” Criminal status for illegal migrants,” and “Protect Lithuanian-ness, arm up and defend.” New civilian patrol groups, equipped with reflective gear, pepper spray, and walkie-talkies, not only patrolled the village and surrounding areas in the evenings but also began inspecting “suspicious” vehicles. Such incidents raise the question, How should we explain the toxic allures of xenophobia in Lithuania — a country which has so far escaped the typical route elsewhere of supporting far-right extremists at the ballot box?

One false start would be to defend the position — popularized by Polish American sociologist Jan Gross — that Eastern Europe is almost inherently intolerant, self-contained, and antidemocratic. As others have highlighted, such reasoning is misleading for three reasons. First, it underestimates anti-refugee sentiments and atrocities in such countries as Germany — or indeed social democratic Denmark, whose policies are not so different from Hungary’s. Second, it conflates the conduct of the region’s right-wing governments with broad social sentiment. Finally, even a glimpse at the opinion polls belies such claims. For example, in the 2016 European Social Survey, more respondents agreed that “the government should be more generous when judging applications for refugee status” in Lithuania (34 percent) than in Belgium, Italy, Austria, Germany, or the Netherlands.

Perhaps it is more fruitful to seek an explanation in the realities and postscripts of postcommunist transformation. In Lithuania, like much of the post-Soviet landscape, the first decade of transition to market capitalism was predicated on the collapse of entire industries, mass unemployment, widening rural-urban disparities, and crises of social reproduction.

The rush to deregulate labor markets especially fueled casualized employment, with the proliferation of noncontractual work, employer-imposed fixed-term contracts, part-time jobs, and the informalization of contractual relations through so-called envelope remuneration. Such employment environments served to intensify exploitation and stress-saturated workplace conditions. The immediate consequence was a rising incidence of conflict situations at work, horrifying numbers of fatal workplace injuries, and increased rates of intentional self-harm and suicides. And while the drastic fall in average living standards in that first decade now seems a matter of the past, for many Lithuanians, the continuing disparities in income and wealth, as well as the deepening pool of the poor, remain all too real.

Patterns of economic change have been accompanied by a transformation of the language used to describe and recreate social reality. The 1990s saw the erasure of concepts like “class” (and “class conflict”) from public debate, media, and social sciences. While those deploying such notions always risked accusations of hidden ties with historical communism, it was neoliberal newspeak that reduced language to mere sloganizing, designed to relegate social criticism to the margins.

With “class” now consigned to the museum of anachronisms, as Jan Toporowski and Piotr Żuk emphasize, politics was bound to evolve into compartmentalized deliberations about democratic liberal rights and good governance, aimed at taking the state out of the economy and society. The fight for fairness was synonymized with weeding out corruption. Soon enough, those deprived of social security were left with the single category of “the nation” at their disposal. While in the heyday of postcommunist transformation neoliberalism creatively drew on nationalism to legitimize “shock therapy” in the Baltic states, the subsequent disenfranchisement has turned this on its head. Following the 2007–8 crisis — whose trail of collapsing output and job losses, debt peonage, and demographic euthanasia were most pronounced in this region — nationalism increasingly fed the reaction against “fail forwards” neoliberal governance.

Attempts to interpret social reality solely through this national lens meant that the downward mobility of what Don Kalb calls the “ethnonational folk” ended up being attributed to the machinations of a so-called “cosmopolitan” ruling class. The latter was blamed for prioritizing “alien dictates” from Brussels over “the nation” — for instance, in its (very partial) defense of LGBT rights. Long accused of being incapable of adjusting to the “new normal” — and guilty of nostalgia toward the recent Soviet past — the ethnonational folk began to imagine itself as positioned against both local (Roma as well as Russian- and Polish-speaking minorities) and foreign surplus populations, whose concerns the cosmopolitans allegedly prioritized. Today many in Lithuania feel left out of the benefits of global neoliberal prosperity once promised as the natural offshoot of the so-called return to Europe. Apart from disappointment at not sharing equally in the wealth of the West — to which they feel they, too, belong — they are also wary of being preached at and treated as second-class citizens.

So it should be no surprise that in a region that has already suffered the calamities of financialized capitalism and asphyxiating doses of neoliberal austerity, politics bears the imprint of lost livelihoods, financial catastrophes experienced firsthand, and futures foreclosed. When these experiences are narrated through the generative grammar of ethnic nationalism and the supposed divisions between deserving locals and despicable surplus populations, acts of social compassion and solidarity are bound to remain profoundly limited.

For Lithuania’s far right, hitherto unable to consolidate its power, the so-called border crisis promises sizable future electoral gains. Apart from acknowledging that the rising tide of xenophobia is not attributable to the “Easternness” of East Europeans, a revitalized Left will have to articulate a reinterpretation of the refugee question. Instead of relegating that question to what some view as the secondary domains of culture and values, the economic and geopolitical explanations conducive to building networks of solidarity will have to be placed front and center.