Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
Why is Alexandr Lukashenko encouraging desperate Iraqis and other middle-easterners to make their way through the Polish border? Why did King Mohammed of Morocco attempt the same in the North African Spanish enclave of Ceuta? Why is the Home Office worried that France will allow rather more people to cross the Channel to England in little dinghies?
Poland’s Prime Minister donned a military green anorak to tour his Eastern frontier. Spain’s opposition leader Pablo Casado hightailed it to Morocco the last time some young men were encouraged to swim around the Hispano-Moroccan border fence. Priti Patel has been known to favour a photo op or two with Border Force officers.
Disorderly migration alarms voters, and its an unwise government that gives the appearence it has lost control, while right-leaning opposition politicians face few risks, other than being ridiculed for not finding islands on which to deposit asylum seekers, in appearing tough.
During recent decades, Western governments have resorted to leaving people in freezing Bosnian tents, confining them on tropical islands for years at vast expense preventing them from earning a living, and housing them in disused barracks and vermin-infested “hotels” subjecting them to beatings and robbery – outsourcing their detention to militias in league with the people smugglers we’re supposed be stopping.
What the crisis on the Belarussian borders shows is that this barbarism hasn’t brought us strength, but weakness. Our inability to deal with migration in an orderly fashion hands our enemies an inhumane and destabilising weapon.
Because we’ve promised (and consigned not only a good part of our conscience but huge amounts of money) to eliminate irregular migration, voters have come to expect that the wrong sort of migration can be deterred relatively easily.
Skittish officials worry that basic standards of humanity – allowing people to earn a living through their own efforts, rescuing them from drowning at sea, vaccinating them against Covid – would become “pull factors” for people fleeing war, or just, in effect, getting on their bikes and looking for work.
Yet Lukashenko’s latest scheme shows this is a strategic as well as a moral failing. So determined have we become to prevent anyone getting in through the wrong channels (we closed the right ones off long ago, when we made airlines and shipping companies liable for the costs of returning people who didn’t have right visas) that a few hundred unarmed and freezing people can bring about an international incident in which shots have may have been fired on NATO’s borders.
The issue may appear to be one of international law. The Refugee Convention of 1951 requires people who claim asylum to have their case heard individually and impartially.
But it is far more fundamental. The Convention merely codified traditional principles of humane sanctuary, after seeing what happened when these were abandoned in the Second World War. It was brought in at a time there were millions of people on the move in Europe. It was meant to apply to numbers of applicants much greater than those we are faced with now.
After a Cold War lull caused by Communist attempts to prevent their people leaving, migration outside formal visa channels began to increase. Inexpensive air travel allowed people to come from further away. Instead of building up our capacity to deal with it, meet our basic moral and legal obligations to our fellow human beings (and for that matter benefit from ambitious immigrants eager to seize the opportunities open societies afford them), anti-immigration politicians have reduced our capacity to deal with migration flows.
Rather than solving what they see as a problem, they make it worse. It is the restrictions on ordinary travel by plane and ferry that create the people smuggling industry: otherwise migrants could just buy much cheaper plane and air tickets.
Lukashenko has nationalised people smuggling because he has identified this weakness. A few thousand people brought over on planes can now paralyse European politics because we’ve chosen not to build our capacity to assess asylum claims. But it is not actually too difficult to plug this gap.
Countries need to build a bigger network of reception failities, hire the necessary judges and caseworkers, not only border guards, and establish programmes to integrate people to let in, and remove those who should not be.
It is also not too difficult to make it harder for Lukashenko at least to pull the same trick again. The flights taking people to Minsk are mostly chartered Western aircraft. Companies that participate in this hybrid attack by supplying the planes should be sanctioned – either with fines or bans from European airspace. He will find the scheme much harder to pull off if he has to bus people through the caucasus.
Defence against hybrid threats requires attention to the resillience of our society. Just as we need to pay attention to energy policy, distinguish between foreign investment an money laundering, we need immigration systems capable of dealing with reasonable volumes of asylum claims in an orderly way. Failure to do so exposes us to manipulation by authoritarian leaders.