Migrant children who crossed from Belarus gather at a temporary detention center in Kazitiskis, Lithuania, Aug. 12.

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

As more dictators use migrants for geopolitical advantage, the European Union struggles to end the practice.

In July, the European Union deployed a crewless blimp over the border between Turkey and Greece, an EU member state. The 115-foot airship is equipped with radar and a thermal camera to help prevent another mass wave of migrants from the Middle East like that unleashed by Turkey six years ago. The blimp’s deployment was timed for a similar threat. With the Taliban taking over Afghanistan and possibly forcing Afghans to the West as a blackmail weapon, the EU wants to tighten one of its vulnerable borders.

Also in July, the EU member state of Lithuania began to set up razor wire along its border with Belarus. The move came after the strongman of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, began to send thousands of migrants from Iraq and other countries into the small Baltic state in apparent retaliation for EU sanctions. The EU has since come to the aid of Lithuania as well as Latvia and Poland, two other EU countries that have seen a rise in migrants from Belarus.

The tactic of using migration as a weapon – to cause difficulties in a democracy or to simply get money – is not new. In decades past, Cuba and Haiti used it against the United States. But Europe has seen the most cases of this use of “demographic bombardment.”

Russia, Libya, and Turkey have used it against Europe. In May, Morocco engineered an exodus of 6,000 people into Spain in retaliation for Madrid offering medical treatment to the leader of a group in Western Sahara that seeks independence from Morocco.

In early August, nine EU states sent a letter to the EU asking to end the “exploitation of migrants” as “geopolitical” blackmail. “There is no doubt that if the European Union fails to collectively respond to this new tactic by third states,” the countries warned, “the problem will not just persist but could increase in scope and impact.”

Europe is home to a tenth of the world’s population and a third of international migrants – a result of both its geography near Africa and the Middle East, as well as its liberal democratic values. It is little wonder that the EU agency with the largest budget is in charge of migration. Known as Frontex, it deployed the blimp in Greece and came to the aid of Lithuania.

In the past century, the world has curbed the use or spread of many weapons, from land mines to chemical bombs. In 2018, as a result of multiple issues around cross-border migration, the United Nations approved the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The U.N. strategy is to help countries deal with the root causes of migration, protect migrants, and perhaps end the practice of dictators deploying this “human bomb.”

About 50 countries have signed up for U.N. assistance on migration, but the world body has also taken an affirmative approach. It has honored more than 20 countries as “champions” for improving their “migration governance.”

Tackling the reasons why people flee a country is the best way to address “migration weaponization.” It is a necessary step as more regimes exploit the innocence of people to harm other countries. Other mass weapons that hurt civilians have been curbed. The world may be ready to end yet another one.

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