EU to keep fighting Belarus's "weaponization" of migrants

Belgium EU Summit

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders pledged on Friday to “keep up the pressure" on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to halt the flow of migrants from his country and raised the prospect of new sanctions amid calls by some bloc members to build walls and fences to thwart new arrivals.

EU members Poland and Lithuania have been struggling to cope with an unusually high number of migrants arriving at their borders with Belarus in recent months. The EU is accusing Lukashenko’s government of using them to destabilize the 27-country region in retaliation for EU sanctions.

After nearly five hours of discussions, leaders agreed that they “will not accept any attempt by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes." They also condemned “all hybrid attacks at the EU's borders."

Migrant arrivals began increasing a year ago after the EU slapped sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over the August 2020 presidential election, which the West views as rigged, and the security crackdown on the Belarusian opposition and peaceful protesters that followed.

Leaders promised to continue countering what European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called “state-sponsored smuggling."

“The people used by Lukashenko are victims, we must help them," von der Leyen said.

The EU's executive arm has already proposed to tighten visa restrictions on members of Lukashenko’s government and Von der Leyen said the EU is ready to explore additional sanctions against individuals and entities. Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers discussed possible measures against Belarusian airline Belavia.

Migration has been a sensitive and divisive topic since the arrival in Europe in 2015 of well over 1 million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria. The exodus sparked one of the EU’s biggest political crises and member states have yet to find an agreement on a system that would guarantee shared responsibility for the new arrivals.

A dozen EU countries said before the summit that the bloc should fund construction of physical barriers to better protect itself. The European Commission says it has never financed fences, although it acknowledges the right, or need, for EU countries to put up protective barriers.