Two flights explain EU asylum policy

IRAQI AIRWAYS flight IA271 from Baghdad to Minsk was a surprisingly popular service. The four-hour trip from Iraq, an unstable country in the Middle East, to Belarus, a dictatorship on the edge of Europe, became busy this summer. At the start of the year the flight ran once a week; in July it was going four times as often.

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Lucky passengers were decanted at Minsk airport and whisked to Belarus’s border with Lithuania, in the hope of a new life in the EU. In 2020 just 74 people crossed from Belarus to Lithuania illegally. This year more than 4,000 people have tried. All this was overseen by Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, whose government had encouraged the arrivals. “We will not hold anyone back,” said Mr Lukashenko. “They are headed to enlightened, warm, cosy Europe.”

The fate of Flight IA271 reveals a few things about the state of asylum in the EU. For starters, the topic is still neuralgic for Europe’s politicians. Lithuanian officials label Mr Lukashenko’s approach “hybrid war”, with migration used as a weapon. Whereas 4,000 migrants is quite a lot for a country of 3m people, it is a rounding error for a club of 450m. Yet it triggered a state of emergency in Lithuania and abundant media coverage elsewhere. Images of people walking into Europe recalled the migration crisis in 2015, when about 1m entered the bloc, causing a continental political seizure. Mr Lukashenko is trying to cause another.

Unfortunately for Mr Lukashenko, the EU is less naive than it was in 2015. Whereas the European Commission once chided its governments for building fences on the EU’s external borders, it now helps provide the resources to man them. Glossy photos of Lithuanian soldiers rolling out barbed wire were met with none of the criticism that Viktor Orban, the Hungarian leader, faced when he did the same in the previous crisis. The EU’s ideological war over asylum between humanitarians and hardliners is over. The hardliners won.

The new approach of the EU and its governments verges on cynicism. Iraq was reminded that the EU is a big aid donor; its government was no doubt aware that the EU limits visas from countries it fears might generate lots of refugees. Iraq swiftly stopped allowing its citizens onto the flights. It was, after all, the Iraqis who were being ripped off, paying thousands of euros for nothing but a stiff glare from Lithuanian border guards and an unexpectedly long stay in Belarus. The migrant crisis of 2015 convinced the EU to create a hard border at its edges in order to maintain easy movement within the club. Now the EU is also exerting pressure to block travel to adjacent countries that do not police their borders.

When neighbours use people as weapons, such hardline tactics may be necessary. Mr Lukashenko is only the latest to try it on. Last year Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, bused thousands of would-be migrants to the border in an attempt to overwhelm Greek guards. Rough treatment from the Greeks has kept them out, though it violates international law. A similar formula is used on the Lithuanian frontier. Ugly tactics elicit an ugly response. Squeezing the flow at the source, by cajoling countries to limit flights like IA271, is preferable to beating people up.

Austrian Airlines flight OS52 from Tokyo to Vienna reveals the other side of the EU’s asylum policy. Rather than fly in a straight arc across Siberia and Belarus to Austria, it skirted round Belarus, avoiding Mr Lukashenko’s airspace like a geopolitical Bermuda triangle. The caution was understandable. In May Belarus sent up a fighter jet to hijack a Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight in order to kidnap a Belarusian dissident on board. OS52 had a similarly controversial cargo: Krystina Timanovskaya, a Belarusian athlete on her way to claim asylum in Poland.

In one sense, Ms Timanovskaya’s red-carpet treatment represents the hypocrisy of the EU‘s approach to asylum. Those attempting to hop into Lithuania are met with grumpy border guards, while the Belarusian athlete is welcomed as the platonic ideal of an applicant for asylum. The threat against her is obvious: state television labelled her a traitor. As a world-class athlete, she would be an asset to any country. The fact that she is a white woman rather than dark-skinned or male helps soothe the anxieties of xenophobes. And there is only one of her. A warm welcome for Ms Timanovskaya enforces the dangerous idea that asylum should be limited and based on character rather than circumstance—that one must be personally worthy of protection, rather than guaranteed it by law.

Leaving, on a jet plane

In another sense, Ms Timanovskaya’s Austrian Airlines flight represents a solution. More direct resettlement of refugees from troubled countries into the EU is one of the few ways the club can secure its border and maintain any sense of moral leadership. After all, European countries take more refugees than most rich countries. Japan, where Ms Timanovskaya boarded, took 47 refugees in 2020. By contrast, the EU gave refugee status to 23,000 people and offered protection to another 22,000 in the first quarter of this year alone. If the EU takes in bigger numbers of people who need shelter directly, rather than just causes célèbres such as Ms Timanovskaya, it could justifiably claim to be doing its part.

Leavening brutality and cynicism with humanity is the best that advocates of asylum can hope for. European governments—and voters—are set on stiff borders. Chancers will not be tolerated, be they cynical governments or simply people who want to improve their lives but are not victims of persecution. When neighbours use migration as a weapon, fences and flight bans are among the few available responses. Yet such tactics will scar Europe’s conscience unless it increases its efforts elsewhere, by settling large but controlled numbers of refugees in the bloc. If the EU is going to crack down on flights like IA271, the least it can do is offer a lot more flights like OS52.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “A tale of two flights”

Roy Walsh

Roy Walsh

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