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How the use of migrants as “weapons” became frequent in international crises (and a historical case in Latin America)

There are migrants who reach their goal and others who never do. But some suffer a special martyrdom, even in these days: they are used as “weapons” in a crisis between countries.

The most recent and notorious case of this practice is, according to some, what happened in recent weeks at the border between the European Union and Belarus, where thousands of migrants were stranded.

These people – mostly from the Middle East, but also from more distant countries like Cuba – have suffered inhumane conditions in increasingly icy forests, and at least 12 died trying to enter the EU.

Western authorities believe the Belarusian government has sent the migrants to the border in response to international sanctions that he received for human rights abuses.

“We strongly condemn the use by the (Alexander) Lukashenko regime of innocent migrants as a political weapon, as a destabilization effort.”said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday.

Lukashenko, who in 2020 won a re-election denounced as fraudulent, rejected those accusations, but told the BBC that it is “very possible” that his country’s military has helped migrants cross the border into Poland.

In any case, experts warn that in recent history there are several antecedents of the use of migrants to exercise coercion by governments and other actors, including in Latin America.

Since 1951 there were at least 76 such casessays Kelly Greenhill, a political scientist who published her book “Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy” a decade ago.

“The phenomenon has certainly continued,” Greenhill, now visiting professor at SOAS University in London, tells BBC Mundo.

And he cautions that those who resort to such controversial and unconventional methods seem to get away with it most of the time.

From Cuba to Bangladesh

Greenhill’s account focuses on the past seven decades, because it was in 1951 that international rules were codified to protect those fleeing violence and persecution.

This increased the political consideration of migrants and refugees, but also may have made them a more tempting instrument for some leaders.

There are different ways of looking at the historical relevance of the cases, explains the author.

One may be the geopolitical impact: there were “coercive episodes” with migrants or refugees that contributed to the emergence of new states, such as Bangladesh in 1971 and Kosovo in 1999.

But he adds that the relevance of cases can also be measured by their impact on domestic politics, or by their political-cultural validity decades after they occurred.

In his view, an example of this is the Mariel exodus from Cuba to the US in 1980.

After more than 10,000 people stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana requesting asylum, then-Cuban President Fidel Castro suddenly opened the Mariel port so that anyone who wanted to leave the island.

Cuban exiles leaving Mariel port in 1980. (GETTY IMAGES).

The result was a massive exodus to the United States of 125,000 Cubans, including many prisoners for common crimes deliberately sent in the middle of the Cold War.

The wave of immigration lasted seven months, took Washington by surprise and left an indelible mark, especially in Miami.

It also had a political cost for the then president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, who lost re-election that year, and for the then governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who was also defeated at the polls after harboring many in his state. newly arrived Cubans.

Greenhill points out that in those years other countries in the region, such as Honduras and Haiti, obtained concessions from the US in exchange for allowing refugees into their territories or controlling their emigration respectively.

“This type of coercion has been used in the Americas, and around the world, for a long, long time,” explains the expert who is also an associate professor at Tufts University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

And he maintains that, in the cases that he has been able to verify globally, those who challenge others by putting migrants or refugees in the middle seem to have more successes than failures in claims ranging from financial aid to military action.

Boat with Cuban exiles arriving in Florida, in the US, after leaving Puerto Mariel.  (GETTY IMAGES).

“It still appears that plaintiffs tend to get at least some of what they looked for in about 75% of the cases and more or less everything they looked for in about 57% of the identified cases,” he says.

“Open to bribes”

Other experts indicate that this type of practice dates back to before World War II, for example with Hitler’s use of Jewish refugees.

In 1938, the Nazi regime cornered Polish Jews in Germany and tried to deport them to Poland, whose government refused to accept them, recalls Tara Zahra, a history professor at the University of Chicago.

“The refugees, like those in Belarus today, were trapped in a ‘no man’s land’ between the two states,” Zahra tells BBC Mundo.

And he observes that “the use of immigrants as weapons is not, unfortunately, something new.”

But the number of international migrants has changed a lot in recent times: tripled in 50 years, up to 281 million in 2020 according to United Nations figures.

This made some more sensitive to the movement of migrants, and others more likely to profit from the phenomenon.

Syrian refugees on the border between Turkey and Greece.  (GETTY IMAGES).

Leo Lucassen, an expert in migration history, believes that the EU became especially vulnerable to demands from third parties, having agreed to help countries in the Middle East and Africa manage their borders to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.

“By doing that, you give them a weapon. Turkey already used that weapon to some extent by threatening to open its borders in 2017 or 2018 and let Syrians through to Greece if the EU didn’t pay more,” says Lucassen, director of the International Institute. of Social History in Amsterdam, to BBC Mundo.

Nothing indicates so far that with the recent crisis Belarus has won the pulse of the EU, which on Thursday imposed new sanctions on that country with the US and other allies.

But in Lucassen’s view, leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Russian Vladimir Putin could now look closely at what Lukashenko did in Belarus.

“It is very clear that for the EU this immediately creates a crisis situation, as they call it themselves. And that, of course, makes it very open to bribery and blackmail,” he concludes.



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