Greece and Lithuania are looking for ways to curb the flow of migrants from Turkey and Belarus. However, just because the situations are similar, does not mean the EU has dealt with them the same. This piece compares the EU’s response to the migration crisis in Lithuania and Greece.
By Todd Carney
Although the migrant situation in Greece has received the lion’s share of attention over the last few years, an incident involving another country, Lithuania, has recently made a lot of noise.
The situation started in late May, when Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, announced that his government would no longer prevent migrants in Belarus from crossing Lithuania’s border as a means of retaliation to the sanctions that the EU enacted against Belarus.
Throughout the month of July, Lithuania discovered that Belarus had actively encouraged migrants to enter Lithuania. The facts in Lithuania’s situation line up with the circumstances that Greece has faced regarding migrants. Like Lithuania, Greece serves as an entry point to the EU.
Additionally, Greece has faced an influx of migrants due to Turkey, a rogue country with human rights issues, creating the situation in order for Turkey to air their grievances with the EU, just as Belarus has done.
Finally, both Greece and Lithuania are facing capacity issues with the migrants and are looking for ways to curb the migration. However, just because the situations are similar, does not mean the EU has dealt with them the same. This piece compares the EU’s response to the migration crisis in Lithuania and Greece.
The EU’s response to Lithuania’s situation
Prior to the migration crisis in Lithuania, support from the EU in regards to Belarus had been a point of contention. Although Belarus has been a dictatorship for over a decade, the protests in August 2020, in response to Belarus rigging its election yet again, magnified how Lithuania is essentially forced to serve as a buffer between Belarus and the rest of the EU.
In late August 2020, during the aftermath of the massive protests and Belarus’s brutal oppression of these protests, the Foreign Minister of Lithuania, Linas Linkevičius, expressed frustration that the EU was not doing enough to punish Belarus. Linkevičius specifically wanted the EU to hurry to pass policies that could provide money for the victims of Belarus’s oppression and to issue sanctions against Belarus to put further pressure on Lukashenko.
Several key government officials of EU member countries expressed caution at getting involved and pointed out that Belarus is not part of the EU. At the time, the EU government said EU sanctions were coming, but did not discuss when the sanctions would occur. A key element of the EU’s reluctance to act against Belarus was the reality that Belarus has a close relationship with Russia.
Though Lithuania viewed this as a reason to distrust Belarus, the EU had the opinion that any further antagonization of Belarus would destroy the connections that Belarus had to the West and put Belarus fully in Russia’s pocket.
By mid-September, Belarusian dissident journalist Franak Viacorka wrote a piece for the Atlantic Council that voiced Lithuania’s concerns about the EU’s lack of support for dissidents in Belarus, titled “The EU’s ‘grave concern’ will not help Belarus,” which like Lithuania, called for sanctions against Belarus. In October, the EU implemented sanctions that included a travel ban and the freezing of funds for dozens of individuals involved in the oppression of protesters in Belarus.
Interestingly, the sanctions did not include Lukashenko. Since then, the EU has enacted additional rounds of sanctions and extended existing sanctions. This past May, Belarus created another international incident by forcing a plane, that was flying from Greece to Lithuania, to land in Belarus, so Belarusian authorities could arrest a dissident journalist on the flight.
This time, the EU acted with swift sanctions. However, some observers argued that the sanctions had too many loopholes to cause real economic damage to Belarus. Whatever the impact of the sanctions, they clearly set off Lukashenko to the point that he acted to encourage illegal migration of Iraqi migrants to Lithuania. Lukashenko specifically cited the sanctions as his reason for encouraging this policy.
While not much time has passed since Belarus started letting migrants go to Lithuania, the EU has been relatively vocal on the matter. Though the EU did not appear to initially respond to Lushenko’s threat back in May, by July the EU had weighed in on the matter.
In early July, European Council President, Charles Michel, announced that the EU jointly condemned “all attempts to instrumentalize illegal migration to exert pressure on EU member states.” Michel went on to say he would speak with the Iraqi President about the matter and that the EU agency Frontex would support Lithuania in deterring migrants. By mid July, the European Parliament released a statement backing up the sentiment of Michel’s announcement.
Despite the EU’s moves, migrants continued to pour into Lithuania, so Lithuania’s government stepped up its enforcement of its border through police force efforts to physically deter migrants. The EU voiced support for Lithuania again and even sent Lithuania aid. Though it is too early to know where the migration crisis will end up with Lithuania, it appears for the time being that Lithuania has the full support of the EU.
The EU’s response to Greece’s migrant situation
The situation with the EU regarding Greece’s migrant problems is a bit more complicated. Though, as mentioned above, Greece serves as an entry point for migrants from Turkey, just as Lithuania does from Belarus, in the case of Greece, the EU purposefully chose Greece as a location to hold new migrants entering the EU before they go to Turkey or somewhere in the EU. The EU was supposed to support Greece in its containment of migrants, but some might consider the exhaustion of the situation as indication that the EU is not doing its part.
While the circumstances in Greece with migrants started to particularly deteriorate in 2020, in 2016, the UN voiced concern that the EU was abandoning Greece by agreeing to the refugee deal with Turkey and not letting refugees go beyond Greece.
When the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, visited Greece in 2016, after assessing the situation, Crépeau predicted that Greece would struggle to deal with the migrants. As the situation with migrants has become more untenable in Greece, it appears that Crépeau’s prediction was accurate.
Despite the policy flaws of the EU’s initial actions on migrants in Greece, the EU has taken measures to try to improve the situation in Greece. In March 2020, the EU spent $780 million on helping Greece deal with the migrant influx. As Greece used its resources to aggressively police its borders, the EU voiced its full support. The EU even offered each migrant $2,225 to return to their home countries.
Some human rights activists who took issue with Greece’s hardline viewed the EU as supporting Greece’s policies. In September 2020, Greece called on the EU to provide further support on the migration crisis by helping Greece run its refugee camps.
In October 2020, the EU had taken further steps to deal with the situation in Greece by proposing a redistribution of migrants where EU members could either take migrants or invest their resources in deporting migrants. Greece argued that the new proposal was insufficient because it did not involve all EU members taking asylum seekers. Since asylum seekers cannot be deported, Greece could still be overrun with asylum migrants.
In 2021, the situation for Greece has become even more untenable. Additionally, more tension has emerged between Greece and the EU. In March, the EU Commissioner for Human Affairs, Ylva Johansson, visited Greece and expressed concern about the conditions. However, Johansson did admit that Greece had been harmed by the lack of a coherent policy from the EU on refugees.
In May, Greece’s Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, warned the EU to not let other countries’ policies on migrants influence the EU’s decision process, such as when the EU deals with Turkey. This made particular sense for Greece, because more migrants in the EU would likely mean that Greece would end up with most of the additional migrants. In June, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland sent a letter to the European Commission that accused Greece of not doing enough to contain migrants. The letter argued that these five countries were facing their own influx of migrants because of Greece.
By July, as Greece continued to feel a lack of support from the EU, Greece further increased their hardline policies against migrants by using more force and police powers to prevent migrants from coming to Greece. Johansson criticized Greece’s policies and said they violated EU values. Frontex has found that six months into 2021, illegal border crossings into Greece are up 59 percent.
Both Lithuania and Greece must deal with migrants due to their physical location. However, the EU’s deal with Turkey explicitly put Greece in the situation it now faces. Since the EU’s first deal with Turkey on migrants, the EU has been all over the place about its support for Greece stopping migrants.
With Lithuania, the EU did not create any sort of deal with Belarus like the one it has with Turkey. Moreover, the EU has been far more supportive of Lithuania in its efforts to curb migration, including the use of force. Only time will tell whether the EU continues to support Lithuania, or abandons them, as the EU has done with Greece. For the sake of Greece, Lithuania and all migrants, the EU needs to develop a supportive and coherent policy for dealing with migrants on all of its members’ borders.
Todd Carney is a writer based in Washington, DC. Todd has written several pieces for legal blogs such as Opinion Juris and Lawfare. The views in this piece are his alone and do not reflect the views of his employer.