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Six months ago, Europe was at the peak of an unprecedented movement of migrants across the border of Belarus. At least 10,000 refuge-seekers had taken the dangerous trek through the forests along the border into Poland; a similar number made their way further into Germany and France, and Lithuania and Latvia struggled to house and process them all.

This exodus didn’t become a major international news story or a European crisis, though, because those refugees were all citizens of Belarus.

After dictator Alexander Lukashenko quashed the results of Belarus’s August, 2020 election, harassed and drove into exile opposition leader and probable election winner Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and launched bloody attacks on protesters and democracy activists, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians sought to get out of the country as fast as possible. Because Europe’s sanctions had stopped air travel to European Union countries, they crossed by car or on foot.

Migrants remain trapped at Poland-Belarus border as EU threatens new sanctions against Lukashenko

At first, Mr. Lukashenko tried to deter their flight with simple brutality. Exiles were harassed and spied upon by embassy goons. A Belarusian activist in Ukraine was found hanged to death, reportedly by hit squads sent to pursue activists. In May, a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk so a Belarusian exile could be dragged off and imprisoned. This violence only led to tougher sanctions from democratic countries.

Then Mr. Lukashenko devised a way to turn the tables, sow chaos and in the process force Europe to put up walls that would conveniently prevent Belarusians from fleeing his rule.

Instead of trying to make it difficult to leave Belarus, he would persuade Europeans to seal his borders by creating a new, more fear-inducing wave of emigrants. This would provoke something that would look to many Europeans like a miniature version of the 2015 Mediterranean migrant crisis, and turn the world’s attention away from the other refugee flood his destruction of democracy had provoked.

As this week’s extraordinary scenes of violence and suffering on Poland’s eastern flank showed, the ploy, so far, is working. While Mr. Lukashenko’s planeloads of Iraqis may be only a symbolic threat to Europe’s integrity, EU governments including Poland’s are treating it as if it were a genuine existential threat. Efforts by Germany and other EU countries to focus on the underlying problem of Mr. Lukashenko’s repressive rule have led to division in Europe.

For example, on Wednesday, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland’s governing right-wing party, denounced migrant “threats” coming from the east (his government refused to take refugees in 2015) and, in the same sentence, those that “also come from the west” – a reference to the European Union and attempts at a co-operative solution to the crisis from Germany and other countries.

Mr. Lukashenko had the means to carry out his plan. Belarus has long drawn visitors from authoritarian Arab countries, offering cheap university educations to students from autocracies such as Syria and Libya, and hassle-free import opportunities for business people from the region. In earlier years Mr. Lukashenko had cracked down on human smuggling and undocumented immigration from the Mideast; this year he simply reversed that crackdown, restoring licences to the “travel agents” in Arab cities who provided immigration packages for tens of thousands of dollars. Turkish and Russian airlines have laid on extra flights to handle the demand.

This week, journalists in Belarus showed images of these Middle Eastern newcomers being loaded onto buses and driven to the forests along the Polish border, and then pressured, sometimes by officials firing flare guns, to try to march across it. This de facto forced march into the European Union has continued, and has been increasing in visibility, since August.

The numbers are small compared to the 2015-16 emergency, and they are by definition limited in number: There are only so many flights into Minsk, even with Russian and Turkish assistance, and the smuggling “packages” (which include airfare, a couple nights in a hotel and a visa sticker in your passport) cost between $17,000 and $21,500 per head, according to reports from Iraq. That’s a lot more than the $3,000 to $4,000 you pay to take a raft across the Mediterranean, and is beyond the reach of many Iraqis seeking to move abroad.

The past decade has seen families freeze to death in those forbidding forests along the border, and more such horrors are almost certain.

This will come to a tragic end. Lithuania and Poland are now building walls and similar defences along the border, and NATO soldiers will probably be massed there, further raising tensions with Russia. European countries will fight over the burden of processing, sheltering and deporting asylum applicants (few will likely qualify).

In the process, unnoticed beneath the din of the border skirmishes, will be a smugly satisfied Alexander Lukashenko, who has managed to turn his autocracy into a walled fortress – and persuaded someone else to pay for the wall.

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