The EU is to finance the construction of centers to house illegal migrants in Belarus. The plans have upset the country's residents and raised concerns in Russia. Minsk is now threatening to stop the project.
Alexander Lukashenko wanted to calm the situation personally. Last Friday, the Belarusian president warned that his country would not become a "catchall" for Europe's illegal migrants. "We don't need other countries' migrants," he said.
The president admitted that he had "made certain agreements related to immigration" with the European Union, and that Belarus would receive EU money - he then went on to make new demands.
"For those interested, the money should not just be spent on building migrant centers, but rather to facilitate those migrants' deportation," said Lukashenko. If necessary, he added, such projects should be "stopped immediately."
EU doubles aid package
He was referring to media reports about plans to build reception centers for illegal migrants. Last September, the word from Brussels was that the EU wanted to pay its eastern neighbor 7 million euros ($6.52 million) in hopes of coping with the bloc's "rising number of irregular migrants." The money was part of a European aid package for the former Soviet republic. In 2016, aid to Belarus almost doubled, jumping to 29 million euros per year.
It is unclear how many centers will be built and where they will be located. According to a European Commission paper, each center is to house between 30 and 50 migrants. Answering a DW enquiry, the EU's representative in Belarus said that construction of the centers is part of a project in which Belarus is supposed to help "steer irregular migration." The project is designed to run for five years, though there is also an extension option for continuing operations after that period. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is to be involved as well.
News of the reception centers brought to mind images of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants that arrived in the EU last year, and sparked fears that deported migrants would soon be landing in Belarus. The topic was hotly discussed, especially on social media.
Unusually harsh criticism was also voiced by neighboring Russia. "The agreement on migrant centers reached between the EU and Belarus raises interesting questions, because there is no border between our countries," said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a press conference in mid-January. He added that the situation would "open the door to abuse."
The foreign ministry in Minsk replied that Russian concerns were unfounded. Belarus, a ministry spokesman said, was doing nothing other than that which Russia had done 10 years prior.
On the path to visa facilitation
"The EU is helping Belarus build an infrastructure for migrants in order to continue visa facilitation negotiations," as Andrei Yahorau, director of the Minsk-based Center for European Transformation (CET) think tank, told DW. Minsk and Brussels have been negotiating the issue for years.
The EU has also negotiated so-called readmission agreements with a number of former Soviet republics. Such an agreement has been in place with Ukraine, for instance, since 2010. "These deal with the issue of what to do with repatriating people that have illegally entered the EU through Belarus," says Yahorau. The expert says that fears among Belarusian citizens are unwarranted because the country will not be forced to take in people that entered the EU through other countries.
Polish Belarus expert Kamil Klysinski from the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW), a Warsaw think tank, sees things similarly. "I don't believe that the construction of migrant centers will mean any increase in the number of migrants in Belarus," he told DW. "It will bring more order to the administration of illegal migrants, and will make it easier to solve other problems, also for Belarus."
Thus far, migrant numbers have been modest. According to statistics provided by the Belarusian interior ministry, some 3,300 migrants applied for asylum in the country between 2004 and 2015.
Rapprochement between Minsk and Brussels
Belarus has also taken the first steps towards visa facilitation with the West. In mid-January the country lifted visa requirements for short-term stays by citizens from a dozen non-EU countries, as well as the entire European Union. With that, a politics of rapprochement that began about a year ago was continued. In 2015 Belarus released a number of imprisoned opposition members and in 2016 the EU lifted sanctions that had been in place for years, among them, some that had targeted Lukashenko personally.