21 December 2021

The UK and Europe must face up to this orchestrated migrant crisis

By Richard Rimkus

As snow blankets Eastern Europe each Winter, cold winds traverse the Ural Mountains and test the resolve of the long-suffering Balts. The freezing temperatures of seasonal storms from the east are matched this year, more than ever before in recent history, by the ever frostier relations between Russia and the West. As snow and mist fall upon the lowlands of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, so does the chance of Russia and NATO finding a peaceful resolution to growing conflict. As we reach the shortest day of the year, the light of diplomacy and consensus dwindles.

In the lonely forests of the East, the Russian bear lies in wait. Its potential victims are many, and worn out by decades of tension and tyrannical rule during the bleak days of the Soviet Union. Ukraine nervously anticipates an explosion of even worse conflict than was seen in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea. Belarus, it is often said, already takes its orders from Moscow, and numerous countries across Europe rely on Russian oil and gas. Turkey feels increasingly emboldened by Putin’s aggressive manoeuvring, and for now at least, Russia turns a blind eye to China’s advances in Taiwan and Hong Kong. EU member states with historically and ethnically distinct populations on Russia’s doorstep, such as Poland, Finland and the Baltic states are understandably alert to the military dangers posed by Russia, who have recently boasted of their military capability and amassed a 90,000-strong force on the border with Ukraine.

Small disagreements can spark big conflicts. This is why the migration crisis currently unfolding in eastern Europe, along the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus is of deep global concern. While Russia and Belarus are aiding and abetting the flow of largely economic migrants from the Middle East into Europe via a novel Baltic route – a journey motivated by strong security measures in Hungary and the Balkans – the EU has put up insufficient resistance to this flow of illegal migration. There is widespread Lithuanian opposition to the makeshift migrant camps now being built inside their own borders. There have also been clashes between Polish and Belorussian armed forces over this very issue. It is time the UK took note and ramped up the pressure on Russia and Belarus to play by the rules of international law.

Permitting the free flow of economic migrants into Europe helps no one but illegal human traffickers. The migrants’ home nations suffer a loss of their young talent and workforce, while Eastern Europe struggles to deal with their vastly different cultural and religious backgrounds and heavy economic demands. All the while, the migrants are encouraged to travel thousands of miles across rough terrain with the false hope of a better life in Europe, which often leads to failure, despair and even death, as we tragically saw in the English Channel.

As a first-generation migrant from Lithuania to the UK, I understand the need to move to improve one’s economic prospects. Each year, thousands of Europeans move to other countries such as the US and the UK to develop professionally. Yet this has to be done legally, and respecting the culture, rules and traditions of their host country. Illegal, dangerous and controversial migration is toxic for everyone involved.

In eastern Europe, the migration crisis is part of a wider context of weakening relations between the two superpowers of Nato and Russia. It would be extremely reckless for the UK to turn a blind eye to this and refuse to encourage all parties – including the migrants’ home nations – to abide by international laws and conventions, which do not permit neighbouring countries to open each other’s borders at will.

Last month, it was welcome that the G7 condemned Belarus’s ‘callous…orchestration of irregular migration” as part of a ‘hybrid tactic’ to subvert the Baltic States and the EU. It was also welcome that the UK announced a mission of 140 military engineers to Poland to provide infrastructure support at the Belarus border. Yet the UK can go further and provide the same support to Lithuania, which is just as  affected by the hostile regime in Minsk.

The more this crisis is seen in its broad geo-military context, the more importance Westminster and Brussels will attribute to solving it. To survive this proxy attack on Europe, the West must stay one step ahead of its most infamous aggressor by providing invaluable aid to the Baltic States. For as we have long understood, what happens in Moscow rarely stays in Moscow.

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Richard Rimkus is founder and Chairman of Conservative Friends of the Baltic States.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.