Using stigmatising language to describe the crisis at the Poland-Belarus border is wrong and plays into Lukashenka’s hands.
Masses of immigrants are flowing across our borders, inundating our societies. They are a threat. Hence, they are used as a weapon by those who wish us ill. But are they?
This is the sort of rhetoric much of the press, the European Commission and many politicians of European Union member states use to describe the situation at the border between Belarus and Poland. The authoritarian Belarussian regime has opened up its borders to refugees around the world, with an invitation to travel onwards to enter the EU. Its leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is assumed to facilitate migration towards the EU, as a means to force it to relax sanctions and as a punishment for its criticism of the brutal forms of repression used against the Belarussian opposition.
In the wake of this situation, the term ‘weaponised migration’ is flaunted regularly. Yet, this is utterly misplaced. Implying that having a few thousand asylum applicants at the EU’s external border equates to a hybrid attack on the union not only amounts to treating human beings as objects, rather than subjects, but also buys into the rhetoric of the Belarussian dictator. It is morally abhorrent and strategically mistaken.
Shift in perspective
What do we do when we resort to such language? First and foremost, we perform a shift in perspective towards asylum-seekers. They no longer appear primarily as persons seeking international protection from political persecution in their home states—but as threats themselves.
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Ardent defenders of this usage acknowledge that migrants are not the danger: they are, so it is claimed, merely being used as a weapon. Yet the difference is negligible. If calling something a weapon makes us react to it as if it were, then it does not matter if the same object is considered benign in any other situation. Think of a baseball bat that is not ‘in itself’ a weapon, but could be interpreted as such if the parties to a confrontation understand it so. What matters is its consideration and treatment as a weapon by both sides.
The upshot of this shift is that asylum-seekers are primarily understood as pawns in the game between two hostile states—as weapons—and hence not as subjects whom we ought to treat as ends in themselves. It legitimises their treatment as other than human. In this context, they are a means to a political goal, allowing for reactions we would otherwise find abhorrent with regard to human beings: denial of the right to protection from persecution, violent pushbacks.
These are then no longer conceivable as mistreatments of human beings—rather as legitimate political reactions to the political action of an enemy. In sum, ‘weaponised migration’ denigrates asylum-seekers and thereby formulates and legitimises immoral political reactions.
This is not the first time such cognitive displacements have been effected to salve Europe’s moral conscience in the face of humanitarian demands. ‘People traffickers’ is another phrase which has served to objectify refugees hoping they can find asylum in the EU.
In this case the shift in perspective is from their human plight to the rent-seeking motives of the agents who move them—ignoring the manifest reality that, in the absence of safe and legal routes, desperate individuals have had no other option but to risk their lives on the high seas, paying agents often huge sums for the privilege.
Commentators using the term ‘weaponised migration’ will be quick to suggest that the morally questionable aspects of turning down and pushing back asylum-seekers are but a regrettable side-effect of a larger (moral?) picture: it does not mean that we must agree with the treatment of refugees as means. They will argue that we must take a hard but regrettable stance here and now, because admitting refugees would be to give in to the Belarussian dictator and his intent of blackmailing the EU into achieving his goals. But is this the case?
For something to work as blackmail or function as a weapon, it must not only be seen as a threat by the one who ‘deploys’ it but also by those at whom it is aimed. If the EU were not to view refugees as security threats, as destabilising or as economic burdens—all of which characterisations have been disproven in research on the effects of refugee integration—but as individuals deserving of dignity and fair asylum procedures, Lukashenka’s threat would be rendered empty.
Talking about ‘weaponised migration’ thus already implies an acknowledgment of migrants as weapons. It plays into Lukashenka’s tactic by accepting its terms.
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If the EU and its member states intend to remain immune to blackmail and send a strong message back to the authoritarian Belarussian regime, they should not engage on the terms it offers. They should not accept the idea of ‘weaponised migration’, but treat asylum-seekers as what they are—human beings in search of international protection. Doing differently is not only morally wrong but a strategic error.
Felix Bender is a postdoctoral fellow at KU Leuven, focusing on migration and asylum. He worked at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity and at Central European University. He held visiting positions at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, the University of Amsterdam and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC.