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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- Illegal Migration And International Politics

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Lithuania and Poland have dramatically improved control over their own borders, a development which is forcing many illegal migrants to pass through or remain in neighboring countries. And that shift in the migration flow is having a cascading effect on the international politics of the region.

Over the last few years, both Lithuania and Poland have tightened their borders both to protect their own populations and to make themselves more attractive as potential members of the European Union, an organization which allows for greater freedom of movement among its member states but only at the cost of a higher and tighter boundary around all of them.

Last Saturday, the Lithuanian border police announced that Lithuania had reduced the flow of illegal immigration by more than 50 percent over the last year and by more than 90 percent since 1996. And Polish officials have been able to report similar gains.

But the achievements of these two countries have created a problem for their neighbor Belarus. On the same day that Lithuania was claiming success in the fight against illegal migration. Belarusian officials said that they expect the number of illegal migrants into and through Belarus to increase considerably in 2001. And they pointed to the introduction of a tough visa regime by their Western neighbors as a reason for this rise.

At present, the Belarusian border guards reported, there are between 120,000 and 150,000 illegal migrants inside Belarus and additional groups of such migrants in the neighboring regions of the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Most of them, the Minsk officials said, are from Asia or Central Asia and are hoping to make their way toward Western Europe or the United States.

The diversion of the flow of illegal migrants from Lithuania and Poland to Belarus highlights the importance of border control in the life of any country and the varying ability of governments to impose such controls. But even more, this development is already having three serious political consequences that are only likely to grow as the flow of migrants both continues to shift and expand.

First, this shift is already exacerbating tensions between those countries with effective border control and those without it. In making their celebratory announcement, for example, the Lithuanians cited the continuing "threat" from Russia and Belarus where they said there are "approximately a million people who are striving to reach the West via illegal means, even as the Belarusians blame the Lithuanians and Poles for their problems.

As the burden of illegal refugees increases, the Lithuanians and the Poles seem certain to demand ever tighter border controls, and the Belarusians are likely to be angry with them as a result. And because most of the illegal migrants are arriving from Russia, some in Belarus may begin to question the wisdom of their open border policy with their eastern neighbor.

Second, this shift is focusing attention across Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet states to a fact most of them have preferred to downplay or ignore: the borders of the European Union are real borders and will divide countries just as surely as any other kind of borders. The current members of the EU are unwilling to allow unrestricted immigration, and they are in a position to insist that applicant nations block it.

If those East European states which want in do so, they will have drawn a line that many may come to see as being far more invasive and divisive on the continent as that between NATO members and those beyond its defense perimeter. Such judgments will certainly affect how the Russian government and others not likely to be included in either will view the eastward expansion of either.

And third, the experiences of the countries in Eastern Europe in dealing with illegal immigration appears likely to affect the debates over EU and NATO expansion among their current members. On the one hand, many current members are likely to view the effective control of borders as a litmus test of the readiness of applicants to take on other membership responsibilities.

But on the other hand, other current members may conclude that the costs to applicants and to Moscow of imposing such borders will be extraordinarily high. And they may conclude that pushing faster with eastern expansion would therefore be a mistake.

Regardless of how these debates work out, the challenge of illegal immigration appears likely to grow in the coming year, not only on the countries which are forced to cope with it directly but also among those countries whose citizens never even see the migrants who now matter so much.