Six months after the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Europe, migration is back on everyone’s agendas. But did it ever go away? As the European Commission prepares to present its new pact on migration and asylum over the next few weeks, this Dossier reflects on what can be learnt so far from the impact of the worst global health crisis in a century on migration flows and policies.
Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, it was clear that asylum seekers and migrants in an irregular situation would be disproportionately affected. International organisations raised the alarm that migrants’ precarious living conditions, especially in camps, reception centres, and those in detention, amplified the risks of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Irregular sea arrivals to Italy are up this year. By September 13th, Italy had recorded at least 21,011 migrant arrivals at its shores: higher than for the whole 2018 (20,629), and almost twice as high as last year. Wasn’t the COVID-19 pandemic supposed to deter irregular migration, as well as the regular kind? Think again. Along the Central Mediterranean route, two forces appear to have been at work, acting as an incentive for migrants to depart from both Libya and Tunisia. And the pandemic has had an effect, but not the one many expected.
As the presidential election nears in Belarus—marked by strong countrywide opposition to President Alexander Lukashenka and a corresponding crackdown—the United States faces a choice. If the latest bout of repression continues or intensifies up to and after polling day, it will have to decide whether to once more take a tough line against Lukashenka, after a few years of tentative rapprochement, or to turn a blind eye because of geopolitical calculations.
Over the last six years, Belarus’ foreign policy has evolved significantly in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Compared to Ukraine’s political turmoil and subsequent war in Donbas, neighbouring Belarus seemed like a kingdom of stability. Minsk was quick to adopt a neutral role and put itself forward to host the main venue for negotiation on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The upcoming presidential elections in Belarus are likely to mark a critical (dis)juncture for the country in general and, in particular, for its relations with Russia. The two allies have exhausted the model of bilateral relations that served them well in the past and need to open a new chapter in their relationship. What this chapter might look like and how long and bumpy the road to it is going to be will depend to a large extent on the outcomes of this election.
On August 9, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will seek his sixth term in office. He has ruled over the country for a quarter-century, relying on a mix of repression, information control, and Russian subsidies. Past elections were foregone conclusions. But this one is different: the coronavirus epidemic has exposed Lukashenka’s incompetence and animated Belarusian civil society. No matter how the votes are counted, it will be remembered as an important moment in Belarus’s political history.
In this year’s election, Belarus’ strongman Aliaksandr Lukashenka is facing genuine resistance to his rule and, it seems, has made several mistakes in dealing with his opponents - bad election timing, counter-productive violence and stirring up another source of tension with Russia. Although the state’s autocratic system has hindered electoral competition in Belarus since 1994, it is widely believed that Lukashenka would have won all previous elections even if votes had been counted fairly.
The 9 August presidential elections in Belarus represent an unprecedented challenge to the power of Alexander Lukashenko. But as the autocrat is expected to achieve re-election in one way or another, little is likely to change as concerns the dilemma the EU (and the US) face in dealing with him.
On 9 August, Aleksandr Lukashenko, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by Western media, will seek re-election as president of Belarus for the sixth time in a row. This time, however, his regime is facing genuine popular resistance at a time when is also experiencing tension with its longstanding international ally, Russia, and economic problems related also to the COVID-19 pandemic. All this contributes to making these elections different. But could the times be ripe for a democratization process in the country?