photo of barbed wire border

Malina Aniol writes about the conflict at the Poland-Belarus border. She argues that migrants are dehumanised and migration is mobilised for political gains in the coverage of the crisis, calling on us to question EU border control narratives.

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.
(Oceania, 1984)

Refugees are weapons.
Borders are peace.
Migration is war.
(Europe, 2021)

If you turned on a news program in mid-November, you are likely to have heard about the so-called “Belarus-Poland border conflict”. You will have heard about the “hybrid war” Lukashenka initiated against the EU. You will have heard that the refugees coming are mobilised as weapons to cause instability within Europe. You will have heard that the EU has to protect its border and stand together in the face of these external threats. The underlying message about migration, about refugees, is neither subtle nor covered up but directly invokes images in our heads. The victim of Western politics becomes the perpetrator. Those attacked at borders become the attackers. The game of turning our word and world upside-down continues until migration is war. An equation scarily similar to Big Brother’s indoctrinations issued by the omnipresent and inescapable Ministry of Truth.

21st century Europe does not have a Ministry of Truth. No monopolised entity in Europe can dictate our thinking or turn falsehoods into truths. It would be nice and easy to blame our discourse surrounding migration and Europe’s border regime on organised state indoctrination and delve into the pool of conspiracy theories. Europe’s media is largely free, so is Europe’s civil society. Dissent is allowed and sometimes it is the spark igniting legislative change. Neither is it as simple as invoking the Belarus-Poland case as an extraordinary case, one in which other discursive rules to the game apply, even if this is suggested by politicians and newspapers at the moment.

The discourse surrounding the “refugee crisis” peaked around the year 2015. No headline, no Instagram post, no political speech seemed to be about any other topic. Of course, the urgency of the crisis decreased with the years – crisis communications nearly always has an expiry date. While several national elections were determined mainly by immigration policy, during the European Parliament elections in 2019, a central issue for most people was the climate crisis. The proliferation in the news was sealed when the pandemic hit off, and anything else was side-lined. Since then, short-lived peaks in interest erupt every now and then when a particularly reprehensive thing is uncovered. However, the changing discourse on migration remains underexplored – and Europe’s politicians want it to stay that way.

Whenever a more visible crisis erupts, the EU must try to keep its coherent framework of “keeping the EU’s border safe” alive, thereby overshadowing the precarious situation of refugees and turning to more restrictive migration policies. Of course, the case of the Belarus-Poland conflict has a specific history. In 2020, the large protests in Belarus against the Lukashenka regime were met by such retaliations that the EU stepped up its sanctions against the Belarusian leadership. Pressure continued to build, including more and more branches of Belarus’ economy, so that Lukashenka’s revenue stream was severely restricted. In May 2021, Lukashenka forced the landing of a plane with the regime opposition figure Protasevich. This act further increased the sanctions and general pressure from the West. From July on, reports from Belarus’ border countries Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland emerged about higher numbers of refugees crossing the border. Since then, several thousands have come to the border region. However, refugees are now held hostage at the border from both sides as the EU and, more specifically, the Polish border forces do not want the refugees to enter EU soil, while the Belarusian military does not want them to return to Belarus. Caught in this in-between of power play, at least 13 people have already lost their lives – many of them freezing to death. News reports later found that the majority of refugees at the Belarusian border had entered the country using tourist visas promoted by Belarusian agencies as a ticket to enter the EU. This is why the EU has collectively labelled the ongoing situation at the border a “hybrid war”.

However, the situation is not as new as indicated by this new terminology. Since 2015, the number of people reaching Europe’s coast has steadily decreased. Not because of a reduction of people fleeing – in fact, the number of refugees around the world has never been as high before with over 200 million people –  but because of a plethora of contracts that has de facto pushed the EU’s borders further outwards. Deals are (or were) in place with several African states, inter alia Morocco and Libya, and with Turkey to hold or take back refugees. These countries are ruled by autocrats who have used this leverage to further their interests. Especially the EU-Turkey agreement reaching its five-year anniversary this year has been highly criticised. Erdogan has in several instances threatened the EU to open Turkey’s borders to Greece in order to obtain more money or recognition for his politics. Belarus diverges from this situation only in that it is not usually hosting refugees on their way to the EU.

By engaging with other states, the EU has worsened the situation for many refugees, exposing them to pushbacks, violence and precariousness in these countries that have not been their initial destination. In addition, however, the internal European situation has also not improved. For over five years, many refugees have lived in camps such as Moria or Calais, where basic human needs are often barely met. Further, migrating from one country to another within Europe is still not safe, as the recent deaths in the English Channel illustrate. In response to deaths, burning camps and pushback revelations regarding Frontex, the EU so far mainly responded by increasing restrictions, fortifying the Fortress Europe.

How do these changes go widely unchallenged by society at large? Of course, there are many reasons. However, one rarely acknowledged one is the change in our metaphors. Lakoff, already in the 1980s, explains how metaphors shape our thinking: “time is money” is not only a saying, but it also affects how we relate to the concept of time. The same applies in this context, where increasingly we are turning away from a language of “welcome culture” to metaphors of war and invasion. These shifts are channelled by politicians applying a certain framing but also by journalists picking up on it, right-wing social media influence and our day-to-day engagement as citizens. Adopting a language of war means adopting images of war culminating in thoughts structured by war. Thinking in war metaphors means thinking of others as opponents or weapons. War requires linguistic dehumanisation. This is what we are seeing right now. We no longer talk about the 13 dead people. We mainly talk about the weapons of Minsk. Dehumanisation has always been a tactic to allow for deaths as they become less and less reproachable, and how else would largely liberal societies accept the violence and deaths that borders pose to thousands.

Whose fault is this then, if not the Ministry of Truth’s? Some actors in society might play a more decisive role, but in the end, it is on everyone of us to determine our societal discourse. It requires us to hold politicians accountable, to acknowledge the violence of borders. Borders are not neutral in our system. Borders are racist and bourgeois as they allow only for those whom society cannot dehumanise by its discursive shifts. Europe’s borders, we must recognise, are not somewhere far away. Borders start with our thinking, our policies, our comfort to ignore oppression. Endorsing a language full of war metaphors, full of imagery comparing human beings to natural catastrophes, we make ourselves complicit in a language and thinking of dehumanisation, in actions of dehumanisation. Europeans must change the narrative:

Humans are no weapons.
Borders are violence.
Migration is no war.
(Europe, 2022)


Cover photo by Markus Spiske (Unsplash), Unsplash licence

  • retro

    I was born in Berlin but grew up in a small, picturesque East German town. I am in my final year at King’s studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics and would like to dive deeper in to academia by pursuing a Comparative Politics master. My passion is civic education and how it can help improve democracy and participation of the youth as well as deliberative democracy. My research experience includes working for the 89Intitiave studying the link between populism and civic education and King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship studying the decline of the political centre in Germany. While I adore anything French really, my favourite cities in Europe are Budapest and Krakow.

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