The Rightwing Anti-Immigrant Machine, from Belarus to the United States

The most recent immigration crisis is on the border of Belarus and Poland.

Digging a little behind the scenes and we find a story all too familiar – a rightwing leader, in this case, the Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, using a group of displaced people to manufacture chaos to shore up political support and distract from domestic controversy.

Now it’s Lukashenko, but before it was Donald Trump and his targeting of Mexican and Central American migrants crossing the US’ southern border. Victor Orbán, in Hungary, has also made regular use of anti-immigrant sentiment to gin up support as he undoes democratic institutions to retain power.

The list of leaders playing on anti-immigrant sentiment to manufacture support includes Nigel Farage in the UK, Marie Le Pen in France, and Narendra Modi in India.

Let’s be clear – each of these cases features real immigrants who have fled various kinds of oppression and suffering, from warfare in Afghanistan forcing Muslims into Europe and Asia, to poverty and gang violence pushing migrants into the United States from Central America.

Yet, what’s also a critical issue is the failure of countries to reform an issue in both international and domestic laws that allow the political right to use migrants as political pawns.

To start, there is the process for applying for asylum.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention international law, refugees are people who have the right to apply for asylum in a foreign country, and who are fleeing religious, political, racial, or national persecution.

What is notably missing in international law concerning refugees is poverty.

Or rather, people fleeing poverty to improve their economic situation do not count as refugees, but as migrants.

Also, there is no guarantee that once people apply for asylum, that their application will be accepted.

European countries have been increasing their rates of rejection, going from around 30% in 2015, to close to 70% in 2019.

The situation in the United States is no better, with just over 70% of applicants being rejected in 2020.

If rejected, then the person can return to their home countries, or stay abroad.

If they chose the latter, then they are doing so without legal status.

This opens a window for rightwing actors to exploit – as no person can be identified just from looking at them if they are a refugee or not, and they must await an often complicated, drawn-out legal process, nothing stops politicians from labeling the applicants as “illegal.”

This rhetorical play on law and order opens the floodgates for the right to channel nationalist sentiment.

It’s to preserve a Christian Hungary from Muslim outsiders, says Orbán, or to save the United States people from rapists and drug dealers, Trump told Americans.

Meanwhile, leaders of international institutions fail to figure out how to deal with the movement of people across borders in a more humane, orderly way.

Look no further than the European Union.

Sure, with the Schengen Agreement, citizens of European states can move freely across borders.

Yet, for non-Europeans hoping to enter the continent, they must first apply for – and remain in as they are processed – the country where they first set foot. This is the policy as outlined in the Dublin Accords.

Multiple problems emerge at this point, which besides high rates of rejection, there is the fact that the countries of entry – like Greece, Spain, and Italy – are not the intended destination sites for the people attempting to start a new life in Europe.

There is also the technicality that if people don’t actually step in countries that are members of the European Union, then they do not need to be processed.

This is what is in part triggering the scenes at the Belarus/Poland border, as Belarus is not a member of the EU. Just a few years ago, it was the Spanish government that was ridiculed for repelling African migrants in much the same way.

Such scenes are regularly repeated because a larger international agreement on migrants doesn’t exist.

This means that people fleeing poverty, and/or who have their refugee applications rejected, are subject to the laws of whatever country where they find themselves.

A good first step took place in 2018, with the Global Compact of Migration that was endorsed by 152 countries. The agreement seeks to establish guidelines for the safe, orderly, and humane flow of people.

Still, the United States and Poland refused to agree to the Compact, as most Southern European countries did not attend the conference in Morocco where the document was discussed.

Regardless, it’s necessary that we recognize that border crises such as we find at the Belarus/Poland order exist as part of a ready-made playbook that authoritarians have perfected over the years.

Let’s also be honest that authoritarian leaders neither intend to seriously address the issue of immigration, nor hold law and order in high esteem. Instead, the political right has an anti-immigrant machine of rhetoric and cruel policies, which functions just to keep autocrats in power.

Until that fact is realized, on the right and left, we will all continue to be suckered into and subject to more farcical, inauthentic nationalist appeals.


Anthony Pahnke is a Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. His research covers development policy and social movements in Latin America. He can be contacted at