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The White House is growing more worried about migration being used as a weapon

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The world was shocked last month by images of desperate people from Africa, the Middle East and as far away as Cuba trapped behind barbed wire in Belarus, trying to cross the border. It was a migrant crisis the U.S. says was manufactured and the kind of geopolitical weapon that the White House is becoming more worried about. NPR's Franco Ordoñez has more.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: When thousands of migrants from Iraq and other war-torn nations were stuck in a cold forest in Belarus, the president of the European Commission was in Washington. Ursula von der Leyen was making the case to President Biden that Belarus was using the migrants as a weapon against the EU.

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URSULA VON DER LEYEN: This is not a migration crisis. This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize its democratic neighbors. This will not succeed.

ORDOÑEZ: The U.S. and Europe sanctioned Alexander Lukashenko over this. But in Europe, neighbors noticed that Lukashenko also got something he wanted from the situation.

KAROLINA LUKASIEWICZ: Until very recently, European leaders has not been speaking to Lukashenko. He was not recognized as a legal president.

ORDOÑEZ: Karolina Lukasiewicz is at the Center of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw. She says the crisis gave him attention.

LUKASIEWICZ: And during last month, Angela Merkel met with Lukashenko, and people started talking and recognizing him. So you can say it's already working.

ORDOÑEZ: Lukashenko is not the first leader to see opportunity in a migration crisis. There's the example of Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He used Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war to push for billions in payments and political concessions from the European Union.

IVO DAALDER: People are being used as pawns in a terrible, terrible game.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Ivo Daalder, who served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO in the Obama administration. He says Belarus is part of a trend of using migrants in asymmetric warfare.

DAALDER: For countries that have limited capabilities to counter a stronger foe, to use asymmetries, other means, to gain leverage over in this case the European Union.

ORDOÑEZ: He says the trend is growing because these autocratic leaders don't face any real consequences.

DAALDER: Takes a particularly evil mindset to see that people and their vulnerability and humanity can actually be used as a means to achieve political ends and, frankly, get away with it.

ORDOÑEZ: The White House has taken notice. It's worried that Russia and China could try to take advantage of migration, particularly migration caused by climate change. The White House says Russia is trying to benefit from antimigrant sentiment in Europe. And China has been taking advantage of vulnerable countries, too.

SHERRI GOODMAN: China is looking at all the instruments of political influence it has.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Sherri Goodman of the Woodrow Wilson Center. She was one of the first to make the case that migration caused by climate change is a threat to national security. She says China is actively building up its soft power with small nations in the South Pacific threatened by climate change.

GOODMAN: If it comes in as the rescuer - I'm going to improve your infrastructure or I'm going to provide you fresh water where you're running out - that is compelling to countries that are increasingly at risk.

ORDOÑEZ: And the White House emphasizes it's not just a problem overseas. Migration from Central America is a huge political challenge in the U.S. and could be exploited by adversaries. And that's more reason why the White House argues the U.S. should model good, humane practices for the rest of the world.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ CENTER'S "CENTER'S GROOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.