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The EU’s humanitarian crisis on its Belarusian border

This September, Poland declared a national state of emergency as two groups of migrants passed from Belarus through Poland’s eastern border. This event has been the latest in a long-standing conflict between Belarus and its neighbouring EU states, including Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. The issue consists of the fact that the bloc has accused Belarus of exploiting these migrants as a way to target the EU.

Upon crossing the border, the migrants – who mostly originated from war-torn areas of Iraq and Syria, as well as Afghanistan and parts of Africa – were immediately detained by Polish authorities before being returned to the Belarusian border. Although not much is known about the migrants’ situation, since journalists have been refused access to the border, hundreds of migrants are “trapped in a de facto no-man’s zone” not being allowed to return into the country by Belarusian officers after failed border-crossing attempts.

The situation at the Polish-Belarusian border has become increasingly militarised after Poland reinforced the border with 12,000 soldiers in order to stop the migrants from crossing. Both sides have accused the other of violence, as well as subjecting the estimated 4,000 migrants to inhumane conditions. Additionally, gunshots could reportedly be heard from the region, with the situation escalating further as two Russian Tu-160 bombers performed military exercises over the area.

However, alongside this conflict between two rivalling states, it is important to also talk about the plight of the migrants involved. The vast majority are asylum seekers from areas devastated by war, or authoritarian regimes, attempting to find refuge in Germany or other western European countries. International law requires that migrants have the right to apply for asylum status at the Polish border. However, Poland’s refusal to allow such requests has left many trapped between two hostile and uncooperative states.

 

These people are hostages of politics

– Askerov

 

The temporary camps between the Polish and Belarusian sides of the border have become the sites of a humanitarian crisis. Gazhar Askerov, a leader of the Kurdish community, has stated that many of the migrants are forced to camp outside in near-freezing conditions without adequate warm clothing or the food they need to survive. According to Askerov, migrants are forced to make the choice between staying at the Polish border or trying to “find a way to escape back” into Belarus, with one group of migrants crawling 300 yards before walking for 17 hours to return to pass Belarusian army lines and return to Minsk. Askerov stated: “All of them were suffering by the end of it” and claimed that “these people are hostages of politics.”

Accusations of violence have been levelled against authorities on both sides of the EU-Belarusian border. One migrant who crossed the border successfully was Thaer Rezk from Syria, who informed journalists that he and his friends had sought refuge in the forest for multiple days, all while suffering the injuries they had endured. Thaer states that they were beaten in all three countries that they found themselves in. He explained that “In Belarus, [the guard] kick me on my chest. I can’t breathe. He kick my friend in face. His eye is gone.” He further described being beaten by Lithuanian commandos for three hours, including being subjected to electric shocks on his body. 

Polish forces have also used tear gas and water cannons on migrants trying to cross. The Polish defence ministry justified this decision, stating by tweet: “The migrants attacked our soldiers and officers with stones… Our services used tear gas to quell the migrants’ aggression.” Furthermore, Polish police have accused the Belarusian forces of arming migrants with stun grenades in order to attack border guards.

 

Lukashenko is using people’s fates

– Seehofer

 

The European Union has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s government of orchestrating this ongoing crisis in order to apply pressure on the bloc. One European Commission spokesperson said: “This is part of the inhuman and really gangster-style approach of the Lukashenko regime that he is lying to people, he is misusing people, misleading them, and bringing them to Belarus under the false promise of having easy entry into the EU”. This theory has some merit as reports suggest that the Belarusian government has been readily granting travel visas to migrants attempting to cross, as well as providing them with transport to the EU border. Germany’s minister for the interior, Horst Seehofer, has called for the countries of Europe to stand together with Poland because “Lukashenko is using people’s fates with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin to destabilise the West.” Moreover, he added that “we cannot criticise [Poland] for securing the EU’s external border with admissible means” as “the Poles are fulfilling a very important service for the whole of Europe.”

These accusations come after the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus in May in response to the government forcing a plane to land, in order to arrest a journalist critical of the Lukashenko regime. Lukashenko had previously threatened to “flood the EU with drugs and migrants”, should sanctions be imposed. In addition to the widespread criticism from European leaders over the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, the weaponization of migrants at the border is the latest of conflicts between the EU and Belarus and is perhaps a way of punishing the EU for their economic actions in previous years.

 

The weaponization of migrants at the border is the latest of conflicts between the EU and Belarus

 

Whilst the EU tries to present a balanced approach between wanting to prevent the humanitarian crisis on its border and standing against Lukashenko’s aggressive approach to diplomacy, it does raise the question as to how countries, such as Germany, are complicit in the ongoing humanitarian issues. Asylum seekers from the Middle East usually travel to Europe by enduring dangerous boat trips across the Mediterranean. In 2015, the Union signed a £5 bn. deal with President Erdoğan of Turkey as a way of controlling the flow of migrants into the bloc. Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania’s unique position on the EU’s eastern frontier may provide western European countries (usually the target destinations for asylum seekers) with a means to stop refugees from entering their borders, without having to accept the responsibility of the humanitarian disaster taking place on the Belarusian border. The German expression of support for Poland is made even more unusual, considering the recent clashes the EU has had with Poland’s nationalist policies.

Additionally, Poland has claimed that the events in Belarus have been spurred on by Russia (the main ally of the Lukashenko regime). Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has gone as far as to claim that Belarus’ strategy “has its mastermind in Moscow”. Meanwhile, Russia has denied these allegations and blames Poland for not properly handling the crisis. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has suggested that the EU should offer Belarus financial aid in order to stop the migrants from arriving at the border in line with the 2015 Turkey deal. This further evidences the claim that Belarus had planned this crisis as a way of extorting financial gain from Europe.

 

British involvement in the crisis has been heavily contested by human rights groups

 

The UK has also thrown its support firmly behind Poland, having sent a team of 10 soldiers to Poland to assist in strengthening the border with Belarus. This comes as the UK is aligning closer with Poland over concerns with the European Court of Justice (ECJ): with Johnson’s government taking issue with the ECJ’s influence over the Northern Ireland protocol, and Poland under Morawiecki in conflict with the ECJ over whether European law supersedes Polish national law. The UK’s support of Poland’s strong stance towards the migrant border crossings is also interesting at a time when Johnson’s government has been criticised by French President, Emmanuel Macron, for not taking migrant crossings over the English Channel seriously. British involvement in the crisis has been heavily contested by human rights groups for not concentrating on alleviating the humanitarian crisis.

While it can be interesting to discuss the various political causes of the humanitarian crisis occurring at the EU’s eastern border, it is also important to remember the victims of this conflict. The lack of access granted to NGOs has left many migrant groups trapped in limbo between two sparring states without proper food or equipment as the colder seasons draw near. Given that Belarus and Poland seem to be treating the crisis as solely a military one, this raises the question: are asylum seekers being treated as anything more than weapons in this ongoing conflict?

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