The ‘migration crisis’ between Poland and Belarus may have hit the mainstream global news cycle in early November, but the origins of the contest reach much farther back. The crux of the issue is not about migration specifically, but is in fact a broader political disagreement between the EU and Belarus’ Lukashenka.
In May of 2020, more than 1 000 Belarusians took to the streets of Minsk in protest against Alexander Lukashenka’s re-election bid for a sixth presidential term, citing the regime’s long history of fraudulent elections and repressive crackdowns on critics, political opposition, and the independent media.
Throughout the summer peaceful protests grew larger, with people of all ages, backgrounds, and social groups, including many retirees, joining the daily demonstrations for weeks – until 6 August, when protesters, armed with slippers, were met with tear gas and rubber bullets ahead of the election.
There has not been a free or fair election in Belarus since Lukashenka took power in 1994. To nobody’s surprise, Lukashenka was declared winner of the highly disputed – many say rigged – election on 9 August, 2020. He allegedly garnered 80% of the vote. Only adding to mounting suspicion, Lukashenka was inaugurated in a secret ceremony amid widespread national and international protest.
In September 2020, the European Union and the United States refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus and implemented what would be their first round of sanctions against the regime. With more sanctions in November 2020, December 2020, and again after the May 2021 incident (where Lukashenko forced a plane to land in Belarus in order to arrest a journalist critical of the regime), tensions between all parties grew. Throughout 2021 Minsk adopted more and more restrictive measures to further limit social mobilisation and free press, while the EU and US held relatively firm to their international cold-shoulder.
There have been numerous twists and turns in the ongoing saga between the EU and Belarus, with this ‘migration crisis’ being the latest element of the geopolitical contest.
Poland is being targeted by Belarus because Poland is an EU country on the Belarusian border. However, Poland is not the only target. Latvia and Lithuania are also seeing an influx of people on the move, stemming from their border with Belarus. Poland, which continues to receive the majority of media attention, is a favoured choice for those migrants with the ultimate goal of reaching countries like Germany.
Keeping the heat on Poland is also a tactical decision on Lukashenka’s part. Poland and the EU have had a contentious relationship in recent years. Most poignantly, in regards to migration and Poland’s refusal to adapt EU mandated refugee resettlement commitments. This is in addition to a series of other EU membership regulation violations.
It is important to emphasise that the reporting along the Polish border is systemically limited, because Poland has declared a state of emergency which means non-residents, including journalists, humanitarian aid workers, doctors, nurses, and those looking to ensure human safety, are not allowed within 3km of the border. Since journalists are prohibited from entering the area, the news coverage centres on publicly available comments or documents from government officials, which are inherently biased. Sharing the unfiltered truth from the Polish side of the border has become virtually impossible.
Meanwhile, the Lukashenka regime is allowing journalists access to document the nightmare people on the move face. This does not change the fact that there is no free press in Belarus. The state is using this media coverage to highlight the role played in the humanitarian crisis by the European Union, which refuses to open its borders.
November 2021: a timeline
This brings us to November 2021. Human desperation and political diversions have reached a new flashpoint.
8 November: at the Kuznica-Bruzhi border crossing, thousands of migrants face police in riot gear behind the recently constructed razor-wire fence. A crowd of young men chant “Germany” as they try to enter EU territory.
11 November: thousands march in Warsaw to mark Poland’s Independence Day. The march is led by far-right groups calling for strong borders. Polish troops block hundreds of migrants from entering the country via the Belarusian border.
15 November: the EU backs Poland and agrees to a new round of sanctions to better counter what they call Belarus’ ‘hybrid warfare’. Lukashenka responds with his own threat of cutting off gas and oil supplies that run from Russia to the EU through Belarus. Lukashenka claims he can do it with a three day period of “unscheduled maintenance” on a pipeline.
16 November: hundreds of people on the move attempt to pass a checkpoint, as Polish troops fire water cannons and tear gas.
17 November: more than 1 000 migrants are moved from border camps into a warehouse, where journalists are able to interview people on their experiences.
19 November: Lukashenka admits to the BBC that it is possible Belarusian soldiers helped migrants cross the Polish border but declares he will not look into the matter. Lukashenka reasserts his public claim that Belarus will not detain migrants trying to cross into the EU.
20 November: Poland claims that Belarus has changed tactics and is now “directing smaller groups of people to multiple points along the EU’s Eastern frontier”. Belarus again denies the claim, criticising Poland and the European Union for not taking in people on the move.
Politics and human life: an endless saga?
In the last few weeks, we have witnessed migrants being used as pawns in a strategic political game between Belarus and the European Union. Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, went so far as to suggest that the EU “could provide financial assistance to Belarus” in order to incentivise the regime to reduce the flow of migration into the bloc, echoing the 2016 EU-Turkey deal. As Belarusian researcher Dr. Tatsiana Kulakevich puts it, Lukashenka “wants the lifting or erasing of existing sanctions and recognition that he is the legitimate ruler of Belarus.”
While Lukashenka denies manufacturing border tensions as leverage against the EU, the migrants with whom journalists have been able to speak share a similar account of events. According to them, they were in contact with a travel agency closely connected to Belarusian authorities. This agency coordinated their tourist visas, plane tickets, and encouraged them to come to Belarus, citing that it would be easy to cross through the forest along the Polish border into the European Union, where they could then make an asylum claim.
The harrowing details from migrants telling their stories prove that this process is anything but easy. Every person on the move has an account of families spending weeks lost in the forest with no food, clean water, or warm clothes as winter rapidly approaches. And then there are the countless instances of coming across the freezing bodies of those who did not make it through.
For Lukashenka, “weaponizing migrants is a low-cost easy-win”. He knows people fleeing hardship want to enter the EU. Despite normalised refugee resettlement programs and the updated migration and asylum pact, the EU does not appear willing to embrace unmitigated migration flows. We have all witnessed human rights violations against asylum seekers proliferate across EU member states over the last decade. Most alarmingly, all parties involved appear willing to leave desperate people in life-threatening situations; in Lukashenka’s case, as cannon fodder for political gain.
People who are fleeing their homes and are willing to risk their lives and the lives of their children are not doing so haphazardly. They are trying to make a better life. Rashwan Nabo, a Syrian humanitarian worker whose cousin died while trying to get to Germany, put it this way: “people will never stop finding other ways to reach Europe … blocking the border with barbed wire did not stop my cousin Ferhad and people like him who are fleeing wars and poverty.”
All views expressed are the writer’s own.
Article Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons