- Rhiannon Read
Who is ensuring the Rights of Refugees? The Poland-Belarus Border Crisis
Mustafa Mohammed Murshed Al-Raimi, a 37-year-old Yemeni migrant, was buried in Bohoniki, Poland, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. He was one of the 21 reported people from the Middle East and elsewhere who have died in the freezing forests and bogs along the Poland-Belarus border. The local Muslim Tatars, who have lived in the area for centuries, performed the burial service for him and other migrants who were found frozen to death along the border.
The summer of 2021 saw thousands of migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, many of whom are ethnic Kurds, flock to Belarus' border with Poland. An unknown number of people were abandoned in the borderland, unable to pass the razor-wire fences being monitored closely by Polish military forces. The European Union has accused Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko of supporting illegal border crossing in retaliation for EU sanctions – an allegation he has firmly denied.
Belarus’ stalemate with Poland and the European Union has mounted up to a humanitarian crisis trapping people in a frosted border region, with limited food, water, shelter and humanitarian aid. But how do the origins of the standoff, the relative scale of the crisis and its implication offer to set it apart from the other familiar migration crossing we have seen in recent years?
WHERE DID IT ALL BEGIN?
The results of the election in August 2020 saw a fierce clash between protestors and Belarusian authorities. As Lukashenko entered his sixth term in office, massive protests erupted in Belarus, resulting in more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. The election was characterised as a sham by the opposition and the West, leading the EU and the U.S. to impose sanctions on Lukashenko’s government.
These sanctions further strengthened as a result of the events on May 23rd, 2021 when a passenger jet flying from Greece to Lithuania was diverted by Belarus to Minsk, due to a purported bomb threat on board. Upon landing in Minsk, dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich was dragged from the plane by Belarusian authorities and arrested. The EU characterised the incident as air piracy and has barred Belarusian airlines from its skies or landing in any of its member states. It further cut imports of the country's top commodities, including tobacco, petroleum and potash fertiliser.
Lukashenko shot back at the EU exclaiming that the sanctions robbed his government of funds needed to control the flow of migrants and that as a result, he would no longer honour their agreement to contain illegal migration. The crisis continued to simmer in the following months. Reports emerged of refugees flying into Belarus being told to head straight for the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia by Belarusian authorities. Migrants also told journalists that Belarusian authorities gave them wire cutters to help them breach the razor-wire fences and cross into Poland. Belarus is estimated to host between 5,000 and 20,000 migrants and refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa.
In November, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki claimed to have knowledge of “diplomatic” connections that Russia and Belarus were developing with Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. He warned the EU to expect that these “diplomatic” ties would only persist the pressures on Poland, emphasising the need for the EU to act jointly. He observed Lukashenko’s move to push migrants towards the Polish border as using them as political bargaining chips against the EU. “There is a threat of an even more difficult scenario,” Morawiecki expressed. “There will most probably be an attempt at using the crisis in Afghanistan as a new act in the migration crisis, putting to use the West’s remorse related to the disorderly pullout from Afghanistan.”
A MANUFACTURED CRISIS
At first glance, the crisis looks to have been orchestrated by Lukashenko to deliberately cause trouble for the EU. The EU has slammed Lukashenko for using the migrants as pawns in a “hybrid attack” in retaliation for the sanctions. Lukashenko strongly denies any deliberate use of migrants to unsettle the EU despite repeatedly threatening to do just that.
In response to Lukashenko’s threats, Poland’s hard-right government deployed 15,000 military personnel to the border and formed a two-mile-deep militarised zone ringed with razor wire to prevent any illegal entry into the country. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that the increased military presence led to migrants dwelling in a makeshift camp near the border clashing with Polish military police as they tried to enter Poland. The reports of violence range from theft and destruction of migrants' belongings to intimidation, calculated attacks on refugees and physical assault.
Poland has claimed that it is not only protecting its border but protecting the border for all of Europe and NATO. Morawiecki has received support from the EU, NATO and the U.S. for his actions pushing refugees back across the border and has begun building a €353m wall along its border with Belarus.
Yet, it is not only refugees and migrants Polish military forces are pushing back at the border.
MSF had to withdraw from the border after being repeatedly thwarted and denied access to treat migrants and refugees. MSF has stated that the EU policies and restricted access for aid organisations may very well result in more migrant and refugee deaths. Before pulling out of the area, MSF spoke with residents of a village in the restricted zone, “Our life has changed in many ways: restless nights, nervous tension, fear that helping refugees will be seen as involvement in human trafficking and smuggling. Fear that right-wing circles might take revenge on the people helping.” Polish residents in restricted zones, if found assisting or offering migrants and refugees shelter, risk being charged with aiding illegal migration.
The implications of this standoff has not only blocked aid organisations from assisting in this crisis but journalists have also been prevented from covering the events and stories of migrants at the border. This stands in contrast to other emergencies where reporters had the ability to tell the stories of people seeking refuge in Europe. Take the wave of sympathy for Ukrainian refugees for example.
The stories of people fleeing war should not be so hard to tell. Europe should remember by choosing whose stories to narrate reveals their prejudices. After all, it is far easier to dehumanise people when the world can not witness their experiences.
Belarus has unsurprisingly received support from its main ally, Russia. Speaking to all EU countries, Horst Seehofer, Germany’s former interior minister said they “must stand together, because Lukashenko is using people’s fates — with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin — to destabilise the West.” Poland has similarly argued that Russia bears responsibility for the crisis, prompting the Kremlin to sharply respond. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov retaliated that the West bore responsibility for the crisis and the outpour of migrants, thanks to their “aggressive wars in the Middle East and North Africa.” The migrants, he argued, don’t wish to remain in Belarus and “want to get to Europe that has advertised its way of living for many years.”
As our leaders continue to argue like playground bullies, the lives of innocent refugees from wartorn areas are ignored and shelved as the most important factor of this crisis. Mustafa Mohammed Murshed Al-Raimi's story has disappeared in the myriad of geopolitics, and the EU has essentially lost sight of ensuring basic human rights for these people.
Poland’s swift welcoming of more than two million refugees fleeing from Putin’s attack on Ukraine is undoubtedly something to be praised. Yet just north of that border, the EU member state advances its efforts to push back Middle Eastern and African migrants and refugees trying to enter the country from Belarus.
Today at the borderland, scraps of cloth dangle from barbed wire and abandoned belongings are buried beneath fallen leaves. The graves of refugees that rest deep in the forest, serve as a bleak reminder of those who tried to make it across.