Crisis around Belarus has entered a new phase: with desperate people used as political tools
The Cross-border Talks
On 18 September 2021 The Cross-border Talks made a detailed segment on the migrant crisis that has been troubling the EU countries that border Belarus. After the Belarussian protests of 2020, geopolitical tensions between Poland, Latvia and Lithuania on one side and Belarus increased significantly. What we witness one year later shows that migrants from the Middle East, people trying desperately to leave their war-stricken and impoverished condition in the homelands, are treated by both the Polish and the Belarussian state as “weapon”, as “evil”. The humanistic aspects of this migrant crisis get marginalised by the security machines.
Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to the next segment of the Cross-border Talk program. This is the fourth episode. We are now approaching a very contentious issue from the EU border. For some time, many migrants from the Middle East have been reaching European borders through Belarus. There has been humanitarian crises on the border between Belarus and three countries on the EU border, namely Lituania, Latvia and Poland. Malgorzata, what is going on there?
Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Well, in fact there are historical events going on in Poland, I might say, because Poland has declared a state of emergency on the border for the first time in the last three decades. Our government is saying that we are in the state of hybrid war against Belarus or more precisely that Belarus has waged hybrid war against Poland. The migrants, like the government is saying, omitting the refugees term, are basically Belarus’ weapons in the hybrid war.
What is exactly going on is that from the beginning of August, migrants and refugees from dozens of countries of the Middle East are coming to the Polish border and requesting for international protection. People are indeed coming from Belarussian territory and I will explain in a moment how Afghanistan, Iraq, Syrian or Egyptian citizens end up in Belarus. The problem is that these people are coming to the border. They are trying to cross the border in an illegal way and they are asking for international protection, which Poland is refusing to give them.
For the last few weeks, Polish border guardsmen have been pushing these people back to Belarusian territory, refusing to accept their application for international protection, and the most flagrant case that gained the biggest attention from the media was the camp of about 30 migrants from Afghanistan, camping at the border near the village of Usnarz górny, in northeastern Poland, who were basically kept in borderland by both Polish and Belarusian border Guards. I mean those people coming from Belarusian territory intended to cross the border, intended to ask for international protection. But the Polish border guards didn’t allow them to progress. So the migrants set camps on the border. At the same time, the Belarusian border guards do not allow them to go back into Belarus.
Both sides claim that these people are in the other country’s territory and that the other country is supposed to offer them some basic humanitarian aid. But the situation looks like that: these people are camping between borders but without access to medical help, with just basic food provided by the Belarusian side, with no legal help. There were organizations on the Polish side, refugee foundations who wanted to offer them legal help in Poland, but they were not allowed to talk to these people and basically the Polish President declared a state of emergency on the border so that no media is now allowed to reach the border, there are no activists allowed to emigrants and basically we are left without credible information on what is going on further. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki held a conference when he repeated: Poland has been attacked by Belarus in hybrid way, that Lukashenko is sending those migrants deliberately to Polish border because he is angry with how Poland supported pro democratic protests last year and that Poland now has the duty to secure European borders so that no migrants will be allowed into the country. No humanitarian aid is supposed to come to them because they are in Belarus, as the Polish state is reiterating, and so that is the situation. In a few hours the Polish Parliament is going to vote again on the state of emergency and if the opposition happens to gather enough votes, they might repeal the presidential decree on the state of emergency. But I might say this is not very likely to come into being because the opposition is divided as well on the issue. Those are in fact only the social-democratic Party, the Left or Levica in Polish, which is unanimously standing for giving humanitarian aid to these people. Other parties are skeptical and believe what the government says so that if we accept this one group of migrants, then more of them will come and the problem can become insolvable for Poland. (In the end the state of emergency was not repealed and it is valid until the date of publication of this transcript)
If migrants are treated as weapons, what is their condition as humans, as in terms of health and living conditions right now, and what is being done for them?
From the Polish side, not only nothing was done for them, but even medics and activists were prevented from reaching them with basic help. A few days ago, a video went viral in Poland, showing the Polish member of Parliament, Franek Sterczewski, trying to reach these people camping on the border with a plastic bag containing food and medicines. He basically tried to run through the lines of the border guards so that he could give these things to the people, but he was finally stopped and prevented from reaching them. Also, there were doctors coming from nearby cities, the nearby city of Bialistock, offering to examine the refugees, and also they were not allowed to reach the encampment because the border guards keep saying that they are on the Belarusian side. Belarusian border guards on their part are supplying the refugees with food. They also allowed a delegation of the Red Cross to see these people recently, but this is basically everything they are doing for them and these people are still at the border, hopelessly waiting that somebody lets them through Europe, that somebody offers them international protection, which is not being offered neither by Belarus nor by Poland.
And what does this situation look like from Belarussan point-of-view? What does Belarus say and how exactly do these migrants appear to reach Belarus for the first time and then, technically, how do they reach the border? What is the attitude of the Belarussian state to that?
Indeed, there is a good deal of truth in what the Polish government says that Belarus is deliberately bringing these people to the border of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Because indeed for a few months Belarus and Belarusian state companies, connected to presidential administration have been offering to the citizens of Iraq, mainly, but also to other middle-eastern countries, to come to a trip to Belarus which is in fact not a tourist trip at all but rather an opportunity to get to Minsk, by plane from Baghdad (a month later no longer from Baghdad but from connecting flights via Turkey – note of the editor) and then be escorted the border where the Belarussian border guards are either forcing people to go through, go through the border illegally or helping them by showing where to go and how can they reach Lithuanian, Polish and Latvian territory. And sadly, this is a business where indeed people are treated like a weapon, because a lot of people, Afghan citizens, but also Syrian or Egyptian people, a lot of people from the whole Middle East and Central Asia, they said they are told by these Belarusian companies that if they pay a few $100 they will be be settled in a hotel in Minsk for a few days and then they will be brought to European Union. That is what these people hear from the Belarussian companies. Some of the emigrants who reached latvian and lithuanian border and who were then stopped by the border guards of those countries, were actually convinced that they were being brought to Germany. They are told that the Belarussian border guards are bringing them to Germany, to the very heart of the European Union.
We need to remember that in August there were protests in Belarus which attracted a lot of international attention, and they were related to presidential elections in Belarus and strengthening of control by the President Lukashenko, also his approximation to Russia’s president Putin. So we know that there is geopolitics in the play between Belarus and Russia and for quite some time, how does this situation now enter into geopolitics?
Perhaps we are reaching the most tragic dimension of the whole crisis, because it is geopolitics that pushed Lukashenko to organized all this. Last year already Lukashenka said that in the past he used to secure European border by stopping drug trafficking, fighting human trafficking and by fighting illegal migration. And if the European Union treats him like the last dictator of Europe and the one who must be removed from the political scene, then he does not feel obliged any more to help the European Union in any way. And not long after this declaration, the immigrants from the Middle East started coming on Lithuanian border.
it was Lithuanian border first, because Lithuania offered asylum to Svetlana Tikhanovska, the leader of the Russian democratic opposition, and Lithuania, who is the most vocal critic of no government, who is offering the biggest help to the democratic opposition and who was also calling most in the strongest voice to bring sanctions to Belarus. However, Lithuania reacted very decisively to what Lukashenka did. Lithuanian border guards are also pushing people back to the border. The procedure of push backs was legalised by the Lithuanian internal ministry. The Internal Ministry, Lithuania claims that it is not obliged to accept demands for international protection as long as the migrants are informed of their options. So in practice it looks like that: if the illegal immigrants are spotted by Lituanian border guards, they are pushed back to Belarus just with information that if they want international protection, they must appear officially on a border crossing, which means that these people then try to cross the border again and again, because the Belarussian border guards are not helping them to reach these border crossings at all. So Lithuania reacted in this way, putting those people who were spotted inside Lithuanian territory into refugee centers, and then the emigrants started to appear on Latvian and Polish border.
As I said already, the situation is absolutely a tragedy for people who are truly hoping to get a better life in Europe, because the countries from whom they come are destroyed by war, they are destroyed by natural disasters, they are destroyed by internal conflicts, and I am absolutely not surprised by the fact that people are catching every opportunity to get somehow into Europe, particularly that going through Belarus seems much safer than the Mediterranean or the Balkan road.
On the other hand, they are being cynically played by Belarussian government, and here I would like just to differentiate between Belarus and Russia, because you mentioned Putin. The Polish government also likes to say that this is a provocation set together by Lukashenko and Putin. In my opinion, Russia did not need to inspire Lukashenko to organize this kind of operation. I find this Lukashenko’s original idea. It is his own way to settle things with Poland and other neighbours. Russia don’t honestly, I don’t think that Russia would like to get these people into its own territory or risk getting them into its territory, as there is no border in practice between Belarus and Russia. So here I would say it is Lukasenko’s original idea, which of course does not change the fact that we are dealing with a cynical game, anti-humanitarian game, and that Poland-Lithuania and Latvia are now being used in belarussian propaganda.
There is another important geopolitical player, the, which also has different approaches to the migrant issue. On one hand there is this tendency for strengthening of borders, but on the other hand the European economy and societies need migrants or workforce. So what is the EU’s attitude towards this crisis right now?
So far, the European Union’s position is pretty clear that Poland has the right secure borders and Poland is receiving European Union support. In this case and honestly, I haven’t heard a voice recently saying that it is our duty to offer humanitarian aid to the migrants or that we could actually allow them into Europe because they are coming from war-ridden countries. In fact, when Poland declared that there was a crisis on the border and that we needed extra means to secure the borders, support from European Commission came very fast and in the European Commission hurried to say that Poland not only had the right to secure borders and to use the extra means, but also it was Poland’s task to secure eastern eastern border of the European Union.
And it was shocking even to some politicians of opposition in Poland, to hear Vera Yourova, the European Commissar, who criticized Poland for destruction of the rule of law under the present government, to hear her saying that she actually trusted the government of Poland in this very case. She said we had the right to protect borders, that we need to protect borders and that she trusts that the Polish government is doing the right thing. In fact, the only new, more nuanced position that explained the need to support these people, to help the migrants came from the European Court for Human Rights. In the second or third week of the crisis, said that Poland is obliged to give basic humanitarian aid to these 30 migrants stuck on the border. The court said that they must be offered medical aid, they must offer food and water and, if possible, and also should provide them with some kind of shelter. They did not specify what kind, and they also said, that it does not mean that Poland is obliged to allow them into its territory. Nevertheless, it was quite clear that Poland cannot just watch how 30 people are stuck on the border, living in some provisional camps and having no access to food and drink for days.
Nevertheless, Poland simply ignored that ruling and there was a very short official comment from the side of the government saying that these people are in Belarusian territory. So Poland cannot do anything to them and that the ruling does not allow Polish border guards to enter belarusian territory. Shortly after that, Poland declared that we could bring humanitarian aid via Minsk somehow, that even there was a convoy with humanitarian aid waiting on Polish-Belarussian border crossing. But they must be approved by Belarussian government – and it was of course rejected because, as I said, Belarus is claiming that the migrants are in Polish territory here.
Perhaps it should. It would be good if I clarify where they actually are, as far as I am able to do so, because some of the pro-refugee activists actually tried to put the place of decampment on the map. They claimed that the camp is now located exactly on the border. One half on the Belarusian side and another side on the Polish side. So this is the situation. And coming back to the European question and how Europe is now responding to the migrant crisis. Yesterday I read a statement of Austrian and Serbian governments who said that they will do everything, they will work together to stop gun migrants coming to Europe because they had already accepted migrants during the previous refugee crisis and they don’t feel obliged to see any more of them within their territory. So I am afraid that the Polish government’s attitude, to refuse humanitarian aid and do the borders, will be the attitude of the whole European Union during this crisis.
We need to wait and see, but we need to, if possible, to somehow make a prognosis of what will happen, what will follow? There are at least two elements of this crisis: the political one and the humanitarian one. So can you somehow make a prognosis about the near future?
First of all, I would like to say that I am very afraid when opening media outlets and reading official news from the border. Now I’m saying official because, as I said, no journalists are being accept at the border for a few days so we can. We must rely on what the border guards from Poland and Belarus would write about the situation. I am very afraid that one day I would read that somebody died on the border. There were already reports that some of those 30 people in the camps were in very bad condition. They spent a few days under heavy rain without, as I said, without medical aid and without proper shelter. So I just don’t want to read one day that somebody died on the border because of the geopolitical fight between Poland, Belarus, European Union, Belarus and Russia in the in the background. But if you, if you want further prognosis into that is optimised, it is that the Belarussian border guard is still producing more and more information about migrants being pushed back from Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish border. This means that even though now the very mechanism of bringing refugees, bringing migrants to Belarus is now well described. Lithuanian, Latvian and and Belarusian journalists described how those people are brought from Baghdad to belarusian territory and how they are then about the border. So even if the mechanism is well described, this practice is going to continue. Lukashenko has no motivation to stop it. Lukashenko is not caring about these people’s health and well being. He is going to keep bringing them to the border just to seek revenge against European Union. I also said that Belorussian propaanda is playing against Poland and Lithuania and Latvia, and this is yet another reason for which Lukashenko will not stop using these people as a weapon. Lukashenko wants to prove that all the european talk about human-rights about democracy and necessity to help the Belorussians was a mere talk which was worth nothing, because when there is actually an opportunity to help hungry people, to help desperate people, then european countries are closing the borders and refusing to even offer food and drink to them. So my sad diagnosis is that they think it will continue. Nobody is going to make a stand back, even to help some of the refugees.
And finally, what is the situation with the Belarussians in Belarus right now, after a year from the start of the protest, and in economic terms? What is the situation there?
Protests are gone right now. There. There is no more demonstration, there are no more strikes, there are no more protest movements. I think that society is tired. Society is also, I don’t want to say, terrorized. But a lot of people who used to go to the streets are now scared of what happened next. From the very beginning of the protest, the Belarussian society was divided over them and there was always a deal of society who actually stood behind Lukashenko, who actually voted Lukashenka in in the presidential elections, and who was afraid of any changes that could occur in the country. They accept the stability, this kind of stability that Lukashenko built and they are pretty afraid of having a violent, political change in the country. And these people, for sure, we’re not protesting and they are now living their ordinary lives as they did before. As for people who have oppositional, democratic thinking, they also feel today that the protest wave is gone and that the state simply turned out too strong. The system turned out too strong to be overthrown and after a lot of journalists, a lot of local activists were given prison terms, the others are simply afraid to protest again. And that is the situation in Belarus now.
So at this moment, facing a number of crises with regard to Belarus and on the border with Belarus, I guess the EU will have to focus its attention on one more crisis in its neighbourhood and we’ll be waiting to see new developments and react to them. Thanks, Malgorzata!
Thank you very much.
Photo: A migrant on the Polish-Belarussian border (source: Mikolaj Pietrzak)