The Iranian Labour News Agency speaks to Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat about the migrants-related humanitarian catastrophe on the Polish-Belarussian border and its political dimensions that deal with the Belarussian president, the Polish prime minister, the EU and its migration policy
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat is a Polish political scientist and journalist, expert on Central and Eastern European politics. She is also deputy editor-in-chief of website Strajk.eu. Below is the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA)’s interview with her about the current migration crisis at Belarus–Poland border. It was published on 25 November 2021.
The crisis caused by the displacement of thousands of refugees on the Belarusian-Polish border, especially on the eve of the cold season and the lack of relief forces, has sparked sharp differences over geopolitical issues and raised concerns about a humanitarian catastrophe. What is your assessment of the current state of the Polish-Belarusian border?
Right now there are probably a few thousand refugees on the Belorussian territory, most of them in the immediate vicinity of the border. The biggest group among the refugees are Iraqi Kurds, followed by Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis from other regions of the country, African nationals (Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria citizens). The humanitarian situation of these people is truly tragic: they ran away from countries devastated by wars and foreign West-sponsored military interventions, countries which are in most of the cases run by corrupt, not socially-oriented governments. Many of them sold everything they had in their native countries to get the money for a flight to Belarus and then a new beginning in Europe. They were lied by Belorussian ‘travel agencies’ in Iraq, who promised them a fast and safe passage to Germany (for it is Germany, and not Poland or Lithuania or Latvia, which is the desired final destination for most of the refugees). Instead, they are stuck: Polish border guards are determined to push the crossing migrants back to Belorussian territory, while Belorussians keep them stranded by the border. Some of the refugees reported that Belorussian border soldiers forced them to go to Poland as well. There are people who were pushed from side to side five times or even more.
And the humanitarian catastrophe is already there. For a few weeks, temperatures in Eastern Poland and in Belarus have been very low. There are frostbites, it begins to snow. Only a few days ago a temporary camp was built on the Belorussian side, but not all the desperate people are housed inside. On the Polish side, there are no shelters at all. Those who manage to cross into Polish territory are then hiding in the forests, for if they are found by the border guards, they are immediately sent back to Belarus, to the Belorussian forest, unless their health state is critical. In the great majority of cases, the border guards pay no attention to pleas for international protection. They just send people back to the forest, no matter what country did they come from, no matter if they are men, women or children. Only humanitarian groups like Grupa Granica (Border Group) or Medycy na Granicy (Doctors on the Border, a self-organized medic team) have been searching for refugees in the woods, offering them medical help, food and water, warm clothing – to save them from death. However, they were only able to operate outside of Emergency Zone – state of emergency had been proclaimed by the Polish government in the immediate border zone, 15 km from the border. Inside the zone, no humanitarian workers/activists and no journalists are allowed. Only local inhabitants could help migrants, and some of them indeed did so. Others, however, believed the government’s claims that the migrants are extremely dangerous and reported them to the police and the border guards.
As of 24 November, we know for sure about 17 migrants, who died on both sides on the border. However, many migrants claim the real number of victims is bigger and that there are other bodies, left in the woods. We also know that the refugees will not be able to pass into Germany. The government in Berlin stated that opening humanitarian corridors for 2,000 migrants, as suggested by the Belorussian government, is unacceptable, for it was Belarus who flared up the conflict to attack European Union first.
The border crisis between Poland and Belarus began earlier this year, following a reaction by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to EU sanctions. Months ago, the European Union and the United States boycotted the Lukashenko government on the pretext of cracking down on dissent after the controversial August 2020 election, which sparked widespread anti-government protests. The move angered Lukashenko, who reacted by saying Belarus was abandoning efforts to prevent illegal immigrants and refugees from entering the EU. Is the current crisis of the Belarusian government settling accounts with the European Union abusing asylum seekers, similar to what Erdogan did in Turkey a long time ago?
I would even say that Erdogan could have been an inspiration for Lukashenko. He would have loved to be in Erdogan’s position: receiving money for not letting migrants advance into the EU and not being constantly criticized for authoritarian rule and cracking down on dissent. And if receiving money is not possible – as there will be never, for geographical reasons, as many refugees coming from Belarus as there were from Turkey – then Lukashenko wants to win at least an international recognition. After the 2020 election, the European Union and all the key member states declared that Lukashenka had rigged the election and would not be recognized as president anymore. The Belorussian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouska, has been frequently invited to European Parliament and to give public speeches along with European leaders, demanding more sanctions on Belarus. Allowing migrants to appear in thousands on EU borders, Lukashenko hoped to force European leaders to talk to him, as the actual Belorussian leader, and he achieved that aim. Angela Merkel has talked to him over the phone – and although the move was criticized by other European leaders, this fact is clear enough: the German government has admitted that it is Lukashenko, and not anyone else, who is now in control of the situation in Belarus.
The Polish prime minister described the border crisis with Belarus as the biggest attempt to destabilize Europe since the Cold War in 30 years. Is the refugee crisis a threat to European security?
I see a clear exaggeration in Mateusz Morawiecki’s words. If we compare the current crisis to the previous large waves of migrants, coming through the Mediterranean Sea or from Turkey via the Balkans, we will see that the group stranded in Belarus is still relatively small. We are talking about a few thousand, possibly more than 10,000 refugees and migrants, not about hundreds of thousands! In addition, these people are unarmed and they say clear enough that their aim is to settle down in Europe for peaceful living. A lot of them already have relatives in Germany and elsewhere. And even if we assume that there might be dangerous individuals among the refugees (for example, Salafi extremists who had fought in the Syria war), then Polish policy of pushing everyone back is hardly an answer. Some 3,000 migrants made their way to Germany despite Polish actions and have been admitted to refugee centers there. Those people managed to sneak through the border and then cross the entire Polish territory, East to West, despite the controls, despite the military presence in the Emergency Zone – and went unregistered and unchecked. In other words, Polish border policies hit mainly the weakest (eg. families with children who cannot march fast), and still have not achieved its aim to prevent all the migrants from passing.
We also must see the present crisis from a wider perspective. Beyond doubt, the Iraqis or Syrians would have never appeared on that particular border without Belorussian ‘travel agencies’ and Lukashenko’s politics. However, the refugees will not disappear from European borders if this conflict is over. As an anti-war activist put it during a recent solidarity demonstration in front of the Polish embassy in London: they would not have come, hadn’t we bombed one country after another! I would have added: and had the West not colonized and exploited one country after another. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen lie in ruins. There are millions of people living in extreme poverty in South-Eastern Asia, in Africa and elsewhere. They will be searching for survival and better life, especially in view of the climate crisis. If Europe, if the rich societies of the global North and their leaders did not work to make the world more just, a place for everyone to live, then they will have to face consequences.
During the European migrant crisis in 2011, there was much debate about the appropriate response to resolve this situation. Some called for the complete closure of the borders, while others called for the reopening of the borders and the entry of asylum seekers. Is such a duality still in place and which side is more superior?
Right now the European politicians are mainly saying that ‘the EU must not be blackmailed’ by Lukashenka and that ‘we cannot give in’. Yes, some of them admit that the refugees are stuck in horrendous conditions and that they may start dying in hundreds if they are still in the forests during East-European winter. Nevertheless, no influential figure is now calling to accept the refugees or even to provide them with a genuine shelter, be it in Poland or in Belarus, as long as no solution is found out. There was an offer from the German city of Munchen to take the refugees and grant them asylum, but the German government basically rejected it. The politicians hardly see from what the refugees escaped, not to mention accepting any responsibility for the plight of Syrian, Iraqi or Yemeni society. They keep talking about Lukashenka’s ‘hybrid attack’ on Europe from which Europe must defend itself. A few days ago the EU’s speaker, Peter Stano, declared that Brussels would talk to UN and Belarus representatives (on ‘technical expert level’) to discuss how the migrants could be sent back to their native countries. There were already flights back to Iraq. This seems to be the solution most desired now by EU leaders.
The other position – to open the borders and let the refugees in – had been expressed by human rights activists and refugee supporters from Germany, Poland or Great Britain. However, this is no more than a voice of a part of civil society. Even left-wing political parties, who stand for humanitarian aid for refugees, are more reluctant to demand opening the borders.
Some believe that the full opening of the borders will lead to the rise of far-right groups in Europe. In Australia, for example, employers use Third World asylum seekers as an excuse to keep workers’ minimum wages low, fueling anti-immigration sentiment. In the current situation, what do you think is the main task of radical thinking in Europe?
Sadly, far-right groups are already gaining strength in Europe, in the countries with significant immigrant population and without it. Wherever capitalism and an undisputed faith in the free market led to rise of inequalities, poverty, and degradation of public services like transport or healthcare – there come right-wing extremists, preaching nationalism and xenophobia, claiming to fight against ‘socialism’ and ‘cultural marxism’, even though there are no socialist states in Europe for decades! And neoliberalism has hit, albeit to different extent, most of the European societies. The post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe never recovered from capitalist transformation which left their populations with an extremely unstable labour market, mass privatization that destroyed local industry, weak state institutions and a cult of private entrepreneurship pushed to absolutely absurd forms. The ‘welfare states’ of the West have also privatized services, reduced social spending and allowed the employers to lower the wages, using migrants as the excuse just as in your Australian example. Southern European states like Spain and Italy, in their turn, never recovered from 2008 crisis. So, even if there is still a huge difference in living conditions in Western and Eastern Europe, the societies of both parts feel that their living level is getting worse. And it was the far-right which played on these sentiments in much more efficient way than the left. Only recently the left noted a series of electoral successes, like in Germany (both on a national level and in regions). Will that be a trend? The European left must go back to its best values and traditions first.
What is the task of radical thinking in Europe? I would say: to admit that neoliberal capitalism we planted and exported does not work. Over the last few decades, most of us accepted that the social and political system will be based on race for profit and that those who do not well in the race will be abandoned. Now we see that this system is destroying our societies and our environment. We must rethink socialist ideas, ideas of collective cooperation and support. We must reorganize our economies so that they serve the needs of people and does not play a destructive role. It is not time for short-term politics and sowind discord. The system of greed and exploitation has simply gone too far.
Photo: Migrants on the Polish-Belarussian border (source: YouTube, Euronews)