How Belarusian stalemate differs from recent migrant crises

A crowd of migrants trying to cross a border has become appallingly familiar in recent years. We have seen masses of desperate people s...


A crowd of migrants trying to cross a border has become appallingly familiar in recent years. We have seen masses of desperate people seeking refuge in unknown lands: Syrians fleeing civil war, Rohingyas brutally driven from Myanmar, Afghans fleeing the Taliban regime.

But the stalemate at the Belarus-Poland border, where thousands of migrants camp in a frozen forest – and many have died – differs markedly from these crises in its origins, relative scale and implications.

First, it appears to be an orchestrated crisis, created by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the autocratic leader of Belarus, to cause problems for the European Union.

Belarus allows few independent news media or political opposition. Lukashenko’s claim last year to be re-elected with 80 percent of the vote was widely seen as a farce, and hundreds of thousands of people protested.

Authorities suppressed the demonstrations with force. In response, the EU has imposed sanctions on Belarus, which is not a member of the union, and Lukashenko is keen to see them lifted.

In recent months, it has welcomed thousands of visitors eager to reach the much freer and wealthier countries of Western and Northern Europe. This means first entering one of the EU member countries bordering Belarus – Poland, Lithuania or Latvia.

The number of people passing through Belarus has risen sharply in August, for most Afghans. It increased last month with people from Iraq and Syria, many of them of Kurdish ethnicity.

Lukashenko and his government deny having deliberately used migrants to destabilize the EU, while repeatedly threatening to do so. But the evidence is compelling, starting with the country’s liberal granting of visas to people with one-way plane tickets to Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

Some migrants said they were taken to EU borders by Belarusian authorities, who urged – or even forced – cross them. They say that these authorities gave them wire cutters to break down fences, help break down barriers and prevent them from returning to cities.

Aid groups estimate that as many as 4,000 migrants at a time have camped on the Polish border, and there are perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 in total in Belarus – far fewer than the millions who have. fled Syria or the million who were forced to leave Myanmar.

But the numbers are more than enough to trigger tensions in Europe, where migration policy is crude. It is as much a political crisis as it is a migratory crisis.

The right-wing party in power in Poland has long called non-European migrants a threat to Polish culture and sovereignty, and its response to the current situation has been, as one would expect, passionate. He describes the conditions as an attack from Belarus and has deployed thousands of troops to prevent migrants from entering.

In 2015-16, over a million people, mostly Syrians, flocked to Europe. The resulting backlash has encouraged right-wing nationalists across the continent, and since then mainstream politicians have shied away from embracing immigration.

Six years ago, some countries, notably Germany, took in migrants, while others, including Poland, refused to accept more than one, clashing with European leaders. But there was no danger of armed conflict between them.

Now no one is offering to take the migrants away, even if they suffer from life-threatening conditions. The EU is united behind Poland, which presents itself as the bloc’s first line of defense, and Warsaw and Minsk have exchanged disturbing threats.

Many Middle Easterners in Belarus are economic migrants who don’t appear to be considered refugees, although that doesn’t make the danger they face – at least 11 have died in the cold – any less real.

International agreements define refugees as people with legitimate fears of violence or persecution, and give them the right to asylum. Many in the 2015-16 migrant stream were fleeing wars.

Repressive governments in Syria and Afghanistan still pose a serious threat to many of their inhabitants, but the wars there have subsided and Iraq is relatively safe.

But many people currently in Belarus have left Iraq and Syria in search of economic opportunities. They would not be entitled to asylum.

Polish and Lithuanian authorities allegedly abused migrants, forcing them to return to Belarus without hearing their asylum claims, which rights groups say violates international law. Now the migrants are trapped in a potentially deadly clash.

“We have become like a chicken in a cage in the hands of the Belarusian and Polish police”, Bayar awat, an Iraqi Kurd stuck at the border with his wife and granddaughter, said in a telephone interview.

“One of them will not let us go back to Minsk and the other will not let us in,” he added.

Unlike many migrant crises, it has been virtually impossible for foreigners to fully know what is going on.

Poland and Lithuania have barred journalists and human rights groups from entering borders, which include some of Europe’s wildest areas and some of the remaining areas Virgin forests.

Belarus also kept journalists away for weeks, but began to give them limited access, posing as the humanitarian actor and Poland as the villain.

The Polish authorities are engaging in a game of cat and mouse with migrants along the roads and dirt tracks that cross the woods on their side of the border. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the region is strong; activists trying to help migrants have found their broken cars.

Despite this, aid groups and individuals have made their way to forests and villages just outside the three-kilometer-wide exclusion zone which Polish authorities have banned all non-residents from. They hang bags with food, water and other supplies on tree branches for migrants to find.

But they rarely see those they are trying to help, only the traces they leave behind – food wrappers, old campsites, paperwork in Arabic, and even a boarding pass for a flight from Damascus, Syria, to. Minsk.

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