Belarus: Refugee Crisis Not Yet Out of The Woods
While some asylum seekers have been moved to temporary accommodation, the underlying issues remain unresolved.
For weeks, TV footage has shown Polish security forces facing off with thousands of refugees across the barbed wire fence on the Belarus border that stands between them and their dream of reaching Europe.
Since the summer, thousands of people from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, including many children, have tried to cross from Belarus into the EU through the border with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. They have been caught in the eye of a geopolitical storm as the EU’s border policies clashed with the bloc’s strained relationship with Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko.
On November 18, following phone calls between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lukashenko, the Belarus authorities moved most of the refugees from the Polish border to a warehouse that has been converted into an ad-hoc processing centre. There, they received hot food and dry bedding.
The issue, however, remains far from being resolved. The EU has blamed Belarus, with Russian support, of orchestrating a crisis as a form of hybrid warfare. It accused Minsk of using human beings as a bargaining chip, offering refugees tourist visas and bringing them to the border area to pressure the bloc into lifting sanctions imposed over the violent crackdown after last year’s disputed presidential elections.
Belarus officials have denied bringing people to the border, but they have not stopped them reaching it. In an interview with the BBC, aired on November 22, Lukashenko said it was "absolutely possible" his forces helped migrants to get to Poland.
In June, news of people arriving in Minsk and heading to the frontier with the EU started surfacing. They were small groups, hailing largely from Iraq. By August, this number had grown to hundreds; by early November, thousands.
“August 18 was a turning point, we received information that a group of Afghans were stuck in a village between Belarus and Poland,” Kornelia Trytko, an activist with the Polish Foundation Ocalenie (rescue) humanitarian assistance NGO, told IWPR.
Refugees had arrived legally in Minsk, with ordinary plane tickets from Damascus and Istanbul. In October, Minsk international airport’s schedule featured 55 flights a week from Turkey and the Middle East.
“Sometimes I see them [refugees] at the train station,” one resident of Grodno, a town in western Belarus about 15km from Poland and 30km from Lithuania, told IWPR. “In September and October taxi drivers started to talk about how profitable it was to carry refugees to the border. Each trip costs about 250 US dollars and they were happy that in a couple of trips they could earn enough money for a TV. I myself have seen such taxis, full of people, doing at least four or five trips in a day.”
Humanitarian organisations say that most of the asylum seekers had paid between 4,000 and 12,000 dollars in the hope that they would be allowed to enter the EU legally.
“[They] are from the middle class, by Belarusian standards,” said Alena Chekhovich, a human rights activist at the Belarusian civil organisation Human Constanta. “The people we talked to did not leave for economic reasons, [they fled] because they feared for their lives back home…and are trying to pass through the territory of Belarus to seek asylum in a third country, in EU countries.”
In late October, news reports and social media feeds showed thousands of people in makeshift camps warming themselves by small fires as they braved the below-zero temperature in the forest near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing separating Belarus from Poland. Many tried to remove the barbed wire fence by using tree trunks to press it down to the ground.
Loudspeakers on the Polish side routinely warn them against crossing, broadcasting the message, “Attention, police inform: if you don’t follow the orders force may be used against you.”
The numbers were estimated at up to 4,000: exposed to the merciless Belarus’ winter, at least eight people have died, according to media reports, although human rights organisations put the number higher.
Various countries, including the UK, dispatched support to Poland to help stem the tide of migrants asking to be let in.
In mid-November the crisis reached a crescendo when the Polish authorities restricted access to the border to local residents, ambulances and security forces as well as media and human rights organisations. On November 14, Poland closed the crossing point, threatening Belarus that it would also shut the railway crossing which would effectively cut the country off from EU imports.
On the same day, Latvia launched a fortnight of unscheduled military exercises on the border with Belarus. The two countries, along with Lithuania, also considered triggering NATO’s Article 4, which calls for consultations when “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened”.
On November 16, hundreds of mostly young men tried to storm the border and the Polish security forces responded with stun grenades, water cannons and tear gas. Video footage showed white clouds of tear gas moving from the Polish security forces towards the crowd, which retreated.
Frantic diplomatic work followed as Merkel negotiated with Lukashenko to address the pressing humanitarian crisis.
“Merkel solved a very specific local issue - she made sure that people were taken away from the border,” German academic Alexander Friedman told IWPR. “If Lukashenko's game was to attract attention and make people talk to him, then to a certain extent he succeeded. But he missed all chances; he insisted on lifting the sanctions and recognising him as legitimate [president], which he did not get.”
Instead, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced new sanctions against Belarus, specifically targeting people and entities involved in the crisis on the bloc’s eastern external border.
The EU has allocated up to 3.5 million euros for returning people to their home countries. The Iraqi government has organised flights for its citizens who have requested to return home, while Poland is planning deportations.
Rights groups have called on nations to remember their international commitments, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, according to which refugees have the right to apply for asylum.
“People at the [Polish] border are not enemies, as official media tell us,” Trytko, the Polish activist, said. “They are the victims of the cynical game that the Belarusian regime is playing…and victims of the policies that Poland is pursuing instead of complying with international laws.”
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.