How Belarus Weaponized Refugees And The Failure Of The EU
Following the stolen 2020 Belarusian presidential election and the deterioration of the Belarus–European Union relations, a refugee crisis broke out on the Poland-Belarus border in July 2021. Four months have passed since and still thousands of men, women, and children are left stranded at the border in the freezing weather, living in terrible conditions as they wait to cross into Poland. According to several news outlets, at least 10 people along the border have been killed so far. Aid workers say the unofficial death toll is much higher. At least one 14-year-old Kurdish boy froze to death overnight on the Belarusian side of the border. Survivors are suffering from exhaustion, hunger, and hypothermia.
Poland blames Belarus for shamelessly using the refugees as political pawns, as a way to get revenge for Western sanctions on the administration of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. When asked about the crisis Charles Michel, the president of the European Council said “It is a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack,”. Dictator Lukashenko gaslight in response, “We are not blackmailing anyone and we are not threatening anyone. You have put us in such circumstances that we are forced to react and we are reacting.”
An investigation by Der Spiegel and the Dossier Center found that Tsentrkurort a company connected to Lukashenko was luring Iraqi citizens by helping them obtain fast and easy Belarusian visas. They used Facebook and Telegram to post ads to lure people to Belarus and ultimately towards the border. Posts calling for refugees in Belarus to gather and attempt a mass crossing were posted on several Kurdish-language pages in the days leading up to the start of the Poland / Belarus border crisis. On November 6, 2021, a page called Ranj Pzhdary Journalist shared a video calling on refugees in Belarus to gather “tomorrow between noon and 3pm to move towards the border". The post received more than 195,000 views. Other posts minimized the difficulty and danger of the crossing. Some posts urged the audience not to listen to those who warned about the dangers of the crossing. Some of the warnings that were dismissed included risky weather, dangerous temperatures, lack of roads, and the risk of being brutally beaten.
According to documents a state tourism company that is part of the Office of the President of Belarus is providing transfer from Minsk airport to the city and state-run hotels, then people are taken to the border in an organised manner. Tsentrkurort denied coordinating the travel of Iraqi nationals to Belarus. It has been reported by witnesses that the Lukashenko regime has been forcibly transporting refugees by the truckload towards the Polish border and also Lithuania. Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT interviewed a number of refugees and Iraqi travel agency employees, their investigation exposed that the Lukashenka regime earns money on migration visas, accommodation in Minsk hotels, and transportation. According to their investigation, Iraqi travel agencies collect a deposit of some $3,000 per person. The money is then used to pay for the services of those who traffick refugees to the border of Belarus and beyond. In total, human trafficking to Europe, including crossing the Belarusian border, can cost $6,000–$15,000 per person.
Belarus threatens to cut gas deliveries to EU
While the European Union was getting ready to impose new sanctions on Belarus for encouraging refugees to cross into EU territory, President Lukashenko came out with a statement, threatening to cut gas deliveries from Russia to the EU if the country is sanctioned. "We are heating Europe, they are still threatening us that they will close the border. And if we shut off natural gas there? Therefore, I would recommend that the Polish leadership, Lithuanians and other headless people think before speaking," Lukashenko threatened. Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki claims that allowing refugees to enter the country would be giving in to ‘blackmail’ from Lukashenko. Instead, prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has opted to allow the refugees to suffer and breach international law, in exchange for political gain at home. Poland has deployed thousands of troops to secure the border and plans to spend €350m on a border wall. Poland also passed flawed legislation in October that illegally allows border guards to breach international law and immediately expel people who cross the border without documentation including those seeking asylum. Under international law, all countries, including Poland, are required to help anyone seeking asylum. Poland’s government insists it has an obligation to defend its territory however it is mistaking its localized law as superseding international law, which it does not.
According to Poland’s Ministry of Defense, at least 468 refugees attempted to cross the border 'illegally' on Wednesday. 42 people have been arrested and ordered to leave Poland’s territory and go back to Belarus after attempting to cross. Polish Reinforcements were sent to the area after various objects were thrown at the military, and the desperate refugees attempted to destroy the barbwire border fence. In response, the soldiers fired warning shots into the air, making the Belarusian border guards force the refugees back to the forest. At least 5,000 others are currently trapped in the forest in an area dubbed the emergency zone. Another group of refugees tried to flee through the border near the village of Shudzyalovo. The Polish authorities claim a stick was thrown at one of the soldiers. The soldier responded by firing warning shots into the air. The 'attacker' fled and no one was hurt in the incident. Kalina Czwarnog, who works for the Polish human rights organisation, Fundacja Ocalenie, said that refugees told her they were “walking through bodies”. There are also unverified reports of a three-year-old child from Syria dying while crossing the forest. Currently, refugees have to survive severe weather conditions, with temperatures reported to drop to -20℃ while stuck between the two borders, too afraid to approach either side.
“Small children, sick and elderly people cannot survive these temperatures without having proper equipment, and people rarely have any kind of equipment with them,” Czwarnog said. According to Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer at Grupa Granica, Belarusian border guards are beating and threatening to murder refugees if they do not cross the razor-wire fence into Poland, others are sent into the forest to wait. Human rights defenders say that some refugees have been reported to have broken limbs from being attacked by Belarusian forces. “Sending people into forests where the temperatures will reach -20℃ is like sending them to death,” said Gorczyńska. Małgorzata Nowasad, from the Medycy na Granycy (Doctors on the Border) group of volunteer medics, has treated refugees with medical problems including hypothermia, frostbite, hunger, dehydration, and other life-threatening conditions. “There are going to be more and more people who need help in the hospital,” Even with help from aid workers, Nowasad said, it is not possible for some refugees to survive in the forest for longer than a week.
While the EU, Poland, and Belarus ponder on the political consequences of their border conflict, others have stepped up to fill the role the governments have failed to. The Polish government has cynically denied multiple requests by NGOs to enter the emergency zone to help aid the refugees, forcing the only assistance refugees can get is from local residents, who are willing help at their own risk and dime. Human rights defenders have been doing what they can to help and save the refugees hiding in the part of the forests that stretch past the emergency zone, stuck between borders. They have been delivering food, water and clothes, guided by location pins sent by refugees to alert rescuers to their whereabouts. Grupa Granica has been in contact with more than 1,000 stranded refugees and providing assistance. “Our most important job is to keep people alive, the ones we can reach. Very often, by the time we reach people they’re in a very critical state – they are dehydrated, they have hyperthermia,” Gorczyńska said.
Since September 3, the Fundacja Ocalenie has also been in regular phone contact with Afghan refugees stuck in Usnarz Górny on the Polish-Belarussian border. Piotr Bystrianin, Chairperson of the Board of the Fundacja Ocalenie says, “We are aware that this communication channel is most likely under the control of the Belarusian border guard – after all, someone is charging this phone. Therefore, as long as possible, we preferred to rely on communication face-to-face. Unfortunately, by introducing a state of emergency, the Polish government left us no choice. The phone is the only means of communicationwe have left,” “We did not disclose that we had phone contact with the group earlier, because we were afraid that Polish guards might take the telephone. In addition, we had a bit of hope that the authorities – Polish or Belarusian – would come to their senses, fearing that someone would die, and end this horrific show of strength. Unfortunately, we now know with certainty that the death of people is not an obstacle to the continuation of these inhuman activities. The situation of the group is so dramatic that we have to tell the world about it,“
Voice of the voiceless
The following statements were recorded by Fundacja Ocalenie, two refugees Ms Gul and Masoud plea for help.
MS GUL, Afghan refguee:
"Greetings to the entire Polish nation, to men and women! We are sitting between the barbed wires of Belarus and Poland. What are we going to do, you know whose hands Afghanistan is in. Our country has been taken by the Taliban, and what shall we do? We are surrounded by barbed wire. You know from your own history what it means to be refugees. You know what it is. You are not at home, you have no food. Every day I go and look at the Polish and Belarusian side and I think what’s next? Please, please! Please, Poland, have mercy on us! Take us from here, somewhere inside the country! We only ask this much, save us from death! If you do not want to offer us protection, at least save us from death. If you don’t want to protect us, that’s not a problem, just save us from death. And then we will do something to return to our country. You all know that we cannot return to our country. If we could, I wouldn’t be staying here for a second. I’m sick. I have a sore back and (pains in my) left kidney. I am very ill. I can’t sleep at night. Whoever wants to know how we feel can come and ask and see what state we are in. On both sides, the officers can see our condition. We ask them to have mercy. They see the state we are in. For the first time in history, I see a situation where people are stopped several times in the country they are fleeing to and pushed back to the border. Please don’t do this to us, help us! Get us out of here! Nobody wants to help us: neither Poland nor Belarus.”
"Good morning to everyone belonging to the Polish nation! I greet everyone from the border, where 32 people from Afghanistan have been sitting for 42 days hungry, cold and in a very bad condition. It’s been raining for 3 days and nights, all the tents are wet and all our stuff too. Neither the Polish nor the Belarusian side gives us anything to eat. We ask you to help us get out of this place. Give us shelter for a while, so we dont die here. We ask the Polish people to ask their government to help us, so that we do not die. Put us somewhere for a while, get us out of here and then decide what to do with us. If we stay here for 2 or 3 days, I’m sure we’ll die here. Between 4 and10 people could die within days. They are all just lying in their tents. They have headaches, stomachaches, they are in a very bad condition. A separate request to the Polish government: please help us, because you left us here for 42 days. At least give us permission to be placed somewhere for a while. Then you will decide if we go back to Afghanistan. Because we’re sitting here and neither side wants to take us in. If we stay here and die, will you take care of our dead bodies?”
Even though Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, the country is taking extra measures to prevent refugees and migrants from crossing the Belarus-Ukraine border. According to the Ukrainian interior minister, Ukraine will deploy at least 8,500 troops and police officers, and 15 helicopters, to guard its border with Belarus. The Kremlin is praising and defending the Belarus dictatorship's handling of the issue and is denying any involvement in the crisis while expressing "concern" for the events on the Belarus-Poland border. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cynically suggested the European Union could provide financial assistance to Belarus as they did for Turkey. Shamelessly exposing the true intentions of the Kremlin and Lukashenko regime. "Yesterday during certain political expert discussions it was said: why when refugees were coming from Turkey did the EU provide financing so that they stayed in the Turkish republic? Why is it not possible to help the Belarusians in the same way?" he said. According to a Merkel spokesman, Merkel told Putin “The Belarusian regime’s exploitation of [refugees] against the European Union is inhumane and completely unacceptable,” to which the Russian president responded by saying that the EU should discuss the issue with Lukashenko himself.
The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, announced he plans to speak with Putin to discuss a range of issues, including the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border. "Yesterday, [German acting Chancellor] Angela Merkel had a possibility to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin. I will exchange views on many matters with President Putin within days, including on Ukraine and Belarus," he said, adding that Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi also plans to speak with the Russian leader.
UN rights chief urges ‘de-escalation' of Poland-Belarus crisis
“I urge the states involved to take immediate steps to de-escalate and resolve this intolerable situation in line with their obligations under international human rights law and refugee law,” the UN rights chief said in a statement. “These hundreds of men, women, and children must not be forced to spend another night in freezing weather without adequate shelter, food, water, and medical care,” she said. “Under international law, no one should ever be prevented from seeking protection, and individual consideration must be given to their protection needs.”