The tragedy at the border of Belarus and Poland is the most recent example of migration policy that violates international asylum law and human rights. Several thousand migrants are stuck at Belarus’ border with the EU. They have no access to clean water, food and shelter amidst sub-zero temperatures and the constant threat of being found by border guards.
Belarus is violating international asylum law by flying in migrants from the Middle East and Asia and bringing them to its border with Poland. Belarusian travel bureaus that are controlled by the government are promising passage to the European Union (EU). Mainly people from Iraq, Syria, Yemen flew to Minsk and have had to pay up to $15,000.
After arriving in Minsk by plane, often in shorts and T-shirts as shown by airport photographs, the passengers are brought to hotels that are supervised by the government. A few hours later, guards transport them to the forest and “violently shove them past the border fence. Some migrants we saw had their faces sliced with barbed wire,” Anna K Politico in an interview last week. She lives close to the border on the Polish side and has been filming how the Belarusian guards, who came with “snarling attack dogs in full battle gear”, push the migrants forward into the forest. The migrants then make their way through the forest to enter the EU. In many places, there are no paths, just a muddy marshland, an endless "frozen jungle”. The temperatures go below minus 20.
Medics from the Polish Centre for International Aid found people who had been hiding in the forest for weeks while waiting for a chance to travel deeper into the EU. One of the women, who arrived from Syria, says her one-year-old has died, while another refugee is treated after miscarrying. A Syrian couple had wounded arms and legs, and a man with strong stomach pain caused by severe dehydration. At least ten migrants have died, and the real number is likely to be much higher.
Poland has increased border guards and police and deployed the army and the Territorial Defense Force in the Hajnówka region next to Belarus. When they catch people, they drive them to the border and push them back into Belarus. Belarusian guards do not let people back in and verbally and physically threaten them to attempt to cross the border again. Lithuania has also pushed migrants back to Belarus, around 7,000 people (BBC 2021).
“Nobody is letting us get in anywhere, Belarus or Poland," Shwan Kurd from Iraq described to the BBC. He travelled from Baghdad to Minsk at the start of the month. He is now in a temporary camp situated metres from Poland's barbed-wire fence. “There's no way to escape," he said. "Poland won't let us in. Every night they fly helicopters. They don't let us sleep. We are so hungry. There's no water or food here. There are little children, old men and women, and families.”
Lukashenko is likely trying to pressure the EU to lift sanctions that were imposed after the presidential elections in August 2020. The sanctions target key revenue sources for the government, such as the tobacco, fertilizer and petroleum sector. The government has been accused of fraudulent elections since 1994 when Lukashenko first became President. This time Lukashenko supposedly won with 4.6 million votes, so 80%, and Tsikhanouskaya only 10%, or 588,000 votes. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate, is a former English teacher. She united opposition groups over common grievances, namely Belarus’ poor economy and Lukashenko’s failure to adequately respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The opposition had trained people to monitor polling stations and created a website where voters could upload photos of their ballots in order to contrast the number with the Central Election Commission’s figure. A poll worker said she was told to leave the number of votes blank when she signed the document summing up the number of votes at the ballot station. Evidence that was posted online confirms fraud. In a recording that was posted on YouTube, official poll workers instruct the poll workers to “swap the numbers” for Lukashenko and Tsikhanouskaya.
His regime has also been under international pressure because it intimidated and violently repressed peaceful protesters, civil society activists, opposition members and journalists. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians protested the falsified election result. The demonstrations and strikes were met by mass detentions, beatings by police officers and criminal charges against organizers. On 23 September, Lukashenko started his sixth presidential term.
What is next? Should the EU give in to Belarus’ pressure and suspend sanctions? Currently, Poland and Lithuania are pushing asylum seekers back across the border, thereby breaching the principle of non-refoulment. Lukashenko denies allegations that he created the crisis and urged the EU to accept some migrants while Belarus repatriates others. He particularly asked Germany, the preferred destination of many migrants. Germany, Austria and other countries have rejected his call. “The idea of having a humanitarian corridor to Germany for 2,000 migrants is not a solution that is acceptable to Germany or the EU," said a spokesman of the Austrian government. Refugees are thus denied their right to apply for asylum. The political conflict is fought at their expense.
A Kurdish family who travelled to the Poland-Belarus border from Iraq. Getty images.
The EU is morally and legally responsible for the migrants’ deaths and the inhumane conditions since this is happening at the border of the EU. So what is the EU doing to help? It established a humanitarian emergency fund of €700 000 to support the migrants, of which €200 000 are going to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). It also added sanctions to respond to Belarus’ “instrumentalisation of human beings [ ] for political purposes” (European Council, 2021). The sanctions target all individuals and entities that seem to be assisting the administration in moving people towards the border.
Despite the EU’s Common European Asylum System, there is disagreement about further actions. The Mixed Migration Centre reminded that the refugees and migrants are being stripped of their agency and dehumanized, as Belarus tries to use people as bargaining chips. The EU cannot control Belarus actions. It can however ensure that its policy of migration control respects international asylum law and human rights.