Sunday Longread: A geopolitical stand-off with thousands of refugees caught in the middle

What the Polish-Belarusian border tells us about the future of Eastern Europe

In the last few months, we have been faced with yet another political dust-up over the status of refugees in Europe: the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border. Thousands of people seek aid and entry to the EU daily, and the tension between the two governments continues to mount.

The issues between the two countries, culminating in this border crisis, started with the presidential elections in Belarus, beginning on 4 August 2020, and since this time there has been a snowball effect. Belarusian politician Alexander Lukashenko was elected for president (for the 6th time in a row), winning against opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who claimed that it was an electoral fraud. After this event, many Belarusians took to the streets in order to protest against Lukashenko and consequently faced harsh crackdowns from Belarusian police and militia. These events led to the European Union’s decision to impose sanctions against Lukashensko’s government, thus straining the already tense relations between Belarus and the EU.

 Soon after this decision, a chain of incidents followed. One of these events was the forced landing of Ryanair flight FR4978, whose final destination was Vilnius, Lithuania. The plane was forced to land in Minsk as it transited Belarusian airspace. On the pretext of an alleged bomb onboard the flight, a MiG-29 fighter jet was sent to escort the plane to the airport in Minsk. Subsequently, the regime-critical Belaursian journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested, without any immediate justification. The EU, as well as the EU Aviation Safety Agency, reacted swiftly, imposing new sanctions on the government and prohibiting any air-traffic between Belarus and the EU. Other countries and flight connections suffered from this decision and it ultimately led to Russia issuing a statement in which they said that “the problems [on the Ryanair FR4978 flight] were of a purely technical nature and that this problem should not become an additional irritant in Russia’s relations with the European Union”. This statement justified Lukashenko’s behavior, in the Russian view.

Shortly thereafter, the Belarusian dictator thought of yet another way to get his revenge on the EU. He chose Poland and Lithuania as his main targets, most likely because both of them supported the Belarusian opposition to his government following the rigged elections, sheltering students and giving aid to those from the opposition. Tsikhanouskaya resides in Vilnius, at the invitation of the Lithuanian government. The Belarusian government started to cooperate with airlines from the Middle East, including Turkish Airlines, encouraging refugees and other migrants to travel to Minsk on the state-owned airline Belavia. They supported them accordingly “with a visa, flight and accommodation”. Most of the people who came to Minsk were from the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which is suffering from economic and political instability. 

“This could cause one to question whether the EU motto, ‘united in diversity’ ever includes people from outside of the EU.”

From Minsk, the Belarusian government helped migrants reach the Polish and Lithuanian border by giving transport and sometimes supplying them with “cutters and axes” to breach the fences and barbed wires on the border, according to the EU. Most of them chose Poland over Lithuania because they wanted to reach Germany or other European countries to reunite with their families and communities, and Lithuania is mostly separated from central and western Europe by the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. All of these people were running from serious issues in their home countries and regions, including hunger, war and poverty. Many commentators have heavily criticised Lukashenko for taking advantage of such humanitarian crises to serve his own needs. However, European countries have hardly reacted appropriately to the problem. This could cause one to question whether the EU motto, “united in diversity” ever includes people from outside of the EU.

The Polish government has dictated much of the response to the situation, given its location. What began as several dozen people trying to gain sanctuary in Poland per day a few months ago rapidly changed as thousands of migrants arrived at the border. At first, the Polish government reacted to the new problem by enforcing a “state of emergency” in the area, not allowing any medics, journalists and people without specific documentation to enter the zone. 

“One of the worst and most important factors in this human rights crisis is that a large number of the migrants staying on the border are children.”

The only people that were dispatched to address the situation were border guards. Because of the lack of humanitarian aid and the poor conditions the migrants were forced to stay in, as well as the low temperatures and horrible weather, the situation has rapidly gotten out of control; at least 11 people have died at the border in the past few months. A group of Polish medics called Medics on the Border, created for the purpose of giving aid to people in need, have been trying to reach the migrants to provide medical help. However, they were refused with a letter from the Polish government. In this letter, it was stated that border guards are able to provide first aid and call emergency services when necessary, according to Notes from Poland. Not everyone has been supportive of this effort to address refugee’s needs, either. Medics on the Border had a number of their vehicles vandalised, and far-right groups have attacked asylum seekers in the border area and chanted slogans like “border guards, open fire” at demonstrations.

One of the worst and most important factors in this human rights crisis is that a large number of the migrants staying on the border are children. Polish newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna says that they make up  about 20-30% of those in the area. 

It should be natural for all countries to support those that are vulnerable and the most in need of refuge and hospitality, but once again this appears not to be the case.