‘Weaponising Migration’: Why Is Belarus Clashing With Poland & the EU?

A deadly political game is playing out in Eastern Europe, and refugees from West Asia are merely the pawns.
Saptarshi Basak

(From front to back) Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. 


(Photo: Kamran Akhter/The Quint)

<div class="paragraphs"><p>(From front to back) Belarus president&nbsp;Alexander Lukashenko, European Commission president&nbsp;Ursula von der Leyen, and Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki.&nbsp;</p></div>

A tragedy is unfolding in Eastern Europe for the whole world to watch on the internet.

Videos on social media show thousands of migrants, mostly Iraqi Kurds who have been trying to flee from Belarus into Poland, being met at the border by the Polish defence forces, who have set up barbed wired fences to deny them entry into the country, the BBC reported on Monday, 8 November.

The refugees tried to use wire cutters to cut their way though fences while others tried to use tree branches to improvise an escape plan.

This, however, seems to be more than just a refugee crisis. Both Poland and the European Union have accused Belarus and its president Alexander Lukashenko of "weaponising migrants" in order to create instability within the EU.

Lukashenko has also been accused of using these migrants in a "gangster-style" manner to take revenge against the EU after the latter slapped sanctions on the Belarusian government for its dictatorial style of governance.

Clearly, there is a lot of political activity in the backdrop of the border crisis. In this explainer, we break it down for you.

How did these refugees enter Belarus? If Belarus is truly sending them to Poland for vindictive purposes, what is the motivation behind such a cruel endeavour?

And where do the EU sanctions come in? Why was Belarus sanctioned in the first place?

How Did the Refugees Enter Belarus?

Regardless of who emerges victorious from the political game that is being played out in Eastern Europe, one outcome is clear.

The refugees on the border are and will continue to go through immeasurable amounts of suffering, as they remain stranded in freezing temperatures with barely any food or water.

Most of the refugees that Lukashenko is allegedly smuggling out are originally Iraqi Kurds, who have flown into Minsk (the capital of Belarus) in the past few months.

How did they manage to get inside Belarus? The story is bizarre, to say the least, because they didn't really enter Belarus.

They were "brought" there.

It was reported that both Belarusian and Iraqi travel agencies were advertising and organising "tourist trips" to Belarus by reducing the prices for tours and increasing the number of flights that were running between the two countries, mostly from three cities in Iraq's Kurdistan Region – Irbil, Shiladze, and Sulaymaniyah – Deutsche Welle reported.

Belavia Airlines, the national airlines of Belarus, has been reported to have launched flights to Minsk from the three Kurdish cities.

Additionally, on a weekly average, around 40 flights have reached Minsk from Istanbul, Damascus and Dubai. In 2019, the weekly average for the same was only 17, The Economist reported.

Consequently, flying to Belarus became a simple and safe strategy to reach Europe because instead of taking a dangerous boat-trip through the Mediterranean Sea, asylum seekers merely had to take a flight to Belarus and use a car to reach the border after which countries like Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia would be accessible by foot.

The Charges Against Belarus 

The primary accusation against Lukashenko is that he is orchestrating the border crisis by forcing huge groups of refugees already in Belarus to illegally enter Poland by snatching their phones and belongings, and dropping them off at the Polish border.

"Upon arrival they are being pushed to the border and forced to make an illegal entry into the European Union," according to Peter Stano, a spokesperson for the European Commission, the BBC reported.

Lukashenko denies this, but the ground reports have made it clear that these people, including women and children, are neither being allowed entry into Poland nor being allowed to go back to Belarus.

"Nobody is letting us get in anywhere, Belarus or Poland," a 33-year-old told the BBC on video-call.

If Belarus indeed orchestrated the whole thing right from the very beginning, its efforts seem to have succeeded.

In October alone, there were more than 10,000 cases of migrants trying to illegally enter Poland from Belarus. Around 23,000 similar cases have been registered in 2021, according to statistics provided by a Deutsche Welle report.

The pictures and videos that emerged on social media about Monday's events are just an escalation of what has been happening for many weeks now.

But neither Poland nor Belarus show any signs of backing down.

Before we get to why Poland and the EU believe that Belarus is trying get the EU sanctions removed, it is important to understand what type of a president Alexander Lukashenko is, and why his government has been sanctioned.


'I Am the Last Dictator in Europe': All About Alexander Lukashenko

Those are Lukashenko's own words, during a rare interview to Reuters.

The self-styled dictator has been ruling Belarus with an iron hand since 1994 and has been accused of indulging in many activities that go against the spirit of democracy and human rights, leading to a deterioration of relations between Belarus and the EU.

He is also very closely allied to Vladimir Putin, which doesn't come as a surprise considering the hostility between the EU and Russia.

During the latest presidential elections for his sixth term as president, Lukashenko was accused of widespread electoral fraud, while the opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claimed that she had won around two-thirds of the total vote.

She even created a council to ensure a peaceful transfer of power within the Belarus government.

But Lukashenko didn't budge from the presidential throne. He instead surveyed the pro-democracy demonstrations that were happening on the ground from his helicopter, and ordered his forces to brutally crack down on the anti-governmental protesters, Reuters reported in a series of investigative articles.

Following his refusal to concede the presidency and following the horrific show of force against his own people, the EU announced and enforced sanctions against government officials that it blamed for election fraud and for humans rights violations.

"This is about the Belarusian people and their legitimate right to determine the future path of their country," Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission had then said.

The sanctions that were imposed a year ago and reintroduced again and again throughout 2021 due to Lukashenko's actions (like arresting anti-government journalist Roman Protasevich by diverting a flight) are now back in the picture.

The Inevitable Blame Game

The word from Brussels (the official capital of the EU) is that the Belarusian dictator is acting in retaliation against EU sanctions in what has been described as a new form of "hybrid warfare", Reuters reported.

Lukashenko has, of course, denied having any such motivation.

He instead told a Belarusian state news agency that he was "not a madman", and while he wouldn't kowtow to the EU, he didn't want the border crisis to escalate into a full-blown conflict that inevitably lures in Russia in support of Belarus.

His defence ministry instead has blamed the politicians in Warsaw for causing this crisis by stationing thousands of troops along the border and violating bilateral agreements in the process.

Poland's prime minister, however, has pointed all his guns at Moscow.

Mateusz Morawiecki has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of planning the whole crisis at the Polish border, claiming that while the cameras are focusing on Minsk, "it (the crisis) has its mastermind in Moscow".

Russia, in turn, has praised Lukashenko's "responsible" handling of the chaos.

Poland has also said that Belarus is trying to provoke a major incident in order to manufacture a full-blown conflict.

"Belarus wants to cause a major incident, preferably with shots fired and casualties," deputy foreign minister Piotr Wawrzyk told media sources on Monday, reported the BBC.

While the blame game was foreseeable, the suffering of all those stranded at the border using makeshift tents to survive the brutal cold continues.

Even the spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, Shabia Mantoo, said in a statement that "using refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to achieve political ends is unacceptable and must stop."

As for sanctions, European diplomats told Reuters on Wednesday that the EU had almost sealed the deal for a new round of sanctions on the Lukashenko government.

If the reversal of sanctions is what Lukashenko desired from the very beginning of the pandemonium, he apparently isn't getting it.

What's Next? 

The crisis has created such a situation for asylum seekers at the border that wherever they go, they face persecution.

If they turn around to go back to Minsk, not only do they have to go through dense forests and survive extremely harsh weather conditions, they will most likely be detained and beaten up by Belarusian officers (as described by many migrants during interviews with the BBC and Reuters), or they will be forced to turn around again, back towards Poland.

If they stay where they are, at the Polish border, facing heavily guarded troops and barbed wires, they risk either dying in a clash or dying of cold and hunger.

And even if Poland takes them in, they are most likely going to be kept in detention centres.

A BBC report from October detailed how more than 10,000 migrants were kept in detention centres in the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – along with Poland and Germany, in what has been described as a barbaric experience.

The only solution to the crisis seems to be dependent on Lukashenko himself.

If he isn't responsible for the chaos as his outright denials suggest, then he must take back the refugees stranded at the Polish border, since they are originally coming from Belarus.

But if he is indeed forcing an influx of refugees towards the EU as Poland and other actors are suggesting, then only he can bring an end to this tragic episode of human suffering.

The last dictator of Europe, however, is showing no intent or will to do so at the moment.

(With inputs from BBC, Reuters, and Deutsche Welle)

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Published: 11 Nov 2021,08:59 AM IST

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