Left in Limbo: Migrants Bear the Burden of EU-Belarus Tensions

Photo Credit: Kancelaria Premiera

By Irelan Fletcher
Contributing Writer

Currently settled at the Belarus-Poland border, migrants coming from the Middle East and Asia are awaiting entrance into Poland, while a geopolitical storm erupts around them. Why is this happening? The answer lies in a variety of contributing factors, involving disputes between the European Union (EU) and Belarus that have resulted in the humanitarian crisis faced by migrants at the border today.

Tensions between Belarus and the EU began when the EU placed sanctions on Belarus in 2020, after mass protests broke out in response to Belarus’s reputation as Europe’s last dictatorship. The current crisis at the Belarus-Poland border has been perceived by many European nations as retaliation for the sanctions that the EU placed on Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has been accused of manufacturing this crisis for geopolitical purposes by enticing Asian and Middle Eastern migrants to cross the border into Poland, giving them a false sense of security of a smooth entry into the EU. However, the Belarusian government has denied such accusations. On Monday, November 15, BBC News reported that Lukashenko threatened to retaliate against the EU after they placed new sanctions against Belarus, the result of an EU Foreign Ministers meeting to discuss the Belarus-Poland border crisis.

The ensuing tensions between the EU and Belarus that began in August resulted in a massive number of migrants attempting to cross the Belarus-Poland border. By November, the number had reached thousands. Currently, there are 2,000 individuals gathered along the Bruzgi-Kuznica border separating Belarus and Poland, trapping 200 women and 600 children in a geopolitical tussle. Now migrants, under the assumption that they would easily enter Poland, have been stopped by the combined efforts of the Polish police, bodyguards, soldiers, and a razor wire fence. The Polish guards have accused the Belarusian military of attempting to tear down the barbed wire at the border and supplying migrants with tear gas. President Lukashenko has denied these accusations, and EU-Belarus relations continue to worsen.

Deteriorating relations between Belarus and the EU have led to dangerous conditions for those gathered at the border. There have been reports of migrants being beaten as they attempt to cross the border, and Polish authorities have found several dead within Polish territory. On Monday, November 15, the Polish police reported a dangerous mass attempt to cross the border near the Kuznica region. In an attempt to mitigate the influx of migrants and prevent a mass accumulation of people along the border, Polish authorities have detained individuals.

Making it across the Polish border only brings additional challenges for migrants, however. Those who manage to cross successfully face a plethora of immediate obstacles. The dark shadow of a humanitarian crisis looms over them daily. Without sources of shelter, food, or water, migrants have gathered in tents and makeshift shelters made of branches and boughs of coniferous trees from the surrounding area. Children huddled in the Belarusian forest suffer from lungs clogged by smoke from small fires. Migrants camped outside of the border with little protection from cold will soon face temperatures that could reach zero degrees celsius as winter approaches. Anger and frustration continue to rise as more and more individuals succumb to hypothermic conditions as a result of their current limbo. Insufficient sources of food and water have prevented the Belarusian Red Cross from being able to accommodate this influx of people. CNN reports that Belarusian authorities claim to be doing what they can to support those stuck at the Belarus-Poland border. According to a statement from the Belarusian State Border Committee, “the situation in the refugee camp on the Belarusian-Polish border remains difficult, nevertheless, the Belarusian side is doing everything to provide people and especially children with all they need.”

The abhorrent conditions along the Belarus-Poland border have garnered international attention, and not simply because of political interests. Humanitarian groups have accused Poland of violating the international right to asylum by denying applications and instead rerouting individuals back across Belarus. The right to asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifies that people are guaranteed the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries, is relevant to the situation at the Belarus-Poland border and highlights the importance of the EU’s next steps amid this crisis. EU diplomat Josep Borrell remarked on the treatment of the migrants at the Belarus-Poland border stating, “vulnerable migrants were being exploited in a ‘hybrid war’ that is ‘intensifying.’”
 
The aftershocks of the Belarus-Poland border crisis could heavily influence future relations between Belarus and European Union member states, particularly Poland, who it has shared an uneasy yet cooperative dynamic with for the past several decades. EU diplomats have a very important task to consider: their response to the influx of migrants at the border. There are many options available to EU members, with some individuals calling for the erection of a physical border wall or the bolstering of physical barriers. If the EU does decide to build a border wall or fence, it would require breaking precedent by allocating part of their €6 billion (approx.$7 billion) budget to include a border wall or fencing, effectively taking steps to stop migrants from entering Poland and disregarding Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whatever the European response, and whatever the outcome, its implications will be long lasting, making the EU’s next steps critical.

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