Analyzing the contradictory sides of the situation at the Belarus-Poland border, with thousands of refugees caught up in a political tussle between the EU, NATO, and Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarus-Poland border has gained unexpected attention for the past months, however, most would agree that it came with an enormous cost. The drama of migrants wishing to illegally cross the border is continuously intensifying as several thousand people remain trapped in the three-kilometer border zone without the perceptible help of medics. The Polish government blames the Belarussian regime, which rejects any involvement in promoting the increasing migrant movement. The state of affairs has already reached the constituents of a regional security crisis, with regional organizations, such as the European Union and North Atlantic Alliance voicing their condemnation of Lukashenko´s actions.
Before addressing the possible solutions and prospects of the crisis, it is necessary to lay out a clear direction of approaching the situation. What exactly is the nature of this emergency? Is it in fact an attack on the sovereignty of the Republic of Poland and a new type of hybrid warfare? Or is it rather an exhibition of European reluctance to assist in humanitarian crises and ignorance towards the suffering that is being inflicted upon individuals seeking a “better life” in Europe? And if we are able to distinguish between humanitarian crisis or hybrid attack, what exactly is the impeccable solution, if there even is one?
The current state of the border is an outcome of a gradual course of events. The influx of migrants seeking to enter the European Union climaxed in a growing number of camps along the border, with intermittent attempts to cross the border, usually resulting in dramatic and violent accidents. According to the Polish border service, out of the 33,000 attempts at illegal border crossing this year, 17,000 have been conducted in October alone. The question of how the migrants arrived at the hardly accessible Belarus-Poland border can be answered by the Belarussian authorities, which seemed to have invited the refugees and then to have transported them to the Polish border.
And while hundreds are doing well, thousands remain left to their fate in the forest dividing the two countries. As neither is willing to take the migrants in, some have been figuratively imprisoned in the border zone since the beginning of the crisis, which has arguably begun already in July this year. It could be easily asserted that Minsk is deliberately exploiting people in difficult life situations while claiming to be “helping” them to reach a better life in Europe. The migrants are mostly coming from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, now enduring freezing conditions, all hoping to cross into the EU soon.
Those who were “lucky” to unlawfully cross the border fence have to face the circumstances of the vast and deep forest that are hard to survive in. Apart from the inability to navigate through, the movement across is also limited by countless swamps, fallen trunks, and deep darkness during the night. Many have decided to camp in the feeding racks or under the trees, as it would make them less visible to the drones. Due to the low temperatures, lack of sustenance, and the unceasing threat of wild animals or drowning in the mud, many have succumbed to the conditions of the environment. Accordingly, groups with children or elderly have a very low chance of surviving the border crossing.
Though the official figure of casualties remains very low, realistically, it would be highly challenging to find all the victim bodies. In addition, another challenge arises for those who manage to cross the border – the Polish asylum policy. If the immigrants do not voice their interest in applying for Polish asylum, they are uncompromisingly sent back to Belarus. And since the vast majority of the refugees present at the border are only trying to pass through Poland to reach Germany, France or other western European countries, the issue is gaining both moral and strategic complexity.
In his interview with the BBC, Shwan Kurd, one of the thousands stranded at the Belarus-Poland border, expressed his belief that Poland will eventually allow him and the others to cross the border. For now, along with other Iraqis, he is standing behind a barbed-wire fence, guarded by hundreds of Polish soldiers. Behind the wire, Shwan Kurd sees new life opportunities. As both sides seemed to have turned their backs on the migrants, Kurds and others have settled in a camp near the Kuznica crossing. “We need supplies, there are children here,” Mr. Kurd said in the interview. Moreover, with Poland declaring a state of emergency on the border, movement restrictions have been introduced along the frontier.
Volunteers, medics, or NGOs have to no avail attempted to access the area. In another interview for the BBC, Aras Nader, a British-Iraqi working as an interpreter for Grupa Granica (Polish NGOs network) described his attempt to reach the border in search of his wife and children, who were stuck at the Belarussian side. The police strictly prohibited Nader from entering or allowing him to supply his family with food and water, even threatening him with a fine.
As for why the migrants decide to undertake the enormous risks of fleeing their country, the most frequent would be the inability to maintain an acceptable standard of living and the vision of better European life. Iraq, as the most frequent “migrant supplier”, suffers the lasting impacts of wars, oil crisis, and COVID-19 epidemic, all enhancing its fragility and along with other issues, resulting in the discontent of nationals.
While the majority of migrants come from Iraq, some come from countries like Syria, Congo, or Cameroon. Arriving in Minsk is fairly straightforward for them. The direct airline from Baghdad to Minsk functioned for some time before ending abruptly. Further main points of departure are said to be three towns: Irbil, Shiladze, and Sulaymaniyah. The Belarussian assistance in the migration was reflected in false advertisements containing information about the easiness of border crossing from Belarus to Poland or the Baltic states.
According to Katsiaryna Shmatsina, from Belarussian Institute for Strategic Studies, Belarussian border guards even encouraged groups to later cross the Polish borders via destruction of the border infrastructure, in some instances providing them with tools to do so. She further emphasized the special police treatment of migrants arriving in Minsk.
While groups of migrants tend to “stay in the streets overnight, block traffic or disrupt the transit of goods“, which under normal circumstances is a breach of law, authorities are pretending everything is in order. Simply, once the refugees lay foot on the Belarussian soil, they are instructed and assisted by the Belarussian authorities on their journey. This seemingly new route offers a possibility to migrate in a rather convenient way. In contrast to the highly dangerous path across the Mediterranean, boarding a plane to Minsk and then utilizing the Belarussian truck transport to the border does not seem to entail that many risks.
While justifying its actions by the pure willingness to help the migrants to “reunite with their families and find their close compatriots in Germany“ (as stated during his first public visit at the Bruzgi border point) Lukashenko´s actions have a strong correlation with the recent sanctions posed on Belarus by the European Union. Earlier this year, the EU finalized a set of sanctions against the Belarussian regime to mutilate Lukashenko´s rule.
Sanctions served as a response to some of Lukashenko´s increasingly repressive behaviors, such as his violent response to wide public protests following his election or the order to terminate the Ryanair flight to detain dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. Parts of the economic sanctions resulted in limitations on exporting communications monitoring equipment to Belarus or restrictions on arms sales. Individuals and entities were the targets of further sanctions, facing travel bans and asset freezes within the EU. Many officials, especially those close to Lukashenko, were individually hit by the sanctions and restrictions. However, while they were aimed at bringing the regime down to its knees, the EU seemed to have aroused unexpected and asymmetric action.
Once the humanitarian side of the issue is dealt with, reactions and further consequences come in place. The most immediate consequences would be imposed on the residents of the nearby areas. Yet, while it could be easily assumed that they are the most threatened group, such a projection would be false. The residents can easily avoid the issue, as they do not usually visit the forest dividing Poland and Belarus, simply due to the many dangers it entails. While there is the consensus in Poland that Belarussian behavior is unacceptable, there have been some efforts among the locals to help the migrants. Attempts to provide water, supplies, or medical help were detected.
The Polish population, nevertheless, remains polarized between those who consider the Polish government’s decision to strictly guard the border adequate and those who dismiss it as too drastic. Thousands gathered in Warsaw during October, expressing their protest against the pushbacks of migrants.
For now, the consensus for the need to protect the border dominates the Polish decision-making. Polish forces used various means to avert the illegal crossings, examples include using tear gas or water cannons. The other side of the border responded by throwing stones and other objects at the Polish guards. The situation has been especially tense at the Kuznica crossing, with numerous violent attacks on the fence resulting in further aggression from both sides. In his recent address, Mateusz Morawiecki portrayed the crisis as primarily a political new type of war that “uses the migrants both as a weapon and as a living shield.” Paweł Jabłoński, Polish deputy foreign minister, described the efforts of the Polish government to “organize a swift readmission procedure and safe return” instead of facing both the political and criminal consequences of the situation.
However, unilateral decision-making or thinking is not effective in the extent of this regional crisis. While the attack seems to be inflicted upon Poland only, the border between Poland and Belarus represents the frontier of the two key regional players – the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance. The European Union´s long-reaching history with immigration, its gradual securitization, and disagreement over the migration policy among the member states have caused plenty of disputes within the institution. While some of its member states are prominent for their willingness to accommodate the asylum-seekers, the EU evinced its support for the Polish response.
The Commission put forward a set of temporary asylum and return measures to assist Poland, along with Latvia and Lithuania. In support, the European Council called upon the Commission to propose “any necessary changes to the EU´s legal framework” to allow for immediate and appropriate response in line with EU law.
According to Ursula von der Leyen, the situation at the border is not a migration crisis, rather an “attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize its democratic neighbors”, by which she openly expressed solidarity with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. The EU, with the Commission in lead, approached the settlement of the crisis by humanitarian support, diplomatic outreach to the countries of origin, sanctions, and mainly by the overall protection of the border. By tripling the funds currently allocated to Poland (and also Lithuania and Latvia) EU wishes to not only allow the affected countries to tackle the current emergency but mainly to highlight the solidarity of the whole union.
Mobilized funding and coordination of further sanctions against the Belarussian regime done in close cooperation with the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom assembled the key components of the EU´s response as a whole. Diplomatic and level-headed responses are typical for the European Union, however, they are only functional to the extent of assured intervention of other actors.
The North Atlantic Alliance has bound its members to collective defense, nevertheless, according to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, it “..will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties such action as it deems necessary..” It is highly imperative to emphasize the vagueness of the Treaty, which gives the states the much-wanted freedom of choice in their response to a particular crisis. Openly condemning the actions of the Belarussian regime and standing ready to further assistance to maintain security in the region, the prospect of NATO direct involvement stands out more patently.
NATO allies call on Belarus to cease the border activity and to abide by international law and articulate possible defense if the situation deteriorates further. Though in regards to the nature of the crisis, the typical “kinetic” action in the form of armed forces should not be falsely expected. Considering the delicate, political, and strategic features of the crisis, close monitoring, assistance, and intelligence gathering could provide a more beneficial approach. With that said, some countries have already turned to armed force assistance at the Belarus-Poland border, as most recently, the Czech Republic decided to deploy 150 soldiers to help Poland to stop the flow of migrants seeking entry.
There are few possibilities left to resolve the border crisis. One would be building a physical barrier, wall, or more solid fence, however, the Polish government would need to reach a consensus with its opposition, which in this case deems as very unlikely. The second option as a substitute for a physical barrier would be a political barrier. Nonetheless, Lukashenko seems to endeavor everything else but diplomatic dialogue.
Moreover, the European Union despises the Belarussian regime to the extent of limiting any diplomatic links to demonstrate its stance. Third, the tightening sanctions against Belarus seemed to have produced the crisis in the first place, therefore, sanctions alone might also not be the ideal solution. Lastly, some hope arises from the approaching winter. Due to the weather conditions, some of the migrants have been moved to a nearby warehouse on the Belarussian side. While there is a good chance that winter will ease the situation, there is also the possibility of the situation deteriorating drastically, as many remain in the provisional camps by the border.
In conclusion, what is causing the real problem at the border are not the number of migrants, but the treacherous techniques used to facilitate the crisis. Poland, alongside the Baltic states, is the imminent victim, however, the hybrid techniques are targeted at the European community as a whole. Testing the strength of EU´s and NATO´s solidarity and searching for their weak spots, the Belarussian regime created a highly complex situation for the affected countries and their border guards. Resolving the situation calmly and impartially to not provoke further Belarussian escalation, while denying entry to illegal migrants, and in addition to that trying to prevent further casualties and attacks is extremely intricate.
Portraying Europe as inhuman and uncaring would further serve Lukashenko´s political aims. While the migrant issue seems like an asymmetrical response to EU sanctions, it gains a new dimension in light of Belarussian close links to Russia.
The vaguely formulated Union State organization consisting of Russia and Belarus can be partly understood as a means to demonstrate Lukashenko´s loyalty to Russia while receiving political and economic benefits in return. Lukashenko´s political survival, therefore, depends on Putin’s support, with Moscow providing the essential intelligence services and economic support.
Moscow too appears to indirectly benefit from the current crisis, as it closely observes the patience of NATO and further utilizes the challenges this crisis entails for the western countries.
Two Russian nuclear-capable bombers were recently sent to monitor Belarussian airspace and Moscow considers any Western calls for mediation merely attempts to interfere in the interests of the Union State. While this power demonstration seems to serve as an expression of solidarity with the Belarussian regime, Russia may want to further exploit the crisis by diverting attention from the pressing Ukrainian situation.
Source of the picture : https://www.bbc.com/news/
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Written by Daniela Monsportova