24 December, 2021
By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant
In mid-November 2021, the global media was centered on the arrival of several thousand migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border. These were mainly Iraqi Kurds, Syrians and Afghans, opting to take the “Belarus route” to the West as opposed to the more hazardous sea crossings from Turkey or North Africa. News outlets reported that these migrants had been arriving by air in Belarus and were then transported by authorities to the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, or better said, the European Union (EU). Belarus vehemently denied this, accusing the EU of trying to divert attention away from domestic concerns. What followed was a verbal back-and-forth between leaders with some physical posturing and shows of force.
An Artificial Crisis
It is believed Belarusian state-controlled tourist agencies and several airlines were involved in the transport of some 1,000 people to the Polish border, effectively creating an artificial crisis. These migrants then attempted to gain entry into Poland, reportedly with the support of Belarusian forces, by cutting and battering the border fence, resulting in clashes with Polish police. Over time, these migrants were stuck not just on the Polish-Belarusian border, but at the center of larger European geo-politics, with Poland vowing to prevent any crossings and indicating the crisis could last for months, if not years. This was accompanied by a declaration of a state of emergency by Poland and Lithuania, both of which fortified their borders.
Poland estimated that at the height of the crisis, some 4,000 migrants were camped along the border with Belarus. In addressing the growing crisis, Poland received verbal support from the EU, with commission president Ursula van der Leyen pledging support for Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to police their borders. The tone towards Belarus was quite the opposite.
Poland, the EU and NATO have blamed Belarus’ President, Alexander Lukashenko, for intentionally sparking the border crisis as revenge for sanctions and criticism following his crackdown on political opposition. He denies this, blaming the West for the attempted crossings and accusing it of poor treatment of migrants. Belarus is estimated to host up to 20,000 migrants from the Middle East and Africa, making residents uneasy and raising pressure on authorities to act. Lukashenko has apparently threatened moving migrants towards the EU in the past, saying his country had “protected” the EU from illegal migrants and “defended” it from drug trafficking; concluding that the EU was ungrateful for his guarding of the EU’s eastern border. His actions in 2021 can be seen to be as a result of EU sanctions against him and some 180 other individuals and entities in Belarus, following allegedly fraudulent elections last year and a subsequent crack-down on protestors, and putting him in a situation where he had little left to lose by moving ahead with his previous threats of enabling migrants to reach the EU’s border.
Regardless of these reasons, the EU extended sanctions on Belarus to include airlines and travel agencies believed to be involved in transporting migrants to the border with Poland. Border guards were allegedly seen transporting migrants via buses to several locations along the border. It is also argued that this crisis is an effort by Lukashenko to destabilize the EU. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has also labelled this action as blackmail and stated it must “not be allowed to succeed”.
To paint a pretty picture, Belarusian authorities brought a CNN news team to the border to witness the Belarusian Red Cross delivering food and water to migrants while claiming all measures were being taken to provide assistance to refugees. This was no doubt in an effort to portray Poland as the villain who stationed over 12,000 soldiers in the border region, describing this as an “inhumane attitude”, as such a build-up was not necessary for ‘migration control’. Independent journalists however, were not permitted near the border.
Russia’s position in this dispute is that of hesitant support of its ally, Belarus, denying any involvement. As Belarus’ largest political and economic partner, Russian President Vladimir Putin has however, publicly stated Russia’s willingness to support “in every way”, echoing Lukashenko in blaming the EU for creating the conditions that caused the influx of migrants. He also accused Poland and the EU of attempting to “strangle” Belarus, while Poland accused Putin of being the mastermind behind the crisis. Notably, Russian support does not extend to threats by Lukashenko to cut off natural gas flows from Russia to Europe. This would arguably cause more economic damage to Russia than the EU, making it unlikely Lukashenko would carry through such a threat. Not gone unnoticed were also bi-lateral military drills between Russia and Belarus involving Paratroopers and a Russian patrol of two strategic bombers over Belarus during this time. Lukashenko warned that he is not looking for an armed conflict, but stated his country “will not kneel” to Europe in this standoff, warning that any conflict would “likely” draw in Russia.
Poland’s steadfast determination to secure its borders and prevent border-crossings may have much to do with Polish history, which goes beyond its role as an EU-border nation. Wording such as “protect”, “defend” and “maintain safety and security”, is indicative of the perception that the arrival of migrants wishing to pass through Poland is a threat to the country and the EU. As a response, over twelve thousand soldiers were stationed on the Belarusian border and the state of readiness of the Territorial Defense Forces was raised.
As a country with a long history of occupation that has had to fight many times for its right to exist, Poland sees Russia, and by extension these actions by Belarus, as a threat. The Polish-Soviet War and the Polish Resistance movement during the Second World War are arguably the two most notable events which engraved the Polish spirit of resistance into the national psyche. The subjective position that Poland’s response is exaggerated can be explained in this way. It is as if Poland’s borders, over which much blood has been spilled time and time again over the course of centuries, are sacred. Illegal crossings, regardless by whom and why, would not be tolerated – the smallest infraction can likely be, and seemingly are, interpreted as an attack against the proud country which is now also an EU member state.
The implementation of the state of emergency can be regarded as an attestation to the severity of the crisis as viewed by Poland. It meant that aid, journalists and international observers were prevented from reaching border areas due to a nearly three kilometer exclusion zone, despite calls from international and local NGOs to permit access. It also gave police increased powers to return migrants back to Belarus and approved the construction of a border-wall. European Council President Charles Michel has gone as far as acknowledging that the EU would even consider financing “physical infrastructure” on the bloc’s border. Individual countries, such as the United Kingdom (UK) and Estonia, also provided physical support. The UK deployed some 150 Royal Engineers to support Poland, with Estonia deploying some 100 Defense Forces engineers, military police, reconnaissance units, combat camera teams, and intending the deployment of drones for intelligence gathering in the future. This is in addition to police support Estonia is providing to Lithuania (17 personnel) and Latvia (30 personnel), while calling close to 1,700 Defense Forces reservists up to install temporary barriers on the country’s southeastern border.
Resolving the Crisis
Origin countries and airlines have taken steps to mitigate flights to Belarus, with Iraq going as far as organizing flights to repatriate citizens wishing to return home. Other airlines have barred Afghans, Syrians, Yemeni, and Iraqis from flying to Minsk, including Belarusian state-owned Belavia from flights originating in Turkey after a request by Turkish authorities. In total, the EU reached out to 13 countries in which it believes Belarus is trying to entice travel to Minsk and further to the Polish border.
In the time since mid-November, there has been a notable decrease in reporting on this issue and public interest has faded. However, despite efforts to mitigate the crisis, it is far from over. Migrants continue to be stranded on the Polish-Belarusian border as of mid-December, and crossing attempts continue to occur. The political back-and-forth remains unchanged, with European support of Poland being steadfast. Accusations that Belarus continues to aggravate the situation persist and the Czech Republic has become the latest country pledging physical support to Poland with the deployment of up to 150 soldiers.
This crisis may indeed last several months. Resolving it means nothing less than the thousands of migrants being able to continue their travel, staying in Belarus or returning to their home countries. And while politicians continue their war of words and the EU’s eastern border continues to be fortified, it is these migrants who are stuck in the middle of two worlds unknown to them who are facing the consequences. This crisis may not be about them, but it has everything to do with them.