Tensions are rising on the eastern border of the European Union. Belarussian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka promotes instability and EU countries are run afoul of human rights as a humanitarian crisis unfolds.
After condemnation from EU countries of the May 23 forced landing in Minsk of a Ryanair plane and the subsequent arrest of journalist Roman Pratasevich, Lukashenka was believed to have said: “we were detaining drugs and migrants [on the border with the EU] – now you will be catching them yourselves.” These words are now often quoted by journalists commenting on the situation developing on the Belarus border with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Over 4,000 migrants have crossed the Lithuanian border in the first half of 2021. About 4,300 attempts were recorded on the Polish border during the three weeks of September alone. This significant increase in migration, mostly from Iraq, but also Afghanistan, Congo, and Cameroon, through Belarus to the EU is believed to be the result of Lukashenka’s “hybrid warfare” aimed to exert pressure on the EU and threaten the security of its eastern border.
Recordings made available by a Belarusian journalist, Tadeusz Giczan, show Belarusian border guards pushing migrants over to Lithuania. Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya considered this an attempt by Lukashenka’s regime to take revenge on Lithuania for helping her in exile and on the EU for supporting civil society’s actions in Belarus. Pavel Latushko, one of the prominent opposition figures in Belarus, commented on this situation that “The dictator not only opened the border for illegal migrants, but instructed them to be taken to Belarus, [to] issue them tourist vouchers and visas, and then deliver them to the border and facilitate their passage to the EU.” According to Giczan, Belarus is now implementing the action developed 10 years ago under the code name “Sluice” and aimed at bringing migrants to the borders with the EU and causing a crisis.
Official comments accusing Lukashenka’s regime of creating a dramatic situation on the EU borders are made in unison by the EU and member-state leaders. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis accused Lukashenka of using refugees as “human shields” and announced the country needed to take decisive steps: declare a state of emergency, build a secure fence, and develop new legislation to allow mass detention and easier deportation. Latvia has made similar decisions which, according to Minister of Justice Jānis Bordāns, were necessary to support the border guards and strengthen surveillance. During her visit in Vilnius on 2 August, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson confirmed the need for tough measures at the border saying, “we have to make it clear that there’s no free access to the EU territory.” She also stressed that it is an act of aggression “toward Poland, Lithuania and Latvia with the aim to destabilize the EU,” rather than a migration issue.
Most recently, media attention has focused on a border strip between Poland and Belarus, where a group of 32 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq was stranded after being refused entry by Polish guards and not allowed to go back by Belarusian guards. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that Poland has become the subject of a “hybrid attack” by the Lukashenka regime’s attempt to trigger “a pan-European migration crisis.” Barbed wire was stretched along that part of the border, and the construction of a 2.5-meter-high fence began. On 2 September, Poland introduced a state of emergency at the country’s border with Belarus. This is the first such decision made in Poland since 1981. The state of emergency was initially introduced for 30 days and has now been extended for a further 60 days. The decision was made following the government’s assessment that there exist serious threats to the safety of citizens and to public order.
The increasing tensions on the EU eastern border have already taken a tragic toll. Migrants, including children, are stranded in forests along the border, some are seriously ill, and five people are known to have died, presumably from exhaustion and hypothermia. The Polish authorities are repeatedly criticised for pushing migrants back to Belarus without acknowledging their right to claim asylum, and for not allowing medical aid, non-governmental human rights groups, journalists, or even the EU Frontex to access the border zone. In order to legalise pushbacks, Poland introduced an amendment to the law on foreigners, the law on the protection of the state border, and the law on granting protection to foreigners within the territory of the Republic of Poland. These changes allow border guards to immediately remove any foreigners from the territory of Poland and prevent them from re-entering the country. Poland’s response is seen as a yet another example of the violation of international law and a further display of the country’s divergence from core EU values. It is also seen as an opportunity for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to follow up on its 2015 election promises of being tough on migrants and thereby to strengthen its position in opinion polls.
After five confirmed deaths were reported on the Polish-Belarusian border, Johansson commented that while the EU “must help Poland to protect its borders,” it must also “prevent people losing their lives at these borders.” Yet, the European Commission has also been criticised by migration law experts and human rights activists for endorsing the efforts of member states to tighten their borders and providing misleading explanations of EU law in respect of asylum claims. At the same time, the EU keeps resisting the pressure from Lithuania to fund the construction of fences and reinforcements on the border. It is also criticised for being slow in issuing a new package of EU sanctions against Belarus, as both Poland and Lithuania have called for, expecting more to come from Lukashenka’s regime. Thus, the migration crisis is seen as increasingly dramatic but only one of the challenges the EU needs to face. Sharing the attention to adequately address both human rights protection and Lukashenka’s political games may be one of the challenges.
Migration does remain a weak point in the EU’s policymaking, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen herself acknowledged in her State of the Union address on 15 September. She stressed that “this is the moment now for a European migration management policy” to gain speed. Meanwhile, political turmoil within the EU – between the governments of the states bordering Belarus and their opposition, migration lawyers and activist groups, and the EU leaders – that is unfolding faster under increasing media attention. The humanitarian crisis on the EU border and in Belarus is deepening too, but out of public sight. The EU is getting increasingly anxious about the impending migrant crisis, Lithuanians are worried about national tensions, and Poles are either dreading Islamic extremism (that PiS has been threatening them with) or looking with horror how the ruling right-wing party takes advantage of the situation for its own political gain. The tough measures employed at the borders are seen, on the one hand, as flagrant violation of human rights, particularly the right to apply for international and national protection and, on the other hand, as necessary and unavoidable. In the midst of this chaos, helping those people stranded at the EU border has fallen on the shoulders of individuals doing what they can to provide simple aid and save lives.
Dr Katarzyna Kwapisz Williams is Deputy Director of the ANU Centre for European Studies.
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