How Europe’s ‘Last Dictator’ Created a Migrant Crisis

After the Belarusian government crushed a pro-democracy movement last year, the EU responded with sanctions. Now the bloc is accusing the country’s authoritarian leadership of purposefully pushing thousands of migrants across its borders.

05 November 2021, 4:02pm

BIAŁOWIEŻA FOREST, Poland – At a tourist centre car park near the Belarusian border, a police van is hemmed in on all sides by cars parked by activists. A masked officer shouts, “You’re blocking access to the road!” before driving off onto the grass between the trees. One activist puts his body in the police van’s path and is knocked down before getting to his feet and forcing the vehicle to stop.

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Behind the tinted glass of the back seat are three Iraqi men. They’re part of a new flow of migration coming to Poland through neighbouring Belarus. From August to October this year, there have been over 25,000 attempts to cross this border. During the same period last year, there were just 122. 

Activists protest the deportation of asylum seekers. Photo: Screenshot via VICE

The stand-off between police and the activists comes to an end when armed border guards arrive and escort the three Iraqis into another vehicle waiting on the road. Despite the fact they are requesting asylum, the Iraqis are driven off in the direction of the Belarusian border.

Rights groups accuse Poland of pushing migrants back over the Belarusian border without first hearing their asylum claims or assessing their need for protection. They say this is a breach of international law. 

Instead of denying these accusations, the Polish government has taken the extraordinary step of legalising the act of forcing migrants back across its borders. The move has been widely criticised by human rights activists. “Everybody knows that this regulation cannot legalise what's illegal in the international, or EU law,” lawyer Marta Górczyńska told VICE News.

Polish troops near the border zone with Belarus. Photo: Daniel Bateman

The Polish government says it is a legitimate response to an “artificial” migration route created by Belarus.  

Since July, Poland and the neighbouring European Union states of Lithuania and Latvia have experienced an influx of people crossing their border with Belarus. 

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The EU claims Belarus' autocratic ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, is inviting migrants to use his country as a way to reach western Europe. They say it's an attempt to increase pressure on the bloc in response to sanctions placed on his government after it crushed a pro-democracy movement last year. 

Poland has declared a 2-mile state-of-emergency zone along its 250-mile border with Belarus, which civilians, NGOs and journalists can’t enter. It has moved thousands of troops East, and close to the border zone, phones receive an automatic text message saying: “The Polish border is sealed. Belarus told you lies, go back to Minsk.”

But going back to Minsk isn’t an option for most migrants. Once in Belarus, they find themselves forced in one direction.

“The Belarusian police were helping us,” says Nour, a migrant who made the crossing. Her name has been changed to protect her identity. “A car came and they forced us to cross a river. It wasn't a normal river, but it was a swamp, and the floor was muddy and we sank down. I remember that I was about to die two times in the river. I wasn't able to move. Hadn’t it been for my friend who rescued me, I would have died.”

Polish police transfer Iraqi asylum seekers to the border guards after activists prevented their van from moving. Photo: Daniel Bateman

Nour flew into Minsk directly from Damascus. She travelled on a tourist visa to Belarus and paid $4,000 (£2,900) at a travel agency for a package that included “the hotel, the insurance, and picking us up from the airport.”

Nour broke her leg after falling in the forests on the Belarusian border. In Poland, she was picked up by border guards. After receiving medical attention she was able to stay in Poland. The rest of her group were sent back to Belarus.  

But Belarus isn’t welcoming these returning migrants.

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“We’re like volleyballs,” said an Iraqi migrant, who out of concern for his safety spoke to us on the condition of anonymity. “Belarus would send us to Poland, and Poland would send us back.”

“There were about 500 or 600 people around the place and sitting around the fire. There were kids and women, and no one was allowed to go back. You'd be stuck in forests between both countries. We can't figure out Belarus’ goal in doing this,” he told VICE News. 

Polish troops prepare to head to the border zone with Belarus. Photo: Daniel Bateman

A combination of cold weather, insufficient clothing and inadequate food has already claimed the lives of several migrants, and many more have been injured. A growing number of Polish people are now opposing the government’s approach to the crisis. Last month thousands took to the streets in central Warsaw to march under the slogan: “Stop the tortures at the border.”  

But despite protests, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and its tough anti-immigration stance are still popular.

“We have to show Lukashenko that we don’t agree to the creation of an artificial migration route through Poland,” Stanisław Żaryn, spokesperson for the Minister for Special Services, said.

When challenged on the human cost of Poland’s approach, Żaryn argued that the Polish Border Guards were acting in accordance with local laws.“The people that wind up in Poland are not really interested in staying here,” Zaryn told VICE News.“They mostly want to get to Germany.”

With winter setting in and planes continuing to bring migrants into Minsk, activists fear a drop in temperature will further increase the death toll on the EU’s border. 

“The Belarusian route is too dangerous,” Nour said. Unfortunately, nobody believes that, and I was one of those people who didn't believe it until I tried it. You don't have to sacrifice your life to travel to Europe.”

Tagged:

minsk, Poland, Alexander Lukashenko, worldnews

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