Europe’s Refugee Crisis at Belarus Border

Lukashenko Accused of Orchestrating Refugee Crisis
Migrants gather on the Belarusian-Polish border in an attempt to cross it at the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing, Belarus November 15, 2021. Oksana Manchuk/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS.

Alexander Lukashenko, self-proclaimed as “Europe’s last dictator,” continues his ongoing feud with the European Union. Lukashenko has orchestrated an unprecedented influx of refugees at its borders with Lithuania and Poland. The EU leaders are calling his efforts a form of hybrid warfare. In this crisis, human beings are being used as pawns in a chess game. But Lukashenko is no stranger to this method – he has a long-standing track record of abusing the rights of his own people. But this time around it’s not just Lukashenko who is treating human lives as convenient tools of hybrid warfare, European values and commitment to human rights are also being tested as Belarus’s neighbors face the uncomfortable dilemma of a refugee deluge.

2020 Elections: A Turning Point for Lukashenko

Lukashenko is the only president that post-Soviet Belarus has known – he has been ruling the country of nine million for over 27 years now. He has managed to hold on to power by turning Belarus into a competitive authoritarian regime – he holds sham elections and gives himself landslide wins every time. In 2020 he won the presidential election with a whopping 80% of the votes. Over the recent years, pro-democracy opposition forces have become stronger and more outspoken in Belarus, so Lukashenko has had to take tougher measures to quash dissent. This is how the 2020 election turned into a crisis that still has not ended. The opposition forces, led by opposition presidential candidate Ms. Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya, called out Lukashenko on the fraudulent election and staged mass protests in Belarus. The protests lasted for months, demanding Lukashenko’s resignation. For the first time in years, the regime used excessive brutal force against the protesters, beating and incarcerating thousands, torturing and killing some. This was the turning point in Lukashenko’s presidency – he had always taken measures to silence dissent, but the atrocities during the 2020 protests were unparalleled in Belarus.

Migrants gather in a camp near the Belarusian-Polish border as they attempt to cross it in the Grodno region, Belarus November 10, 2021. Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS.

The opposition declared Tsikhanouskaya the rightfully elected president of Belarus, but she had to flee the country to avoid incarceration. Many of her team members were arrested and are serving long sentences in prison. The opposition forces garnered significant Western support during the protests, and Tsikhanouskaya found refuge in Lithuania, Belarus’s EU-member neighbor. She has been welcomed by all Western leaders, regularly traveling to Brussels and Washington, and seeking support in her endeavor to unsettle Lukashenko. The brutal crackdown on protesters earned Lukashenko much criticism and ultimately an array of Western sanctions. Amid the near-complete isolation from the West, Lukashenko continues to count on Russian support. Earlier this year Russia and Belarus successfully completed their joint large scale military exercise Zapad 2021, and Belarus received a $500 million loan from Moscow.

On the one-year anniversary of the violent crackdown on the opposition, both the European Union and the United States introduced a new set of sanctions against Belarus. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken explained that the sanctions were a continuation of the U.S. efforts to hold the Lukashenko regime accountable: “On the one-year anniversary of Belarus’s fraudulent presidential election, the United States government has taken decisive action against forty-four individuals and entities in order to hold Aleksandr Lukashenko and his regime to account for its continued, violent repression of Belarusians inside and outside the country.  These steps are a further consequence to the Belarusian authorities’ continued flagrant disregard for human rights and Belarus’s failure to comply with its obligations under international human rights law. … Lukashenka has sought to cement his hold on power at the expense of the Belarusian people.  Over 600 political prisoners are unjustly detained.  Independent media outlets have been raided and shuttered, and Belarusian authorities are attempting to silence NGOs and vital members of civil society.  Moreover, this repression does not occur solely within Belarus’s borders, as Belarusians abroad also face intimidation.”

Orchestrating the Refugee Crisis

As Belarus’s relationship continued to sour with Europe, Lukashenko continued to lash out. In May 2021 he responded to the threat of further sanctions by saying “We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves.” Shortly after, Belarus’s EU-member neighbors Lithuania and Poland started reporting an upsurge in the number of migrants crossing its border from Belarus. By the end of August, the Lithuanian government said it had seen over 4,000 refugees cross the border, almost 50 times as many as the year before. Despite the large numbers of refugees flooding the borders of Lithuania, the country has declared a state of emergency and refused asylum to essentially all of them.

Thousands of refugees also attempted to cross the border into Poland. In September, Poland also declared a state of emergency at the border, banning all media access and most charity organizations from the territory. In mid-November, the situation became particularly turbulent as the Polish security forces fired water cannons and tear gas at the migrants trying to cross the border. In November, Poland saw nearly 5,000 attempted border crossings. At the moment it is estimated that there are up to 2,000 migrants and refugees at the border with Poland. The refugees, mostly women, and children are predominantly Kurds from Iraq, but also Syrians, Iranians, Afghans, Yemenis, Cameroonians, and others. They live in makeshift camps on the Belarusian side of the border, braving the snow and freezing temperatures.

Polish soldiers and police watch migrants at the Poland/Belarus border near Kuznica, Poland, in this photograph released by the Territorial Defence Forces, November 12, 2021. Irek Dorozanski/DWOT/Handout via REUTERS.

European leaders have blamed Lukashenko for orchestrating the refugee crisis by bringing the refugees into Belarus with a promise to help them cross into the EU via the borders with Poland and Lithuania. With this effort, Lukashenko has struck a nerve. Europe has struggled for years managing the waves of refugees, sparking extreme anti-refugee rhetoric in many of the countries, including in Poland and Hungary where Christian conservatism and xenophobia have made a sweeping comeback. In 2015 the EU took in millions of refugees from the Middle East, but it nearly tore the Union apart as many of the member countries, notably Poland and Hungary, wanted nothing to do with the refugees. Now the rhetoric coming out of the EU is very different. The leaders have said “this is a hybrid attack, not a migration crisis,” lending their full support to Poland as it tightens up border security to keep the frustrated refugees out. The Polish authorities have warned that if this crisis turns into a clash between Poland and Belarus, there will be greater security repercussions – the conflict would likely involve Russia and NATO as Poland is a member of NATO and Belarus has an array of security and economic alliance treaties with Russia.

In November, the European Union approved another round of sanctions targeting: more than two dozen Belarusian officials; Syrian airline Cham Wings for having transported migrants to Belarus; the Hotel Minsk in the Belarus capital for housing migrants; and, possibly Minsk airport, according to E.U. officials. On November 28th the EU and NATO leaders met in Vilnius to discuss the security challenges posed by Belarus. During the press conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that: “The Lukashenko regime is exploiting vulnerable people to put pressure on neighboring countries. This is inhumane and cynical. … No NATO Ally stands alone. All Allies have expressed solidarity with Lithuania. And we have provided practical help. … NATO continues to deliver strong deterrence and defense. Our battlegroup in Lithuania and the others in Estonia, Latvia and Poland help to deter any aggression.”

Lukashenko recently visited the migrant camps, telling the refugees he would not force them to go home: "My task is to help you, people in trouble. In no case will we detain you, tie your hands, load you on airplanes and send you home if you don’t want that. We will work together with you on your dream.”

Neither side plans to compromise, but the thousands of refugees who are stuck in freezing temperatures continue to wait, surviving only with limited aid. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR have been granted limited access to the refugee camps and have provided aid through Belarus Red Cross. They estimate that there are approximately 7,000 refugees in Belarus at this time (2,000 at the border with Poland), and report that 1,000 of the refugees have been offered repatriation by the Iraq government. The IOM hopes to help facilitate more voluntary returns to Iraq over the coming weeks, but not all refugees hail from Iraq and most have not expressed a desire to leave.


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