Conflict Alerts # 453, 11 November 2021
In the news
On 8 November, a strong international condemnation was directed towards Belarus when the European Union, the United States, and NATO blamed the Lukashenko government after thousands of migrants began to cross into Poland on the same day. They stated that the sudden surge in the number of migrants massing the Polish border is due to a coordinated attempt by the Belarusian authorities. During an emergency debate at the Polish Parliament, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Vladimir Putin of being behind the migrant crisis at the borders and described the situation as an attempt by Russia to disrupt the region that it had control over during the Soviet era. "The security of our eastern border is being brutally violated. This is the first such situation in 30 years when we can say that the integrity of our borders is being tested," he said. The Belarusian Red Cross, on their Telegram Channel, stated that they were ready to provide assistance, in the form of food, hygiene kits, and other essentials, to the migrants at the Belarusian-Polish Border.
Issues at large
First, the ground situation across the Belarus border, and the threat for Poland. Since May 2021, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have complained of a sharp rise in the number of migrants crossing into their borders. Over 30,000 people have tried to cross the Polish- Belarusian border, which led Warsaw to declare a state of emergency and take up the measure to build a strong barbed-wire-fence at the border. Both Belarus and Poland have steadily increased the presence of their troops at the borders; with Belarus having an estimated 10,000 servicemen and Poland, up to 12,000 of their forces. Poland later plans to build a fortified border, equipped with sensors, measuring five meters in height. Poland has consistently stopped the migrants from moving across the borders and has maintained a strong response against the actions of the Belarusian government.
Second, the Belarusian strategy and the end-game. The Belarusian government understands the vulnerability of the situation of migration in the European Union strategy. Belarus has been known to be encouraging migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East to cross into Central Europe, and the wider European Union, which has begun to cause a major confrontation in the region. The Belarusian government has put the lives and health of the migrants at risk to provoke Poland and the EU. This is because Lukashenko expects the EU to remove the sanctions placed on his regime since the disputed elections in Belarus. Poland is the region that hosts the largest number of opposition leaders of the Lukashenko regime, which is likely the reason for the influx of people in large numbers to Poland. The border committee of Belarus insist that the people were arriving legally and countered the 'weaponization of migrants' argument saying, "the migrants were only exercising their right to apply for refuge in the EU." Lukashenko during this week stated that he wanted to avoid any military escalation on the border and said, he was not a 'madman' and knew what was at stake.
Third, regional and international responses. After a video was posted by the Polish defense ministry, Ursula Von der Leyen, announced that two top EU officials would travel to the main countries of origin of the migrants to prevent the nationals from joining the Belarusian trap. The US State Department called on Belarus to stop the manipulation of the situation, and NATO accused Lukashenko of using migrants as a "hybrid tactic." The human rights groups have criticized the EU governments for pushbacks of migrants on the border with Belarus, calling out the weaponization of the situation where the migrants are stranded in terrible conditions. In the region, both Latvia and Lithuania have faced a sense of emergency with the rising number of people at their borders. Like Poland, Lithuania has also moved its troops to prepare for the influx of migrants. One statement called the latest influx a "form of revenge" by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, to destabilize the region.
Fourth, the ground-zero and the humanitarian responses: The migrants who were promised passage into the region are seen stranded at the borderlands under terrible physical and weather conditions. During the week, Poland had summoned Belarus' chargé d'affaires over "unidentified uninformed individuals armed with long guns," on Polish territory. They state that Belarus has escalated the situation. In their official statement, the UNHCR called the images from the Belarus-Poland border, deeply concerning and called the using refugees and migrants to achieve political ends, unacceptable. "It's time to act now, we call on Belarus to avoid putting lives at risk," they said. The humanitarian groups have called on both Belarus and Poland to respect the dignity of the migrants and implored them to abide by their legal obligations to provide asylum. Red Cross and other organizations have taken up the charge to provide immediate food and health assistance to the thousands of people stranded at the borders.
The migrant situation at the Polish and Belarusian border brings to the fore deeper concerns in the region. The Lukashenko regime's approach in getting the EU to waive the sanctions placed on their regime may never work in their favor. At the same time, the principles that the EU is built on, cannot have this situation challenge its foundations, it also cannot let the migration situation encourage these countries to take stricter border controls. This would go against the idea of the European Union as a region for free movement. Both sides seem to understand this conflicting situation.
It is extremely deplorable to leave the migrants stranded at sub-zero temperatures without food and adequate shelter, they have been made a pawn in the game between Belarus, its neighbours, Russia, and the EU.
Moscow has largely kept itself away from the EU response to the elections in Belarus and the crackdown that followed, but it has offered the EU the option of following the methods from the EU-Turkey deal of 2016. It is important that the Russian side take a step forward and take a stronger stance in the Poland-Belarus border conflict.