Belarus: The New Frontier For Migration Into Europe

With winter fast approaching, concern continues to grow over the new frontier for migration into Europe; the Belarusian border. Scenes reminiscent of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis are taking place as asylum seekers are left in dangerous conditions at the border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The three EU states have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of weaponizing illegal immigration in response to the deterioration of Belarus-EU relations since Belarus’ Presidential Election in August 2020. The BBC estimates that there are at least 2,000 migrants currently at the Belarus-Poland border, where temperatures have begun to dip below 0 degrees.

In such conditions, the lives of these asylum seekers are being put at threat. Amnesty International has reported at least five deaths since the 19th of September at the Polish border. The danger these migrants are in is further exacerbated by ‘push-back’ legislation passed by the Polish government in October, which critics argue breaks international law by authorising return asylum seekers the military to Belarus. Anita Bay, Director of Save the Children Europe, described the situation as “against EU laws and values” and reported they had “seen footage of entire families pushed back to Belarus, and their request for international protection and immediate help ignored.”

Deepening concern for those stranded at the border is the fact that in September, the Polish government declared a state of emergency that forbids the entry of any non-locals or non-military personnel to areas on the Belarusian border. NGOs, journalists and activists are unable to reach migrants, with the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) making a “call for immediate access to those affected, in order to provide lifesaving medical help, food, water and shelter, especially in light of the approaching winter.” The Lithuanian Government has also declared a state of emergency in its border area. Meanwhile, both the Lithuanian and Polish governments have stepped up their military presence at the border, with Poland’s Defence Minister tweeting that Poland had deployed 12,000 soldiers to the area.

However, military escalation, alongside plans to build border walls, does not help the people most at risk in this situation. The Guardian reports that Lukashenko has been organizing flights from countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan into Minsk, and the EU Commission has estimated migrants are paying about €10,000 for the trip. Lukashenko’s facilitation of migration into the EU comes in response to increasing EU sanctions against Belarus since the crushing of opposition protests to Lukashenko’s 2020 election, followed by the diversion of RyanAir flight 4978 to Minsk in May 2021. As EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, says, “it’s an act of aggression from a desperate regime that’s put under pressure by EU sanctions.” She continues, “it’s a way to instrumentalise human beings and put their lives at risk.”

Perhaps the response to the crisis needs to focus more on this last point: vulnerable human beings are being used in this conflict. More economic sanctions against Belarus might be a good start, but they do not relieve the situation thousands are currently facing at the border. The EU’s more recent approach of contacting countries with flights bringing migrants to Minsk seems to be offering some hope. CNN has reported that the Iraqi government has announced it will organise a flight evacuating Iraqi citizens from Belarus back to Iraq. But there will undoubtedly be people who cannot or do not want to return to their country and need to safely seek asylum elsewhere, so attempts must be made to reach these people and protect their rights under international law.