In what has come to be a longstanding border crisis, the E.U. agreed earlier this month to increase the aid it sends to migrants at the Belarus border. The aid, amounting to $800,000 worth of food, blankets, and other supplies, came after criticism that the E.U. has not done enough to help the thousands of people suffering in the freezing temperatures approaching the region.
As freezing conditions overcome the border, several thousand migrants risk death. The conditions have killed at least eight people at the Polish border, where migrants throwing stones have prompted border guards to respond with the use of water cannons. About 2,000 migrants are camping at the border fence, prevented from entering Poland or returning to Belarus. Surrounding countries reported higher volumes of attempted illegal crossings from Belarus, and Germany has recently seen border crossings increase more than ten-fold between August and October.
The “artificial border crisis” is a result of the continued east-west tension aggravated by last year’s allegedly illegitimate Belarusian election. The E.U. claims that the Belarusian capital, Minsk, flew in migrants from the Middle East to put pressure on Europe after the E.U. imposed sanctions against Belarus over human rights abuses resulting from the disputed election. Belarus denies the accusations and will not help end the border crisis until the sanctions are lifted.
The E.U. has long struggled with controlling its borders. With strained welfare and security systems, the bloc began paying countries to host migrants, hoping to prevent them from travelling along migration routes, and began strengthening the border agency Frontex with the hope of providing 10,000 border guards by 2027. But its reforms to the “Dublin Regulation,” aimed at spreading out its members states’ responsibility for migrants during the 2015 migration crisis, haven’t expanded to include migrants who haven’t asked for asylum, such as the migrants at the Belarusian border. (For more information regarding the history of the European migration crisis, visit our crisis index.) “The European Union doesn’t have a good common migration policy, despite obvious need for one after the previous migration crises,” noted Linas Kojala, director at the Eastern European Studies Centre think-tank in Vilnius. “Each time it needs to look for ways to extinguish fires. And it lacks tools to use against regimes hostile towards it, including Belarus and Russia.”
Ursula von der Leyen, head of the E.U. executive, said it is up to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to end the crisis. “We are ready to do more. But the Belarusian regime must stop luring people and putting their lives at risk,” said von der Leyen.
The blame game works between siblings, but not between international actors who hold the lives of thousands of migrants in their hands. Although violence has eased, the impending winter poses a critical threat to the people caught in this crisis. The increased E.U. aid provides generality, but there is a lack of necessary clarity in the situation’s resolution. Regardless of the legitimacy of Belarus’s president or the origin of the border crisis, concessions from both sides are crucial to resolving this human rights crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, has contacted Lukashenko for the second time in three days – marking an atypical series of urgent and direct outreach to the controversial figure. Merkel has “stressed the need… to provide humanitarian aid and repatriation facilities to the affected people,” according to her spokesperson. Chancellor Merkel’s unprecedented calls to Lukashenko hopefully mark the beginning of resolution.
The continued disputes between Belarus and the E.U. risk lives at the border with each passing day. Average temperature in Belarus falls below freezing, and the guards’ use of water cannons only exacerbates the critical status of the migrants caught in the middle of international tension. The stand-still portends a looming mass death count at the border unless legitimate action between the powers is taken immediately.
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