oDR: Explainer

What is happening on the borders of Belarus?

People are dying on the borders of the EU, as the embattled Belarusian regime continues to channel refugees from the Middle East into Europe

Igor Stankevich
3 November 2021, 12.00am
August 2021: in response to more attempts at crossing the border, Polish military increase border security
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(c) Sipa USA / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

News from the borders of Belarus has come to resemble updates from a war zone. Yet it’s not a military conflict that has erupted here. Instead, the country’s borders have become ground zero for two conflicts that were once separate: the European Union’s fraught relationship with the dictatorial Belarusian regime – and Europe’s migration crisis.

Belarus had already achieved pariah status after President Lukashenka’s brutal suppression of post-election protests in autumn last year. But the country’s relationship with the European Union and neighbouring states to the west and north broke down completely earlier this year after it forcibly landed a Ryanair plane carrying a dissident.

Meanwhile, people from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also Syria and Yemen, have sought to cross from Belarus into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania – with clear signs of state support from the Belarusian authorities. In response, Belarus’s neighbours have increased border security, refused entry to people seeking to cross and brought in further restrictions on migration and asylum legislation.

This crisis has emerged slowly, but with increasing force and tragedy. How did we get to this point?

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Bodies on the border

On 19 September, border guards found the bodies of four people in several locations along the Polish–Belarusian border: a 39-year-old Iraqi citizen who had been walking from the direction of the Belarusian border, and three others who had come from the Polish side. The initial analysis: they had died from hypothermia.

Two days later, an Iraqi citizen was found “unconscious, with signs of physical violence” in the Svislatski district of Belarus, right next to the border with Poland. Two days after that, another Iraqi citizen was found dead, this time inside Polish territory. The assumed cause of death was a heart attack.

Polish border guards have stopped 15,800 attempted illegal border crossings from Belarus since the start of 2021

The Belarusian regime has been channelling refugees towards the Polish border since the summer. In August, the Polish Border Guard Service began reporting that it was preventing, on a daily basis, hundreds of attempts at illegal border crossings from Belarus. During the first week of October alone, they stopped about 4,300 attempts to cross the border – and a reported 15,800 attempts since the beginning of 2021.

The response by Belarus’s neighbours – Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, all members of the EU – was to accuse the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenka, of using refugees as part of the regime’s “hybrid war”. And, indeed, the situation has intensified.

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With people trapped at the border by Belarusian and Polish border patrols, there are serious threats to well-being | (c) SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On 4 October, a Polish border patrol discovered a dummy time bomb. A few days later, Polish border guards were fired on from the Belarusian side – with blank cartridges. Polish border guards then announced that they had prevented two attempts by migrants to storm the country’s border from Belarusian territory. On 14 October, the body of a Syrian man was found in the border zone.

At the same time, people coming from Belarus towards Poland have requested international protection from Polish law enforcement, yet border guards have sent them on to official checkpoints, where they are likely to be sent back to Belarus.

For more than a month, about 30 people from Afghanistan lived on the Belarusian–Polish border near the Polish village of Usnarz Górny. They had tried to get from Belarus into Poland, but were stopped by Polish border guards, and then the Belarusian ones closed the passage back.

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For a long time, these people lived in the open air, after which they were given tents, blankets and warm clothes. Volunteers from a Polish charity reported that residents of the makeshift camp were starving due to lack of food, and had been forced to drink water from a forest stream. This led to health problems, including dehydration and poisoning.

UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, called on Poland to comply with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees: to receive people and provide them with medical assistance. Warsaw answered: if foreign citizens are on Belarusian territory, Minsk is responsible for them.

In early September, in response to the increasing flow of migrants, Poland’s parliament introduced a 30-day state of emergency in 183 settlements in the provinces of Podlaskie and Lublin, adjacent to the Belarusian border. In October, the emergency was extended for another 60 days. In addition, all three neighbouring countries are expanding the fences on their borders with Belarus, adding kilometres of new barbed-wire constructions.

President Lukashenka has denied any direct involvement in the situation. “They say: this is where Lukashenka is channelling migrants towards us. Put your facts on the table, facts on the table. Where’s Lukashenka? Who has he taken, and pushed and so on?” he asked in July.

Ryanair plane forced to land

The beginning of the crisis could be considered 23 May, when, on the personal order of Lukashenka, a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk. On board: dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who Belarusian security services wanted to return to the country – and imprison.

In the West, the Ryanair incident was interpreted as an act of hijacking and terrorism, which threatened the safety of EU citizens

In the West, the Ryanair incident was interpreted as an act of hijacking and terrorism, which threatened the safety of EU citizens. The EU closed airspace over Belarus, and brought out a package of personal sanctions (the fourth) against the Belarusian authorities.

Minsk responded with threats against the EU. Three days after the Ryanair incident, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei announced that the country planned to stop cooperating with the EU on illegal migration – “if the West doesn’t change its mind.” Makei then explained that the Belarusian authorities were not going to prevent people from crossing the border “just because some famous countries decided to organise some colour revolutions”.

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Some analysts believe that the Belarus border crisis is an attempt at weakening western sanctions against Alexander Lukashenka's leadership | Image: President of Belarus

The Belarusian government later claimed that it had allegedly spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” to protect Europe from smuggling and illegal migration, but was no longer going to do so. Lukashenka stated that Belarus would not talk to the West until the sanctions were lifted. In October, the Belarusian parliament unanimously approved the suspension of an EU agreement on the readmission of migrants.

Ironically, it was the EU that had previously funded Belarusian efforts to increase border security. It is estimated that since 2012 Belarus could have received up to $200m from the EU under various programmes related to border infrastructure.

Flights from Baghdad to Minsk

In spring, there were not enough potential migrants to create problems at Belarus’s border with the EU. But since then, the number of people travelling to Belarus has increased.

On 10 May, the first Fly Baghdad plane carrying Iraqi migrants landed at Minsk airport. The aircraft was swiftly replaced by a larger one, and the flight schedule expanded. From May to August, the number of flights from Baghdad to Minsk operated by Iraqi Airways, Iraq’s national carrier, increased from four to five per week. Flights from three other Iraqi cities were also added. Direct flights from Turkey arrived almost daily.

As the number of flights increased, so did the number of people wishing to cross the borders from Belarus into Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Only after the first tragedies at the EU border, in mid-September, did Baghdad stop air traffic to Minsk.

According to Der Spiegel, Belarus’s state tourism company has helped obtain Belarusian visas for Iraqi citizens

Although Lukashenka denies any involvement, an investigation by Der Spiegel and the London-based Dossier Center suggests that a company connected to the Belarusian presidential administration has helped obtain Belarusian visas for Iraqi citizens.

According to documents obtained by the two outlets, Tsentrkurort – a state tourism company that is part of the Office of the President of Belarus –allegedly also provided transfer from Minsk airport to the city and accommodation in centrally located hotels, from where guests were taken to the border in an organised manner. Tsentrkurort denied coordinating the travel of Iraqi nationals to Belarus.

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Flights by Iraqi airlines to Belarus have increased in number | Source: Flickr. Some rights reserved

In another investigation, Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT interviewed a number of migrants, as well as employees of Iraqi travel agencies, and concluded that the Lukashenka regime earns money on migration visas, accommodation in Minsk hotels and transportation.

According to their reporting, Iraqi travel agencies collect a deposit of some $3,000 per ‘tourist’. This money, LRT suggested, is used to pay for the services of those who deliver migrants to the border of Belarus and beyond. In total, “transit” to Europe, including crossing the Belarusian border, can cost $6,000–$15,000 per person. People who passed through Belarus and reached Germany named similar numbers to two German media outlets, Bz-berlin and Bild.

More barriers on entry to the EU

The governments of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia believe that the crisis will end when Belarusian policy “changes”.

“It is difficult to say when the migration crisis will end. Lukashenka’s regime should be asked about this, and when it plans to end it,” stressed Lithuanian interior minister Agne Bilotaite. So far, according to Bilotaite, Minsk does not intend to abandon the “project of transferring migrants to Europe”, and the Belarusian president is not going to abandon his country’s “means of pressure”.

Neither is Lithuania, which together with Latvia and Poland, has already amended national legislation on migration. Now these countries are trying to get changes in migration policy from the European Union, and are enlisting the support of other EU members. In Latvia, the country’s authorities have stated that any person seeking asylum in the country will have no right to do so after the state of emergency was declared.

"The regime in Minsk has instrumentalised human beings. They have put people on planes and literally pushed them towards Europe's borders"

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission

Lithuania has already proposed changes to the EU legal framework on migration issues – to toughen and adjust the procedure for granting asylum in emergency situations in order to “avoid abuse”. It has also proposed further legal provisions for erecting physical barriers at border crossings.

Poland has declared its readiness to build a border wall instead of a fence, which has now been approved by the country’s parliament. New legislation stipulates that migrants who illegally cross the Polish border will be immediately detained and made to leave the territory of Poland, with the process overseen by senior border guards on site. They will also be banned from re-entering the country for between six months and three years. Finally, the Polish authorities may disregard any asylum application filed after an illegal border crossing. In response, UNHCR has said that the new legislation violated the fundamental right to asylum, international law and EU law.

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There has been outcry in Poland over the government's attempts to refuse international protection to people crossing from Belarus | (c) SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Meanwhile, the EU does not intend to tolerate the “hybrid attack” of the Belarusian authorities, said Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, during her annual address to the European Parliament in September. “The regime in Minsk has instrumentalised human beings. They have put people on planes and literally pushed them towards Europe's borders. This can never be tolerated. And the quick European reaction shows that,” she said.

But the EU has few ways to influence Minsk. It tried to reach out to President Lukashenka through his only ally – the Kremlin. But after a conversation with the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, Russian president Vladimir Putin stated clearly that the Belarusian migration crisis “does not concern us, these are not our borders”.

Brussels, together with EU states, is currently preparing a fifth package of sanctions against the Lukashenka regime and its associates. It is assumed that, in addition to judges and prosecutors involved in repressions against the Belarusian people, officials involved in the migration crisis may also be targeted.

In the meantime, Minsk appears to be looking for new migration routes. On 15 September, Lukashenka issued a new decree permitting visa-free entry to Belarus for citizens of Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan and South Africa. Visa-free entry is valid only if they have an open visa to the EU or Schengen countries and return air tickets from Belarus. The decree recently came into force.

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