Migrants Are Pawns in a Tense East-West Standoff

Along the border between Poland and Belarus a low-intensity battle between the two countries is underway.  Desperate migrants from the Middle East are trapped in limbo.

Human rights groups have criticised Poland and Belarus for their treatment of migrants and refugees, who face subzero temperatures and a lack of food and medical attention [Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/AFP

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is arranging with travel agencies to fly Iraqi and Afghan migrants to Belarus, and then having his police and soldiers escort them to the Polish frontier to herd them into the European Union. His action is meant not as a humane gesture but rather retaliation for EU sanctions imposed on Belarus over human rights abuses.

Poland, along with similarly impacted Lithuania, responded by forcing migrants back into Belarus and constructing barbed wire barriers, which are soon to be followed by permanent fencing. The would-be refugees paid thousands of dollars to get into Europe but are arriving only within sight of it. In limbo, they are encamped in forests and fields awaiting their fate in the cold eastern European autumn. About 2,000 are estimated to be huddled near the Polish border; four have frozen to death.

The EU is backing Warsaw and considering whether to add more economic sanctions on Minsk. Even nominally migrant-friendly Germany is willing to send police to patrol the Polish frontier. Officials are calling Lukashenko’s stratagem a form of hybrid warfare, normally defined as a mixture of military aggression with lower-key tools like cyber-warfare and disinformation to harass an enemy,

It’s hard to think of a time when a migrant flow– whether in flight from war, repression or poverty– has been created as a weapon in an otherwise unrelated political conflict.

Governments have not uncommonly fomented refugee floods in order to cleanse territory of civilians perceived as enemy sympathizers or agents: Israel drove out Palestinians; Serbia tried to remove Albanian from Kosovo; government forces have driven Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Sometimes, governments displace population in their own countries as sectarian purges. Stalin moved several minorities deep into Siberia; Turkey and Greece exchanged Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations into still-separate separate territories within Cyprus; Germany’s Nazis tried to eradicate the country’s entire Jewish population, along with Jews throughout European lands it conquered.

In the Belarusian case, it is about harassing its neighbors. Lukashenko’s wants to blackmail Europe into lifting sanctions and let him get on with political oppression in peace. From 2020 into 2021, thousands of Belarusians protested an apparently fraudulent presidential election. Lukashenko detained thousands and kept about 500 in jail.  Scores of pro-democracy activists fled into exile—welcome in both neighboring Poland and Lithuania.

Expanded sanctions came into play last year when Lukashenko ordered his air force to divert a commercial flight from its path to Lithuania and land in Minsk. His police arrested a pro-democracy journalist and his girlfriend.

Lukashenko retaliated by ferrying migrants from the Middle East to Minsk.

The gambit incited Poland’s fierce opposition to Middle East immigration and coolness even to refugees from Afghanistan, again under the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban movement.

Moreover, since Germany’s one-off welcome to a million aspiring refugees in 2015, nationalist parties across Europe gained political traction through opposition to migration. Even countries that frequently espouse “solidarity”—France and Germany—are fearful of a big wave of migrants from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

“Poland defended itself against the wave of refugees in 2015 and it will also defend itself now. We will act responsibly, we will defend Poland,” said Piotr Gliński,  Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture.

Besides putting the EU in a bind, the conflict created a quandary for pro-refugee activists. They know Lukashenko is only using the issue to win free repressive rein at home, nonetheless, they want Poland to not push refugees into Belarus but let them gain entrance and access EU rules for gaining political asylum.

“The pushbacks that are happening are illegal not only in the international, but also EU law, which means that EU…should condemn Poland for what it’s doing at its external borders,” Marta Gorczynska, a Polish lawyer and refugee advocate, told Foreign Policy magazine.

Europe seems to be in no mood to liberalize refugee policy. The Belarus border stand-off is happening in new wave of refugee movements. The EU is trying to interdict boats ferrying migrants from North Africa to Italy while individual countries are building barriers to curb migration by land from the east.

And Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki raised the geopolitical stakes by blaming Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whose country is also subject to EU sanctions over its 2014 invasion of Ukraine: “This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow, the mastermind is President Putin,”

But what to do about it? Lukashenko and Putin have proved resistant to sanctions. And tensions with Russia seemed destined to increase.

Putin complained a week ago both about talk of Ukraine and Georgia both joining NATO, but also about US military aid to Kiev. He has once again moved tank and artillery units near the Ukraine border, as he last summer, raising fears of another invasion. Today, in a muscularly showy display of support for Lukashenko Putin sent two strategic bombers to cruise the skies over Belarus.

In that context, Lukashenko’s maneuvers, while cruel and irritating, are but a piece of a larger, unstable eastern Europe mosaic.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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