Thick fog creeps between the trees. The cold November air fills the vast forests that stretch for many miles across Belarus and Poland. Their usual calmness is disturbed as smoke rises over the border at the Kuznica crossing; shouts echo through meadows and ravines. A line of Polish troops stands firm behind the razor wire, holding their shields. On the opposite side, there is a mob of several thousand migrants dressed in dark winter clothing. Some are sitting around the fires, while others are attempting to force their way into Europe, breaking parts of the fence and throwing rocks at the defenders. But that is not enough to unnerve the Poles, who respond with water cannons and pepper spray. Time and again, loudspeakers cut through the hubbub, broadcasting the message: “Attention! Attention! If you do not follow orders, force may be used against you!” Text messages containing similar content are sent to everyone in the vicinity, urging people not to believe the false promises of an easy passage.
The small border control building on the Belarusian side and the area around it have been turned into a complete mess, with migrants chaotically camping around. Meanwhile, Belarusian forces are standing aside, watching the conflict unfold. It is rumoured that after dusk, some of them cut through the wire, helping the most adventurous among them to sneak into the woods of Poland. However, everyone who has made it through so far was found and pushed back.
It all began several weeks ago. Migrants, primarily from the Middle East, booked flights to Minsk, encouraged by President Lukashenko’s apparent connivance. They came as tourists, entitled to stay in Belarus for 30 days without a visa. Upon arrival, they were met by the smugglers, were put in a hotel, and then transported further to the border. According to the BBC, citing the Polish border agency, more than five thousand attempted illegal crossings took place in November alone. Migrants continued to concentrate at Kuznica. Turned away by the Poles, they tried to break through the defences. With Belarusians reluctant to disperse them—quite unlike the political protestors earlier this year—the situation turned into a stand-off.
President Lukashenko denied his government’s involvement in orchestrating the crisis, but few have found his response convincing, especially considering the recent sanctions imposed on Belarus. Some believe that Russia is responsible for the entire plan. While this is possible, there is no clear evidence that this is the case.
This is not the first instance of using migrants as a political tool. In early 2020, Turkey announced that it would not prevent them from getting to Europe, effectively sending waves of Middle Easterners to Greece; President Erdoğan demanded payments from the EU, as his country housed about three and a half million refugees from Syria. The Greeks offered fierce resistance, reinforcing the border, suspending asylum applications, and introducing harsh punishments for illegal crossings. That invasion was successfully repelled.
The EU was surprisingly supportive. “This border is not only a Greek border; it is also a European border. … I thank Greece for being our European aspida [shield] in these times,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. Funds were allocated, and member states expressed their support. NGOs, on the other hand, were not impressed, accusing Greece of having violated international law. In their opinion, the country had no right to suspend the processing of asylum seekers and was also guilty of neglecting refugees already waiting in the camps. Still, everyone but Turkey itself agreed that President Erdoğan’s conduct was far from exemplary.
President Lukashenko faces the same reaction. His gamble is not likely to pay off, as new sanctions have been introduced, and border guards remain adamant. Similarly to the Greek crisis, the EU has chosen to rally behind Poland. Unlike Greece, it did not suspend the asylum applications officially but did not accept any from the migrants, pushing them back to Belarus. Naturally, that draws the ire of activists and media, though not enough to pressure either Warsaw or Brussels into surrendering. It is possible that Lukashenko hoped to bully the EU into dropping the sanctions. But it is also possible that the motives behind this blackmail were more complicated—a test of resolve, a destabilisation effort, or both. It is also a very convenient smokescreen for the Russian troops that are once again massing near the Ukrainian border.
Nevertheless, President Lukashenko’s agenda does not make the migrants in Kuznica the innocent victims of circumstances. They knew exactly where they were going and why, leaving their homes for the promises of rich foreign lands. They are mostly young and adventurous men, willing to take the risk—and to throw stones at the Polish line as if that would somehow help their cause. They have paid the price, with at least eleven of them found dead in the vicinity; since that was probably not the fate they expected, they flew to Minsk.
But there are also women and children, including infants. Not only do they live in, as the media puts it, freezing temperatures and poor conditions; they also try to slip past the fence, hiding in the woods from Poland’s authorities. Reporters describe them as wandering around, sick, hungry, and afraid. What kind of a parent will knowingly put their child through such hardships when safer options are available? Clearly, not a responsible one.
Statistics show that most migrants are Kurds from Iraq who fly to Minsk from Baghdad, Dubai, Istanbul, or Antalya. There are also some Syrians and Afghans. They all pass through at least one safe country and seek to improve their lifestyle rather than escape death. They have chosen Europe not out of necessity, but because it is an excellent place in terms of living standards.
Mainstream media coverage of the Belarusian drama is predictably biased towards migrants. While blaming Lukashenko for using them as political pawns, most outlets urge the EU to show compassion, even if it means playing into his hands. “Since the migrant crisis of 2015, Europe has collectively hardened its heart against vulnerable outsiders,” complains the Guardian. “The stand-off in the forest has become a litmus test of just how callous it is prepared to be.” Meanwhile, CNN’s disapproving verdict was: “Poland’s government is ramping up its nationalist rhetoric.” And according to a Turkish outlet, Daily Sabah, “People are losing their lives for nothing at the Belarus-Poland border as the global community just shrugs it off.”
The situation at the Polish border remains tense, though the culmination of the crisis seems to be over. On 18 November, Belarusians finally cleared the camps, moving the mob to the nearby warehouse. Some had enough of the Belarusian adventures and are flying back home. President Lukashenko said he would not force anyone to return, asking the EU to take in at least two thousand “refugees.” The block, however, refuses to bow to pressure. On 21 December, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement, condemning the actions of all states involved in the crisis and reminding the EU members “of their obligation to uphold human rights at EU external borders, and to ensure that the human rights of migrants are respected and protected in line with international law.”
Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as other countries like Greece, are the gatekeepers of Europe, protecting their neighbours from a destabilising foreign influx. Not only do they put their soldiers in harm’s way and spare no resources, but they also bear the heaviest burden of criticism. Their governments continually face hard choices but are steadfast in their commitment. There can be no compromises with extortionists. There is no reasoning with those who do not respect the law.
Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.