By: Aayushi Vanzara, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law
Edited by The Editorial Board of SAIL.
Belarus has engineered a migrant crisis in Europe. Assuring migrants from war-torn nations in the Middle East entry into Western Europe. The procedure to acquire a tourist visa has been simplified to cause an influx of migrants on the borders it shares with EU member states. It is important to understand how humans have been relegated to being mere pawns in a chess match between Russia and the European Union, and how Belarus and Poland are the warring knights.
Belarus is a landlocked country and shares its borders with three EU member states- Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 altered the geopolitical dynamics, it concluded the reign of an empire leaving behind riches enough for 15 countries that we recognize today as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Lithuania, Georgia, Latvia, Belarus, Estonia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Russia. All these countries, collectively known as Russia’s satellite states, border the present-day Russian Federation.
Russia, under President Putin, has sought to extend its sphere of influence over these erstwhile Soviet Federations, with Mr. Putin describing the disintegration of the Soviet Union as three “greatest geopolitical tragedies of the 20th century.” This has led to tensions with countries like Poland that followed a more independent foreign policy unlike their counterparts like Belarus, joining the Western Bloc in 2004. Thus Belarus has emerged as the ideological, political, and territorial buffer zone between Western Europe and Russia.
Poland and EU’s conflicting views on Russia:
Poland’s geopolitical ambitions have been expressed clearly after it decided to adopt a pro-West foreign policy post-1991. But the Russian military might on Poland’s border runs strong, Russia has 3 million active military personnel compared to Poland’s 160,000. It is thus understandable that Warsaw has longed for adopting stronger military posturing against Russians.
However, the EU has been apprehensive about a stronger action. Countries like Germany are reliant on Russia for meeting their energy needs. Through the Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea.
The Power conflict and the current crisis:
The current crisis began in May 2021 and has unsettlingly spiraled in the last couple of months. In comparison to barely over 100 attempts to cross the border from Belarus to Poland last year, over 12,000 crossings have been reported by Polish authorities, in October 2021 alone. Belarus is engineering this border crisis in response to the economic sanctions imposed by the EU.
European Sanctions on Belarus:
In 2020, Alexander Lukashenko claimed yet another victory in Belarus’ Presidential election, which independent observers widely believed to be rigged. Thousands flocked on the streets in the protest, Lukashenko responded with a brutal crackdown and more than 7,000 arrests. The EU imposed the first set of sanctions on individuals responsible for violence, repression, and election fraud.
Seeing no change in Lukashenko’s regimen to deal with the protesters, the EU imposed a second round of restrictions, which only further agitated Alexander Lukashenko. Unfazed, Belarus hijacked the flight carrying Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist and former editor of an opposition media outlet, to arrest the journalist for covering the 2020 crackdown, post-elections in Belarus.
EU’s proclivity for making deals to keep migrants away:
Belarus has engineered this crisis and used migrants as a political weapon, but the EU has failed the migrants by ignoring its own legal code that prohibits collective expulsions, Article 19 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of The European Union guarantees minimum rights for persons apprehended or intercepted in connection with irregular border crossing.
Contrary to the law, the migrants were denied their rights and were pushed away. But this is not the first time the EU has mistreated migrants. In 2015, several middle eastern countries including Iraq and Syria were deep in conflict, which forced many to flee their countries to safeguard themselves.
The safest route that led them to Europe was through Turkey, from there the migrants could cross into Greece by land or water. It was the largest migration wave recorded in modern times in a calendar year. The EU was nowhere near prepared to entertain this influx, so in March 2016, the EU struck a deal with Turkey.
Simply put, Turkey would hold back migrants and even take back those who had already made it to Greece. In exchange, the EU would pay Turkey 6 billion euros. The border security and the legal responsibilities are both essentially outsourced. The deal was held to be illegal and unconscionable which made migrants more susceptible to human rights violations.
The deal went on to into effect regardless, and the migrant arrivals plummeted substantially. The deal was so effective in keeping migrants from entering Europe, it soon took an entirely new geopolitical prominence of its own. Over the years, Turkey took this opportunity to extort funds from the EU in exchange of threatening to let migrants in.
Soon, it wasn’t just Turkey who had this leverage on the EU, Morocco, Tunisia, Armenia, and more countries were all paid by the EU to keep migrants from its borders. Needless to say, all these countries abuse the migrants, and some even push them back to the conflict areas they desperately try to escape.
Europe gets away with pushing migrants away because it happens out and away from Europe and far from its sight. Just like all these countries, Lukashenko is using leverage and incentive to use migrants as pawns, but in exchange for the EU to drop its sanctions. However, it doesn’t seem to be working.
The Plight of the Migrants:
Currently, migrants at the border are not only the victims of the freezing temperatures but are also abused by the guards at the border. The Belarusian border security is compelling the migrants to cross the border, by breaking the barbed wire fence built by Poland in August.
They can neither return to their home countries nor cross the border. A number of migrants have already died due to freezing cold temperatures, and lack of basic necessities like food and water.
All non-residents, including aid organizations, doctors, and reporters, are prohibited from crossing the two-mile deep stretch of woodland that separates the two countries, according to emergency legislation issued by Warsaw in early September in an attempt to prevent the migrants from crossing the border.
Poland has been pushing the migrants back using tear gas and water cannons to stop them from entering Poland and on the Belarusian side, the guards refuse to let the migrants retreat.
This violent cycle that has trapped thousands of migrants, has been labeled as “hybrid-warfare” by the EU, which refuses to scrap the sanctions imposed on Belarus. After weeks of escalation, the EU adopted yet another round of sanctions, pressured airlines to cut off major air routes from the middle east to Minsk.
For refugees and migrants, Belarus is a perilous place to be in, at the moment. Poland is in violation of not only multiple EU human rights but also the cardinal principle of non-refoulment.
The border situation between Belarus and Poland is solely fabricated and unwarranted, and it demands immediate resolution. Belarus and Poland are both responsible for the catastrophic situation and the safety of the thousands of individuals detained or trapped on their shared border. Similarly, they both have a responsibility to respond to the crisis with a system that is non-derogatory towards the migrants, treat them with respect and in consonance with principles of non-refoulment.