The escalating crisis on the Belarus-Polish border has spurred a growing number of countries to accuse Belarus of weaponizing migrant and refugee movements, using them as pawns to destabilise the European Union. At the same time, there is growing international outrage over Poland’s response to the situation–as well as that of other countries that border Belarus like Lithuania (see the 9 October 2021 Lithuania update)–which has included leaving people (including families and children) stranded at the border in freezing conditions, bolstering troop movements, and mobilising anti-immigrant public sentiment.
In late May, Belarusian President Alexandr Lukashenko, angered by EU sanctions, declared that he would no longer prevent migrants and refugees from entering Europe. There are reports that State-controlled travel bureaux in Belarus have been luring migrants from the Middle East to Belarus, promising an onward passage to the EU for the price of Euro 15,000 – 20,000. On arrival, migrants are accommodated in State-managed hotels and then bussed to the Polish and Lithuania borders. There are videos of Belarusian security guards in full-combat gear pushing migrants towards the borders. Thousands of desperate men, women, and children–many from Iraq and Afghanistan–have been transported to Belarus’s borders with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.
According to testimony from migrants, Belarusian soldiers have physically abused migrants. One person from Morocco told reporters: “They beat me in Belarus. There are gangs that stand behind the army and attack us. They beat you, take your money, split it 50-50, part for the gangs, part for soldiers.” Other testimonies indicate that Belarusian police have helped migrants cross the border to Poland. A 40 year-old Iraqi man said that he had travelled for three days by car to Istanbul, took a flight to Minsk from Turkey, and upon arrival at the Polish border, “the Belarusian police cut the barbed wire and let us through.”
Large numbers of migrants are now trapped between opposing security forces and forced to sleep in improvised camps in the middle of the forest along the border in freezing temperatures. By 22 October 2021, Polish authorities had announced the ninth recorded death in the forest region. According to the Polish border guard, so far this year, there were 24,500 attempts to cross the eastern border with Poland, 12,800 in October alone. On 9 November, the Polish government announced that there were around 3,000 to 4,000 people settled in an improvised camp on the border close to the village of Kuźnica.
The majority of migrants crossing into Poland are pushed back into Belarus by the Polish security forces. They describe a Kafkaesque situation of being repeatedly pushed backwards and forwards by the security forces of both countries–pawns in a political conflict. Doctors Without Borders have reported that they have seen “first-hand the injuries people experienced when assaulted by border guards from both Poland and Lithuania. People have described being beaten with the butt of a gun, kicked in the ribs, electrocuted in the neck, and have had all their belongings taken or destroyed by European border guards. This is unacceptable and must end now.”
The Polish government and the European Union argue that Belarus is deliberately encouraging migrants to enter the European Union through its borders. Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said that Lukashenko’s regime was negotiating visa liberalisation with several countries and adding flights to create new routes. Infomigrants reported that the number of countries whose citizens can enter Belarus without a visa has been expanded to 76 as of 20 October 2021.
In response to this situation, Lithuania has passed legislation tightening the rules on migration and asylum, approving the construction of a wall to prevent irregular crossings on the border with Belarus. On 9 November 2021, Lithuania declared a state of emergency on its border with Belarus, providing the police with additional powers to expel asylum seekers and restrict gatherings near the border.
For its part, Poland approved a plan to build a €353 million wall on its border with Belarus and adopted legislation providing that any non-nationals who are stopped after crossing the Polish border irregularly would be expelled from the country. Those expelled would be banned from entering the country for a period between six months to three years and Polish officials would be allowed to “leave unexamined” asylum applications filed by a non-national who is stopped immediately after entering the country irregularly. Poland has sent some 11,000 soldiers to the border area, created a militarised zone, and set up razor-wire fencing. Poland is also one of twelve EU member states requesting that the EU fund the construction of barriers at their borders. The EU has refused to fund the walls, adopting the same stance as in 2015-2016, when the European Commission refused to reimburse Hungary for fencing off its border with Serbia.
A group of doctors operating on the border have said they are prevented from accessing the zone where migrants are stranded. A Polish Red Cross worker from the border area said, “we have no access to the off-limits zone… we can’t hand over aid packages ourselves.” ECRE also reported that a group of 17 people located in the borderland forest between Poland and Belarus was left for 32 hours without food and water.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called upon EU member states to approve new sanctions against Belarusian authorities responsible for the influx of migrants at the Polish border, statingt: “The instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes is unacceptable.” She added that the EU would “examine how to sanction airlines from third countries” that bring migrants to Belarus. Subsequently, on Tuesday 9 November, the 27 EU member states agreed to suspend an EU-Belarus visa facilitation agreement. Belarus has denied having any involvement in directing the flow of people and the Belarusian border guard said that: “the indifference and inhumane attitude of the Polish authorities has prompted the refugees to take such a step of despair.”
- D. Trilling, “Dark Things are Happening on Europe’s Borders. Are They a Sign of Worse to Come? The Guardian, 8 November 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/07/on-the-frozen-frontiers-of-europe-with-the-migrants-caught-in-a-lethal-game
- Tadeusz Giczan, “Twitter,” 7 November 2021, https://twitter.com/TadeuszGiczan/status/1457348366040502280
- RTS, “Des Milliers de Migrants Massés à la Frontière Polonaise,” 8 November 2021, https://www.rts.ch/info/monde/12627002-des-milliers-de-migrants-masses-a-la-frontiere-polonaise.html
- RTS, “La Pologne Valide la Construction d’un Mur Anti-Migrants à la Frontière avec la Biélorussie,” 29 October 2021, https://www.rts.ch/info/monde/12602833-la-pologne-valide-la-construction-dun-mur-antimigrants-a-la-frontiere-avec-la-bielorussie.html
- Infomigrants, “Lithuania Starts Building Wall on Eastern EU Border,” 5 November 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/36261/lithuania-starts-building-wall-on-eastern-eu-border
- M. Seputyte, “New Barrier to Rise in Europe’s East Amid Spat with Belarus,” Bloomberg, 10 August 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-08-10/new-barrier-to-rise-in-europe-s-east-amid-tensions-with-belarus
- Infomigrants, “Poland Passes Law Allowing Migrant Pushbacks at Border,” 15 October 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/35768/poland-passes-law-allowing-migrant-pushbacks-at-border
- M. MacGregor, “EU Refuses to Fund Border Walls Against Migrants Entering From Belarus,” Infomigrants, 25 October 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/35990/eu-refuses-to-fund-border-walls-against-migrants-entering-from-belarus
- The Economist, “The EU is Being Asked to Pay for Border Fences to Keep Migrants Out,” 30 October 2021, https://www.economist.com/europe/2021/10/30/the-eu-is-being-asked-to-pay-for-border-fences-to-keep-migrants-out
- H. Von Der Burchard, “Belarus Migrant Arrivals Could Reach 10,000 in Weeks, Warns Lithuanian Minister,” Politico, 4 August 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/belarus-migrant-arrivals-growing-lithuania-minister-warns/
- ECRE, “ECRE Weekly Bulletin,” 29 October 2021, https://mailchi.mp/ecre/ecre-weekly-bulletin-29102021
- C. Ciobanu, “Polish Mothers Protest Treatment of Migrants on Border with Belarus,” Balkan Insight, 25 October 2021,