10 December 2021
The humanitarian crisis that unfolded--and continues to unfold--on Belarus’s borders with the European Union (EU) in late 2021 sparked widespread scrutiny of that country’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers (see the 12 November 2021 update on Belarus on this platform). However, the EU has long seen Belarus as an important partner in its efforts to halt the movements of migrants before they reach the EU.
As noted in a recent report by The Transnational Institute (TNI), the European Commission announced in 2016 that it would provide “€7 million from the European Neighbourhood Instrument for ‘the construction and/or renovation of several temporary migrants’ accommodation centres’ for ‘between 30 and 50 irregular migrants per centre at a time,’ where ‘all centres will have closed and open-type facilities.’ The Action Programme includes training on the management of these centres.” The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was reportedly tasked with helping implement the project.
Importantly, aside from some holding cells in border facilities, Belarus has to date only used prisons and police stations for migration-related detention purposes, having never established the types of specialized migrant facilities used in nearly all other European countries, particularly those that are members of the Council of Europe (of which Belarus is not).
A non-governmental source in Belarus informed the Global Detention Project (GDP) that in 2018, Belarus began building two migrant centres with EU support, which are reportedly intended to hold up to 200 people each and be located in Lida and Navapolatsk. However, according to the GDP source, progress on these facilities was halted shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, in mid-2020.
According to TNI, the EU has also supported numerous other detention-related projects. One such project, called “Helping Belarus Address the Phenomenon of Increasing Numbers of Irregular Migrants,” reportedly includes financing renovations of prisons in Belarus and includes the involvement of UNHCR and the Belarus Red Cross. Also, “As part of an earlier EU-funded project ‘Strengthening surveillance capacity on the green and blue border between Belarus and Ukraine’ (SURCAP, 2012–2014), also implemented by the IOM, border guards from Belarus and Ukraine went on study visits to detention centres in Italy and Portugal. In February 2018, the IOM also organised a study visit to detention centres in Albania and Macedonia for Belarusian border guards, once again funded by the EU.”
The GDP source in Belarus reported that there is no available information indicating that migrants are currently being detained in the country, adding that many are receiving accommodation in a non-secure “logistical” centre in Bruzgi. However, the source added that this situation could change as many people may now have expired visas.
Images filmed by Ruptly, a video news agency owned by the Moscow-backed RT television network (formerly Russia Today), appear to show migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in a warehouse-like facility. Children and families are seen sleeping on the floor of the facility in between scaffolding. On 16 November 2021, a Belarusian presidential aide was quoted as saying that “all migrants will be able to stay at the centre until the issue is resolved.”
On 9 December 2021, Polish soldiers found the body of a migrant in the border region with Belarus. Around a dozen people have now been found dead along the border as aid groups warn that the toll could be even higher. Polish border guards said that on 8 December 2021, a group of 35 migrants had forced their way across the Polish border overnight and that the Belarusian military had helped them cross. The group was caught by Polish authorities and sent back to Belarus. According to the Polish government, it is estimated that the Lukashenko regime has sent back around 3,000 migrants to Iraq and Syria but there remain around 7,000 on the Belarusian territory.
While observers have been critical of the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers by Polish and Lithuanian security services during the border crisis with Belarus, which Belarus and Russia have also loudly denounced, there are long-standing concerns about how Belarus treats migrants crossing into its territory from Russia. According to TNI, a report by the group Danwatch “exposed the inhumane treatment of migrants by the Belarusian border authorities, including pushbacks of Chechen refugees to Russia and extremely violent treatment of perceived irregular migrants by armed border guards.”
UNHCR data shows that in 2020, there were 2,900 refugees, 136 asylum seekers, and 6,297 stateless persons in Belarus. In addition, data shows that around 600 asylum applications were submitted in Belarus in 2020.
- European Parliament, “Parliamentary Questions - 8 June 2017 - Mr Hahn on Behalf of the Commission,” accessed on 10 December 2021, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-8-2017-000336-ASW_EN.html
- The Transnational Institute, “Outsourcing Oppression: How Europe externalises migrant detention beyond its shores,” April 2021, https://www.tni.org/files/publication-downloads/outsourcingoppression-report-tni.pdf
- Global Detention Project, Belarus Country Page, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/europe/belarus
- Ruptly, “Belarus: Stranded Migrants Flock to Collect Aid at Bruzgi Logistics Centre,” Youtube, 18 November 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHrjRvyyd_A&ab_channel=Ruptly
- TASS, “Belarus Ready to Accommodate All Migrants at Logistics Centre- Official,” 16 November 2021, https://tass.com/world/1362305
- DW, “Poland Says Another Migrant Found Dead Near Belarus Border,” 8 December 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/poland-says-another-migrant-found-dead-near-belarus-border/a-60056480
- UNHCR, “Refugee Data Finder: Belarus,” accessed on 10 December 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/download/?url=eniQq4
- Inside the Bruzgi Logistics Centre, (Ruptly, "Belarus: Stranded Migrants Flock to Collect Aid at Bruzgi Logistics Centre," Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHrjRvyyd_A&ab_channel=Ruptly)
12 November 2021
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,
- A group of refugees between Polish (foreground) and Belarusian guards at a border camp near Bialystok, Poland ©AFP/Getty. The Financial Times, "Belarus plays on the EU’s migration concerns," 22 August 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/7a036e79-69f9-410b-8faa-89607396afe9
13 May 2020
In response to an information request submitted by the Global Detention Project and the NGO Human Constanta, Belarus Deputy Minister of the Interior Ministry Aleksandr Barsukov confirmed that during the pandemic non-nationals who violate the country’s legislation may continue to face detention and deportation. He wrote, “For foreigners violating the legislation of the Republic of Belarus on the plight of foreign citizens and persons who have taken citizenship, measures are applied in accordance with the requirements of the Code of Administrative Offenses, including deportation.” However, he specified that foreigners stuck in the country for reasons outside their control will be granted stay extensions: “Foreigners who cannot leave the Republic of Belarus for reasons beyond their control, the length of stay is extended.”
Belarus has attracted significant criticism for its slow and limited response to the pandemic, and few official containment measures have been adopted. With President Lukashenko publicly downplaying the pandemic--which he has dismissed as a “psychosis”-- authorities have refused to cancel large public events such as football matches or the country’s Victory Day military parade. Several small measures were, however, adopted with regards to prisons, with authorities suspending visits on 16 March and issuing new guidance on supplies to be delivered to inmates. Reportedly, every 30 days prisoners may receive food packages weighing up to 10kg, but they may only contain items authorities deem necessary for the prevention of respiratory illnesses (specifically: citrus fruits, garlic, onions, and apples).
To date, however, no steps have been taken to release prisoners - or foreign detainees - prompting the United Civic Party to launch a petition in April calling for prisoners to be released. It warned that if measures were not taken, prisons will “turn into mass graves.” Family members of inmates sent an open letter to the president requesting an amnesty bill which will permit the release or reduced sentencing of vulnerable people and those sentenced for non-violent crimes.
On 7 May, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged the government to release all children and young people imprisoned for drug-related offences. They called on authorities “to avoid by all means the detention of children, to release those who do not pose a threat to society … which is especially necessary in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
- Deputy Minister of Interior, Response to GDP and Human Constanta Information Request, 11 May 2020, www.globaldetentionproject.org
- A. Makhovsky, “Nobody Will Die of Coronavirus in Belarus, Says President,” Reuters, 13 April 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-belarus/nobody-will-die-from-coronavirus-in-belarus-says-president-idUSKCN21V1PK
- Change.org, “Требуем максимально широкую амнистию. Срочно. COVID-19 превратит колонии в братские могилы,” https://bit.ly/2ypyw1R
- Вясна, “Осужденных лишили свиданий из-за коронавируса,” 17 March 2020, https://spring96.org/ru/news/96246
- OHCHR, “UN Experts Urge Belarus to Release Children and Young People Jailed for Drug Offences Amid Covid-19 Crisis,” https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25869&LangID=E
- Tut.by, “«Если вирус попадет в СИЗО и колонии, будет трагедия». Родственники написали открытое письмо Лукашенко,” https://news.tut.by/economics/680527.html
- A Person Walking by a Wall of the Centre for Isolation of Offenders (Центр изоляции правонарушителей), (Spring96, www.spring96.org)