There is a humanitarian crisis brewing in Europe, provoked by an authoritarian regime, in which the European Union has become complicit.
Since early summer, thousands of people have been attempting to migrate to the EU through its eastern borders in Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. They come predominantly from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and their point of arrival in Europe is Belarus, an authoritarian regime located between Poland and Russia. They are lured by Belarusian state travel agencies, charging thousands of euros for the prospect of a safe passage to the EU. After they land in Minsk, Belarus’s capital, they are guided to the EU borders, but from then on nothing goes as promised.
They experience violent pushbacks from Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian border patrols, forcing them to return to Belarus. The Belarusian border patrols respond by driving them back to the EU borders. And so the vicious cycle continues. In most cases, none of the countries are willing to process the migrants’ asylum applications, thus violating the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees.
Seeking asylum is a human right. According to the Geneva Conventions, anyone should be able to enter another country and file for asylum. Whether the application is successful or not is another question, but it needs to be evaluated so that people who are potentially fleeing war or torture are not automatically deported back to their countries. But in recent months, the governments of Poland and the Baltic States have largely been ignoring these provisions, while Belarus refuses to admit the asylum seekers back in.
The Minority Rights Group estimates that about 8,000 people are now stuck in this limbo, wandering the EU border forests where the temperature at night drops to 40 degrees. Unprepared for the cold and rain, they stay in makeshift camps, with little food, clothing, or medication. The official death toll is five, but the aid organizations I spoke to believe that more people could have died from hypothermia and exhaustion.
This deadlock is rooted in a macabre political strategy of Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. During his 27 years in office, Lukashenko has been accused of election tampering and human rights abuses. When his regime hijacked a plane in May with dissident journalist Roman Protasevich on board, the EU responded with sanctions. In retaliation, Lukashenko threatened to withdraw from international agreements binding Belarus to protect the borders it shares with the EU. “We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves,” he declared.
In this cynical game, asylum-seekers are used as pawns to exert political pressure. “Lukashenko hopes that the EU will grow so desperate to avert a humanitarian crisis that it will lift some of the sanctions,” said Wiktoria Bieliaszyn, a reporter for Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza daily.
That a dictator would use such inhumane methods is hardly a surprise. What is alarming is how the democratic republics of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have responded to the situation.
They immediately and openly resorted to pushbacks — an illegal strategy, which, under current weather conditions, could be considered as torture. Although some migrants reported being pushed back and forth between the borders up to 20 times, the governments remain indifferent to their fate. Focusing instead on geopolitics, they emphasize “the protection of borders” from a “hybrid war” and refuse to “play in Lukashenko’s theater.” But are these borders really protected if people — whose only crime is seeking a better life — are dying there?
In a high-profile case, 32 asylum-seekers from Afghanistan have been trapped on a border strip between Poland and Belarus since early August, without access to medical or legal help. The Polish refugee rights NGO the Ocalenie Foundation, which has been in contact with the group, recently reported a message from them on Sept. 21: “If we stay here and die, will you take care of our bodies?”
“It is terrifying that the Polish government is willing to crush these people only to prove a point to Lukashenko,” Kalina Czwarnóg of Ocalenie told me in an interview.
This new crisis is a stark reminder that the EU migration policy prioritizes border security over human rights. It is likely that pushbacks wouldn’t have become such an obvious tool of choice now if they hadn’t been widely practiced in Croatia, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, and Spain for the past five years with the silent approval of EU institutions.
“This is not a refugee crisis,” Anna Alboth of the Minority Rights Group told me. “It’s a crisis of solidarity.”
Lithuania and Latvia have imposed states of emergency to mobilize additional forces. Following in their footsteps, Poland went a step too far and banned media and aid workers from entering the border region — a move widely interpreted as a coverup for human rights abuses. “This decision is without precedent, not only locally but in the EU,” Alboth said.
The irony here is that the governments of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia went to great lengths not to play Lukashenko’s game, but ended up as his partners in crime. They became his accomplices in human rights violations. “What Lukashenka wanted was to destabilize the region, and he succeeded,” Bieliaszyn said. “The longer this deadlock lasts, the more political ammunition he acquires.”
Ada Petriczko is the 2021 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation and a research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies.