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Belarus - Poland and the border crisis

By Ania Hollinshead

Tension is building at the Kuznica border between Poland and Belarus, and it has been for many months, as thousands of people are trapped at the epicenter of burgeoning geopolitical warfare. The Polish police claimed on Monday that around 3500 had gathered near the crossing, where barbed wire and armed guards awaited them.

The migrants, the majority of whom are Kurds from Northern Iraq as well as from other places in the Middle East and Asia, such as Syria, have swarmed Belarus for the purpose of attempting to get into Europe. They live in terrible conditions, using makeshift shelters and tiny fires to keep warm in spite of the harsh winter onslaught.

Two Syrian migrants, Anas Kanaan, 34, and Mouein al-Hadi, 36, were informed by people smugglers that they would easily be able to get to Germany from Belarus. They just had to pay 3,000 euros ($3,390) each to an intermediary in Turkey.

However, to the young migrants’ horror, the safe crossings from Belarus to Poland which were explicitly indicated by the smugglers were actually closed off with no way of entering the European Union. Then, after more than a week spent camping in freezing forests on the border, a smuggler led them to a Polish village in broad daylight where unfortunately they were easily spotted by police, arrested and returned to the border on the Belarusian side.

Anas Kanaan stated that ‘it's all lies. They all lead you to roads where you can die. And at the end they tell you 'we are not responsible for you. Die, whatever'. They just want your money.’ ‘With each day, things are evolving on the border. Every day, there is a (new) obstacle, there are more guards, more people,’ a Syrian migrant Khaled Zein Al Deen, 45, stated in an open migrant centre in the Polish city of Bialystok.

It is clearly evident that the innocent people in these particular situations are the migrants and asylum seekers, simply wishing for a way into the European Union, into safety and security. However, the stalemate between Russia, Belarus and Poland is costing lives, a stark illustration of how trusting and helpless citizens are at the mercy of their governments and the geopolitical sphere they were born into.

The European Union is within touching distance to the refugees, but with border reinforcements such as barbed wire fences and armed guards preventing their entry, all they can do is gather in the thousands, hoping for a potential way in.

In one particular case, guards caught a Syrian asylum-seeker as well as three others, who have recently arrived in Poland after their third attempt at crossing the border from Belarus. The asylum-seeker was beaten up, and suffered facial injuries, alongside a broken nose and bruised ribs. Polish authorities said seven migrants have been found dead on Poland's side of the border, with reports of more deaths in Belarus.

The makeshift camps where migrants had been staying on the crossing were finally cleared by Belarusian authorities on Thursday, and migrants were moved to a nearby warehouse, which is marginally safer and warmer than their make-shift shelters in subzero temperatures. Although this shelter has offered a temporary reprieve from freezing cold and inadequate living conditions, Belarus has yet to confirm what comes next for migrants who flew to Minsk with hopes of making it to Europe, in search of a better life.

Since the beginning of November, there have been tens of thousands of recorded border crossing attempts, according to Polish authorities. A spokesperson for Poland's border guards stated on Monday that there had been "forced mass attempts to cross the border" in the Kuznica area by a group of people over the weekend and that the situation was "very tense and very dangerous." Under pressure from the European Union, airlines have restricted, cancelled or even banned flights from the Middle East to Belarus, while many travel agencies in that particular region have stopped selling plane tickets to the ex-Soviet republic. The Polish President Andrzej Duda visited the Kuznica border last week in a show of solidarity with the military, police and armed border guards.

In a nationalistic speech in support of the government's strict policy of keeping the border with Belarus closed to migrants, he said: "We have always been, we are and we will be part of a Europe based on Christian values, which are also the foundations of our tradition and culture." "The time has come when you need to defend your homeland. But we need to guard its borders more than before," Duda said, adding: "It must be done with dedication, with sleepless nights, in coldness, in hardship, in a very ungrateful situation to which we were forced by the hybrid actions of the Belarusian regime against Poland and against the European Union."

Humanitarian groups are accusing Poland's President of violating the international right to asylum by pushing the migrants back into Belarus rather than allowing their applications for protection. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that ‘everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries’ in Article 14. However, Poland says its actions are legal. The leading reasoning behind this humanitarian crisis is the fact that Poland and the European Union accuse the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging the migrants to travel to Belarus and cross the border illegally as revenge for sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses. Belarus denies the charge and says the EU is to blame for the humanitarian crisis on the border.

What is more, the rule of Lukashenko over Belarus has been pinpointed by Poland's ruling party as a contributing factor to the manufacturing of the migrant border crisis. The Polish government contested the legitimacy of the recent elections in Belarus, which Lukashenko had won, maintaining his rule over the country lasting since 1994. Upon speaking with a Polish native who prefers to remain anonymous, she believes that ‘Lukashenko is supported by Putin, and together, as an act of revenge, they organised the transport of the refugees from Syria and Northern Iraq mostly, to the Polish border’. Poland’s refusal to accept those refugees, because they stand by their opinion regarding the legitimacy of the Belarusian election, has resulted in the armed reinforcement on the Kuznica border and the prevention of the refugees from gaining access into the European Union.

There appears to be a divide between the left and the right winged political parties: this has translated into a humanitarian crisis versus an attempt at Poland maintaining their sovereignty.

The contentious point to consider is that both Polish and Belarusian authorities have an executive obligation to prevent further migrant deaths through the insurance of regular humanitarian access to the people stuck in the border area. Both countries should also immediately halt these tennis game style push backs, and allow independent observers, including journalists from both countries as well human rights workers, access to currently restricted border areas. This would allow for a fair and unbiased opinion as well as providing humanitarian aid to the migrants. In August and September, the European Court of Human Rights instructed Poland to provide food, water, clothing, adequate medical care, and even temporary shelter to the people on the border. Although Poland’s prevention of the migrants from entering the border is in line with their retention of sovereignty and a way to illustrate to Putin that they will not be bullied regarding Belarus’ election, they have an obligation under the European Court of Human Rights. However, the European Court does not have jurisdiction over Belarus, meaning they cannot require the country to provide food and aid to the migrants; this must be done through private charitable trusts and humanitarian workers.

In conclusion, this is an ongoing crisis which must be resolved soon due to the fact that many lives are at stake, and migrants are dying as a result of the harsh weather and lack of basic amenities every day. There is evident tension between the Polish and Belarusian governments, almost encouraged by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and is a sobering reminder of the sacrifices of human life to a strained geopolitical atmosphere.

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