Refugees Stare Death in the Face During the Poland-Belarus Border Crisis


19 year-old migrant’s body is lowered into the ground near the border. Photo courtesy of New York Times

Madeleine Miller, Staff Writer

Starting early this summer, thousands of migrants escaping countries in the Middle East―namely: Iraq, Syria, and Yemen―arrived at the Poland-Belarus border, hoping to cross into Europe to create a better life for themselves and their families. A stand-off started on November 15 between the migrants and the Polish troops when hundreds of the migrants were blocked by the troops at one of the crossings between Belarus and Poland.


These migrants were vulnerable as they sat on the Belarus side of the border, facing a possible hybrid war as Lukashenko is being accused of using these migrants—living, breathing human beings—as weapons against the EU to pressure them into lifting the sanctions put on Belarus. The Belarus government denied these claims but on November 26 Lukenshenko said to the public that Belarus will not detain these migrants and force them to go back to their countries. 


On November 13 the first deportation flight repatriated over 400 Iraqis with the goal to return these people back to their countries who previously had hoped to cross the border into Europe. As of November 26, two more deportation flights have touched down in Iraq with their migrant passengers and two more flights were planned for November 26-27. 


Migrants were first blocked at the border on November 15 by Polish troops at one of the crossings. A video was filmed of the occasion as migrants sat down on the road before the wall of barbed wire and metal shields blocking the border, beginning the stand-off between the Polish guards and these Middle Eastern migrants.


The migrants came from a makeshift camp at the Kunzinica crossing where thousands of migrants have settled in tents just inside Bealrus’s border. The migrants are trapped between the Polish guards and the Belarusian guards. The migrants can’t go back through Belarus back to where they came  and they can’t cross the Poland border. Turkey, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates have now restricted flights to Belarus.


The Polish guards feared a forced attempt through the border due to the presence of the Belarusian guards and on November 16 the Polish troops used water cannons and tear gas to repel the migrants attempting to break the barbed wire wall and cross the wall. Polish authorities claim that the guards at the border were assaulted by people throwing stones, bottles, and even logs. But the only thing the water cannons and tear gas managed to accomplish was raise the tensions even higher between the guards and migrants, making the already harsh conditions the migrants were enduring with the freezing temperatures and empty stomachs.


Lukashenko has been repeatedly accused of causing this “humanitarian crisis” by the EU and specifically Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland as they all border Belarus. Strain between Belarus and the European Union relations started back when Lukashnko was victorious in his presidential election that was later viewed as faulty and is suspected to have been rigged. Their suspicions were further fueled by the threat of retaliation made by Lukashenko against new sanctions.


Russian president, Vladimir Putin has also been accused of the same claims that have put on Lukashenko, saying that Putin is the one orchestrating the crisis and Lukashenko is just the person putting the possible “hybrid war” between the countries into play. Furthermore, Minister of  Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov called the actions of the Polish forces “absolutely unacceptable.” He said that the troops “violate all conceivable norms of international humanitarian law and other agreements of the international community.” Meanwhile, Moscow stands loyally beside Belarus during this crisis. 


As it turns out, Lukashenko and Putin haven’t been the only ones under scrutiny as Poland is under criticism of humanitarian organizations due to a recent legal amendment that was passed in October. The amendment allows migrants to be pushed back at the border just as they were on November 16 and it allows for asylum claims that were made by people who had entered the country illegally to be ignored. 


The border crisis initially started in August when thousands of migrants gathered by the Belarus-Poland border, most of them being from Iraq but also some from Syria and Yemen. They faced harsh conditions but endured it all in hope of crossing the border. An unidentified woman explained to a reporter how Belarusian guards had helped some migrants cross illegally into Poland by cutting the fence blocking them. But it seemed it was all for nothing as the Polish guards soon found the migrants in the forest and were immediately sent back over the border.


Over the months, not only have the migrants been facing the Polish troops, they’ve also been facing their own doubts and fears as some of them wonder whether selling everything that they once owned and traveling countries away will end up being worth it in the long run. To get where they are now at the border they’ve sacrificed everything and even with doubt plaguing their minds, they don’t have anything to go back to. But, even while many of the migrants are beginning to doubt their decision, the border crisis has also raised the determination of lots of other migrants as they are now even more hell-bent on making the dream of a better life reality. 


Contributing to the recent theme in the news of what was once a straight-forward situation has become a proportionally blown-out disaster.  The border crisis has become a humanitarian calamity with violence from both sides, conspiracy and accusations across all the politicians involved, and severe conditions that the migrants has been forced to endure with the lack of humanitarian aid. Because of the circumstances of this crisis, eleven migrants have died at the Poland-Belarus border and if something doesn’t change, more lives will be lost.