Potential humanitarian crisis unfolding at Polish border

Woman at a refugee camp | Ahmed Akacha/Pexels

Five years since the Syrian refugee crisis, the next wave of migrants are reaching EU borders.

Since the summer, Belarus has been establishing itself as one of the main routes into the EU for migrants from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan through decrees granting visa-free access to dozens of nationalities and flights to Minsk before heading to the EU’s borders, with or without official escorts.

Video footage shows they are pointed towards the EU and told to walk past Belarusian border guards. Previously they headed towards Lithuania before the country put up a wall on the border, now they are heading towards Poland. 

However, neither country is willing to accept the migrants. The Polish government has recently passed a law legalising the pushbacks of migrants to Belarus, which is a measure deemed illegal under international law. Belarus refuses to take them back, so they are left without food or shelter for days. 

Reliable information about what’s happening at the border is also scarce as Poland has declared a state of emergency banning NGOs and journalists from operating around three kilometres from Belarus, raising concerns about the tactics being used. 

With temperatures consistently below zero and plummeting, lives are at stake. An estimated seven people have died in the last several weeks alone, many from hypothermia. 

At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council meeting this week, Western member states issued a joint statement, accusing Belarus of putting migrant’s lives at risk for “political purposes” trying to divert international attention away from their own human rights violations. 

The statement was a joint effort by the UK, US, and France, all permanent council members. However, Russia, also a permanent member, rejected these accusations and blamed Poland and neighbouring Lithuania for mistreating migrants. By law, all permanent members of the UN Security Council have the right to veto resolutions. 

Earlier this week, Belarus’ leader, Alexander Lukashenko, said his country would have to respond if the EU imposed a fifth series of sanctions.

The initial sanctions the EU imposed on Belarus are in response to Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown of protestors and critics after mass protests over a widely discredited election victory. 

Lukashenko said: “We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us”, referring to the Russian gas pipeline that runs through Belarus into the EU.

“And what if we halt gas supplies? Therefore, I would recommend the leadership of Poland, Lithuanians and other empty-headed people to think before speaking.”

The EU’s economy commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni, said the bloc “should not be intimidated”. Belarus receives transit fees for the pipelines, and any decision would have to be approved by Russia, which has anxieties for its new Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany to be certified.

But Katja Yafimava from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies said Lukashenko’s threat should be taken seriously. 

“If the EU pushes Belarus too hard, it may act on this threat”, adding that this would push up gas prices across the continent, including in the UK. 

The next imperative for the EU is to step up efforts to stem the flow of people to Belarus. It must push the countries of origin to put a stop to people traffickers and stop flights carrying migrants to Minsk. 

There are additional concerns that Belarus is trying to capitalise on the mounting humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan by opening up a new front. This only going to become worse unless we deal with it.