Two wayward sisters, locked in a vicious dance—that is where Poland and Belarus found themselves in July of 2021, when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko threatened to breach the border of the European Union (EU) with a wave of incorrigibles. The warning, believed to have been orchestrated with the aid of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was in retaliation to previous threats by the EU bloc to impose sanctions in response to Lukashenko’s crackdown on political dissent following several large-scale protests that erupted after the 2020 Belarusian presidential election.
The wave of migrants flooding from Belarus into Poland are, perhaps surprisingly, mostly of non-Belarusian origin. Rather, many of the asylum seekers hail from Middle Eastern countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Iran, to be specific. Perhaps even more surprising is that a handful of Cuban migrants found themselves caught up in the crisis, five thousand miles from their home in the Caribbean. According to The New York Times, upon arriving in Belarus, national security forces gave these migrants directions on how to cross the borders of European Union countries, and even provided them with wire cutters and axes to aid in their crossings—a move that European leaders characterized as a “cynical ploy to ‘weaponize’ migrants in an effort to punish Europe.”
The true poison of the Poland-Belarus border crisis, however, is not Lukashenko threatening to breach the EU, nor is it him supplying migrant groups with fraudulent advice on how to cross the border. The meat of the “crisis” label comes from the mistreatment these migrants suffered at the hands of Polish and Belarusian border guards. Purportedly, migrants were pushed back across the border without being afforded due process, a claim that was confirmed by two Polish guards who cited a national law passed in October of 2021 that permitted the removal of foreigners in Poland to Belarus by force. The law was quickly condemned as being in violation of international and EU law, as forced removal of migrants violates the prohibition on collective expulsions stipulated in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Testimony collected from several phone interviews with victims of these crimes continues to paint a damning picture for the Polish border agents as well, with detainees’ accounts detailing how they went for weeks without food, drank swamp water to survive, and were beaten with batons as punishment for disobedience.
Belarusian border agents, however, bear the brunt of the cruelty accusations from migrants’ accounts. Abdullah, a man traveling with three other migrants at the time of his encounter, recalled, “[Belarusian border guards] forced us to stand in knee-high water for approximately 40 to 60 minutes while they ridiculed us. It was freezing cold, snow everywhere. Then they told us to cross the river. We had no option. They told us, ‘Go or we shoot you!’ My friend drowned in the river as he couldn’t swim.”
Reports that migrants were beaten and raped by Belarusian border agents, as well as other security forces, surfaced alongside accounts such as Abdullah’s. A makeshift warehouse was reportedly used for Belarus’ border camp Bruzgi, where approximately one thousand men, women and children were initially kept. According to interview testimony from captives, Bruzgi was the scene of a gang rape, beatings, and a place where migrants were forced to live in inhuman living conditions. A 23-year-old Kurdish man from Iraq, referring to himself as “Ramzah” to protect his anonymity, recalled people sleeping on wooden pallets, not having any heat or electricity, and only eating one meal a day that consisted of biscuits. Ramzah’s testimony, along with other captives and a lawyer who’d been at Bruzgi, also served to corroborate claims that border guards and police were raping and sexually harassing the women and girls being kept there.
In response to the influx of migrants, Poland began construction of a wall on the Belarusian border in early 2022. Completed in June of 2022, the wall measures roughly 186 kilometers (115 miles) long—nearly half the length of the border between the two countries—and cost approximately €353m, ten times the budget of Poland’s migration department.
Lithuania and Latvia have also seen an influx of migrants from Belarus, and have responded similarly to Poland. Like its southern neighbor, Lithuania constructed a border wall to prevent the entry of migrants that it did not have the infrastructure to accommodate. Latvian border guards reported that they had denied nearly 6,500 people entry to Belarus, but it is likely that this number stems from the same people being subjected to daily pushbacks, and thus is greatly inflated. One study estimated the number to be as low as 250, but also reported that those migrants were subjected to extreme violence and torture at the hands of Latvian police and soldiers.
Despite its border wall, Poland once again saw the number of Middle Eastern migrants trying to cross its border increase in early November of 2022. Border agents detained 65 migrants on November 3, and 117 on November 4. The surge came barely a week after Polish border guards released a video filmed on October 26 that showed Belarusian guards leading a group of migrants to the border while trying to hide their own faces. The video stated that most migrants are now traveling to Russia first before using organized transport to make their way to Belarus before being led to the Polish border.
Fearing another migrant crisis on the border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Polish soldiers began laying razor wire at the behest of their government on November 2. But the November response, combined with the construction of the border wall in the first half of 2022, is now drawing international criticism and accusations of hypocrisy. When Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Poland graciously opened its borders to millions of refugees fleeing shellings and illegal occupations. The acceptance of Ukrainian refugees while simultaneously denying asylum to those of Middle Eastern origin suggests a racial bias and motive in Poland’s response and construction of its border wall, one that has proven deadly to at least 21 migrants thus far.
“It’s meant to keep out asylum seekers of a different type: those fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, who were encouraged to try their luck by Belarus’ authoritarian regime—a close ally of Russia—as part of a feud with the EU,” argued Vanessa Gera and Kirsten Grieshaber, writers for the Associated Press.
Despite some Poles’ support of their government’s rigid stance, many who inhabit regions close to the border are taking action to counter and critique their government’s lack of aid directed towards the migrants on the Belarusian border, with some offering medical help to migrants trapped in the forest during the harsh winter months. Another Pole wrote a play entitled “Responsibility,” which questions how Poland could grant asylum to millions of Ukrainians while denying aid to many others. One character in the play aptly questions, “Why does the Polish state demand that a child from Aleppo sits in a bog in sub-zero temperatures and withhold the aid it gives the child from Mariupol?”
Amnesty International backed the claims of hypocrisy and called for Poland to extend the same treatment it offered Ukrainians to the migrants who crossed the Belarusian border, stating, “This violent and degrading treatment stands in stark contrast to the warm welcome Poland is offering to displaced people arriving from Ukraine. The behaviour of the Polish authorities smacks of racism and hypocrisy. Poland must urgently extend its admirable compassion for those entering the country from Ukraine to all those crossing its borders to seek safety.”
Evidently, Poland’s response to the influx of migrants from its eastern neighbor has been less than satisfactory. Human rights abuses, international law violations, and a racially motivated preference towards Ukrainian refugees have laid bare the systemic faults that pervade Poland’s immigration systems. While Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia have all also had unbecoming responses and taken questionable action against Middle Eastern refugees, Poland remains the largest perpetrator of these hypocritical behaviors. Even as the War in Ukraine rages on and more families are forced to seek asylum following the destruction of their towns and cities by Russian missiles, Poland cannot continue to solely offer them protection while turning away others who also face life-threatening situations in their own countries. Further, the 2021-2022 Poland-Belarus border crisis has shown that human rights violations and political hypocrisy in Eastern Europe are not confined to Russia and Ukraine. Even as Putin’s war continues to draw the attention of international media—and undoubtedly accounts for an overwhelming majority of the international law and human rights violations occurring in Eastern Europe in 2022—the lives and experiences of those made into political pawns by Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko cannot fly under the radar. Both Poland and Belarus’s actions warrant immediate and extensive investigation by United Nations and European Union officials, and the evidence they find—along with the testimonies from migrants that have already surfaced—must be used to swiftly bring these perpetrators to justice.