Four keys to understanding the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border

Around 3,000 people, mostly Kurds from Iraq, are trapped in freezing temperatures and without humanitarian aid

3 min
Tents on the border between Belarus and Poland.

BarcelonaAround 3,000 migrants, most of them refugees from the Middle East, are trapped on the border between Belarus, which has accompanied them there, and Poland, which has barricaded their passage with riot police and tear gas. The families are enduring sub-zero temperatures and humanitarian actors are not allowed access. This is the latest crisis scenario in the EU.

Where do the migrants come from and how did they get here?

Many are from Syria and Afghanistan, but also from African countries like Cameroon or the Democratic Republic of Congo, or from Venezuela. Flights from Iraqi Kurdistan to Belarus have been one of the alternative routes to the deadliest ones in the Mediterranean. Currently the main departure points are three cities in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq: Irbil, Shiladze and Sulaimaniya, where they can obtain visas from the Belarusian regime, either at the embassy or directly from travel agencies. According to the German government, in recent weeks there has been an increase in direct flights to Minsk also from Beirut, Damascus and Amman. From Belarus, migrants can enter the European Union via the Baltic republics or Poland, and from there continue their journey to Germany or other Western European countries. In the hands of smugglers, the journeys cost between 12,000 and 15,000 euros per person, according to information obtained by the German channel DW. The transport is done through the state-owned airline Belavia, which operates aircraft leased from EU-registered airlines, a practice that Brussels wants to cut off outright.

What is the Belarusian government doing?

The regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko, in power in Belarus since 1994, is considered Europe's last tyranny, and has been subjected to sanctions for its crackdown on the August 2020 protests against electoral fraud, and the imprisonment of journalist Roman Protasévich after forcing his commercial flight to land in Minsk. Lukashenko is instrumentalising migrants to pressure the EU to stop supporting the exiled opposition, which continues to work to topple him. Since July, a few tens of thousands of migrants have tried to enter Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, but there have never been so many at once as during this week. The crisis, however, is humanitarian and not migratory, because the flow is still very small.

How has Poland reacted?

The policy of the EU and its member states continues to be one of border shielding and militarisation. Lithuania started building a wall with barbed wire on Monday after the arrival of around 4,000 people between January and August, and Poland has also erected a wall, in true Donald Trump style. According to Warsaw, as many as 30,000 migrants have tried to enter its territory this year, half during October. Months ago, Poland authorised its police to carry out hot deportations at the border and to ignore all asylum requests. These days it has deployed riot police who have used tear gas against refugees and has set up a militarised zone where neither the press nor NGOs are allowed access, including the declaration of a state of emergency. The migrants, among whom there are many Kurdish-Iraqi women and children, have camped out in the bitter cold a few meters away from the Polish border. Others have scattered in small groups into the forest to try to cross without being seen. At least eight refugees have died of cold in the area in the past two months. Warsaw says it has sent more than 15,000 troops to the border.

What does Brussels say?

The European Commission is increasing pressure on Minsk and says it will sanction EU-registered airlines that contribute to "human trafficking". However, relations between Brussels and Poland, which has openly defied the pre-eminence of EU regulations, are not easy either and the humanitarian situation on the ground is very complicated. The EU and Berlin have supported Poland in its brutal treatment of migrants, saying that "the Polish government must be helped to secure its borders".