With the help of Poland’s right-wing PIS government, the Belarusian leader Lukashenko engineered a humanitarian crisis on Europe’s doorstep. In doing so, he is successfully eroding the European Union’s remaining claim to moral authority, qualified by its commitment to the indivisibility and universality of human rights.
“Let’s call it what it is: this is a hybrid attack to destabilize Europe”—stated Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission told the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg, during her State of the Union speech.
However, while Belarus has undoubtedly instigated the confrontation in retaliation to EU-imposed sanctions, Poland’s brutal and inhumane treatment of crossing migrants destabilizes Europe’s international value-based authority—handing a victory to Lukashenko and his Kremlin allies.
As sub-zero temperatures set in, an estimated eight thousand Iraqi, Afghan, and Syrian men, women, and children have spent weeks on end in inhumane conditions, trapped in the inhospitable forest along the Polish-Belarus border. Chaperoned to the woodlands by the Belarusian forces, asylum seekers face violence from guards on both sides as they are illegally pushed back and forth by guards across the border.
Reports state that eleven people have died from exposure, including a 14-year-old boy and a 1-year-old baby, although the actual number is higher. They are the human casualties of a regional East-West political game they could have hardly comprehended when Belarus lured them with false hope of a better life in Europe.
Poland declared an ‘exclusion zone’ along its now highly militarized border with Belarus, barring entry to aid workers and journalists—a move highly criticized by the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR and migration agency IOM. This media blackout means that all reporting by Poland’s Border Guard—often portraying migrants as aggressive male groups unaccompanied by women and children—and the true number of dead or dying people in the forest cannot be verified.
Only a few (and far between) reports from residents paint a grim picture of barbaric behavior by Polish forces, hunting huddled refugee families.
Poland’s Border Guard’s uncompromising response included firing gas and water cannons— commensurate to live ammunition—at people stuck below freezing conditions. Further, in a spectacular display of its absent foreign policy, Poland passed a national law that directly conflicts with established international law, declaring migrant pushbacks ‘legal’ in Poland.
Still, the EU ignores Poland’s—a fringe EU member state—human rights violations, quietly sighing in relief that Polish forces are intercepting migrants from reaching the bloc. In doing so, the EU appears exceptionally short-sighted.
Lukashenko’s ‘hybrid attack’ is proving successful in destabilizing Europe, not by an influx of an insignificant number of irregular migrants, but by exposing the Achille’s heel of the European Union’s claim to moral authority—its fear-fueled ‘migration management’ policy.
Since 2015, the EU has engaged in ensuring that migrants from poor and conflict-ridden countries are prevented from reaching its soil through the erection of physical barriers, more brutal policing, and questionable deals with neighboring countries to obstruct migratory routes to Europe.
In 2016, the European Union struck a EUR 6 billion aid agreement with Turkey to stop three million asylum seekers from leaving Turkey for Greece.
Having gained leverage, Turkey has continuously threatened to scrap the deal in diplomatic spats with the EU. The EU-Turkey deal, and others, exposed how the EU’s fear of irregular migration feeds its willingness to bargain with unsavory governments to curb the influx of people.
The Kremlin and Lukashenko’s regime took note. The humanitarian and political crisis unfolding on the Poland-Belarusian border is not a migration crisis but a migrant trafficking crisis. Misled and vulnerable people are victims, not weapons. The language of humans as weapons only highlights the extent of the EU’s fear of irregular migration—put on display by the last half a decade of its ‘migration management’ tactics.
Hardening popular attitudes towards migration across Europe have influenced an increasingly restrictive EU migration policy. For years, Member States have engaged in illegal pushbacks of migrants to neighboring and third countries in violation of the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement—obligations explicitly spelt out in the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
It is thus unsurprising that Poland’s right-wing PIS government feels confident in using illegal and inhumane tactics to stop migrants from crossing its border with Belarus.
The European Union has chosen to ignore the humanitarian crisis unfolding at its doorstep. By rallying behind Poland’s harsh response, it is momentarily forgetting PIS’s relentless rejection of EU values and consistent efforts to destabilize the union from within since gaining power in 2015. It is a risky but familiar EU ‘migration management’ strategy that spells out the demise of Europe’s moral authority—the true target of Lukashenko’s ‘hybrid attack’.