Tensions continue to rise along the border between Poland and Belarus, with thousands of vulnerable migrants trapped in a standoff between the two countries and their geopolitical blocs. About 4,000 men, women and children have been apprehended along the border between the two countries, who have reportedly been taken to the border by Belarusian guards.
Many of these people are trying to go through border security in Poland where security forces are trying to stop them from crossing. According to some reports, they are “migrants”, for others, “refugees”. For example, the BBC reports that Poland fears that Belarus “might try to provoke an incident with hundreds of migrants trying to cross into the EU”. In the same article, the Belarusian Border Agency is reported as saying that “the refugees were ‘going to the European Union’ where they wish to apply for protection.”
The two observations are as follows: those stranded at the border are “migrants” to Poland and “refugees” to Belarus. By applying quotation marks in reporting the situation in Belarus, the BBC is indirectly aligning itself with Polish and the EU narrative.
This argument on terminology is demonstrated in the form of research on the 2015-16 Mediterranean border crisis. As I wrote at the time, the way we label, classify and, in turn, differentiate between those – for example those who cross the Mediterranean on seaworthy boats – This has had a huge impact on the types of legal and moral obligations that states receive. Society feels towards them.
But we have learned other important lessons from the situation in the Mediterranean. For example, how countries are prepared to use displaced people as leverage on the geopolitical chessboard. Many observers have described Belarus as “setting up the crisis” as retaliation for sanctions imposed by the US, UK and EU on Alexander Lukashenko’s government.
Some commentators have also suggested that Belarus is acting on behalf of its powerful sponsor Russia, indicating that the agenda behind the current crisis may be more far-reaching.
During the 2015–16 Mediterranean border crisis, Turkey and Russia were at different points accused of arming refugees to destabilize the European Union. Turkey was accused of playing politics with its border policy with Syrian refugees, until it finally negotiated an economically and politically advantageous deal with the European Union in December 2015, which led to the drying up of Syrians in Lesbos. ended within a few weeks. Russia was accused of using its air strikes in Syrian border areas to drive displaced people across the border and to the west.
But, in reality this was also nothing new. States have used displaced people as political gains and human shields, to create anarchy, instability, or to retaliate against other countries in the long run. This was, arguably, one of the reasons why the 1951 Refugee Convention and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were established to protect those captured between warring states after World War II.
And, while it is useful and relevant to understand the geopolitics behind the current border crisis, the safety of vulnerable people stranded on the EU border and their humanitarian needs as well as their right to claim asylum should be paramount.
It is also important to remember that even though Belarus and Russia are working behind the scenes to plan for this crisis, the situation on the border between Belarus and Poland is not the whole story. People at the border began their journey weeks – sometimes months – in advance. Many are coming from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, others from Iraq, a country on the verge of a new civil war, or from Kurdistan. We don’t know.
And we won’t, unless people are treated like parcels, tossed back and forth between the currency of military forces. If they are victims of persecution and human rights abuses, they should be allowed to tell their stories and apply for asylum in a safe country.
We must also remember that since the Mediterranean border crisis, the EU has invested enormous amounts of resources in securing and – as far as possible – closing the Mediterranean sea routes. So the opening of new land routes should come as no surprise. In fact, land routes for unauthorized migration were in use for a long time until a significant increase in the use of fences, barbed wire, walls and other border technologies made them harder and more dangerous for migrants.
Another angle to this unfolding border standoff is to understand how relations between the EU and Poland will deteriorate. Given its poor relations with the EU, Poland’s plea for help, as Italy did on several occasions during the Mediterranean crisis, is not straightforward. It may be easier for Poland to enlist the help of NATO at this point in time, but it requires militarization of the narrative.
From the EU’s point of view, the crisis presents several dangers. It is well known that how this crisis is dealt with could potentially have an impact on “Polexit” if the border crisis pushes widespread EU Polish public opinion towards the government, which is increasingly difficult for the EU. is hostile. This would be a major strategic victory for Russia.
There is also a parallel with Brexit. Many will remember Nigel Farage posing in front of a billboard depicting a long line of refugees, hinting at a possible UK invasion and accusing the EU of failing to “protect our borders”. . Similar images of vulnerable migrants being pressured along the border by Belarus’ military forces have shocked the Polish public – and there is no doubt that anti-EU politicians in Poland and elsewhere are using them to achieve their goals. are ready to use.
In the midst of all this, between the two military forces, thousands are kicking back and forth like footballs, experiencing hunger, freezing temperatures, violence and fear.