Dispatch

The Poland-Belarus Border Crisis Is a Harbinger of the Future

The crisis is a window into the pitfalls of prevailing migration politics.

By , a freelance writer focused on migration, technology, and security issues.
Migrant children peer through a barbed wire fence as security forces in riot gear on the other side look back at them.
Migrants aiming to cross into Poland camp near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on the Belarusian-Polish border on Nov. 17. Maxim Guchek/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

SOKOLKA, Poland—Zanyar Ahmad has survived tear gas and beatings by Polish and Belarusian guards and shivered through sub-zero temperatures at night—huddling by a campfire, wearing torn winter coats, and trying to tune out the blaring sirens warning him to turn back. In one of his five attempts to cross into Poland, he made it 0.6 miles into Polish territory before a military convoy caught him in the dead of night and dragged him back over the border to a makeshift camp in Belarus.

But he is determined never to return to what he describes as “violence, corruption, and evil” in the northern Iranian region he escaped. “We will stay here until the European Union does something for us,” he told me.

Ahmad is one of 7,000 migrants living in makeshift tent camps hugging the Belarusian borders with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. They are pawns in a geopolitical drama the European Union has termed “hybrid warfare,” accusing Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime of using disinformation to attract migrants from the Middle East and then ferrying them to the border to cross into Europe.

SOKOLKA, Poland—Zanyar Ahmad has survived tear gas and beatings by Polish and Belarusian guards and shivered through sub-zero temperatures at night—huddling by a campfire, wearing torn winter coats, and trying to tune out the blaring sirens warning him to turn back. In one of his five attempts to cross into Poland, he made it 0.6 miles into Polish territory before a military convoy caught him in the dead of night and dragged him back over the border to a makeshift camp in Belarus.

But he is determined never to return to what he describes as “violence, corruption, and evil” in the northern Iranian region he escaped. “We will stay here until the European Union does something for us,” he told me.

Ahmad is one of 7,000 migrants living in makeshift tent camps hugging the Belarusian borders with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. They are pawns in a geopolitical drama the European Union has termed “hybrid warfare,” accusing Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime of using disinformation to attract migrants from the Middle East and then ferrying them to the border to cross into Europe.

Since September, the otherwise serene forests straddling these borders have become sites of roving police convoys scouring forests for migrants and smugglers, heavy buildups of military forces that pierce the foggy sky with warning shots, and construction companies hammering away at new barbed wire fences.

And as officials in Brussels spar over financing border walls and altering policies toward migrant pushbacks, there is little sign the future will look much different for people like Ahmad who seek a better life in Europe.

Shell-shocked from the 2015 and 2016 migration crisis that saw 5.2 million people reach European shores, European leaders fear the dystopian nightmare playing out on the EU’s external borders with Belarus portends a new normal in a world marked by intensifying climate disasters, persistent poverty and conflict, and stubborn dictators eager to undermine European democracy.

“I honestly don’t know how we can both protect our national security interests and take humanitarian interests seriously in light of deteriorating weather conditions,” said Tomas Vytautas Raskevicius, chairperson of the Committee on Human Rights in the Seimas, Lithuania’s parliament.

Poland and Lithuania have pursued legal and bureaucratic means to give themselves more leeway to get a handle on the situation—and send the political signal that they’re taking threats from Belarus seriously.

Both states have declared states of emergency, banning unauthorized travel to within 3 miles of Belarus’s border, enabling guards to take extra “mental” and “physical” measures to prevent migrants from entering, and legalizing indefinite detention of migrants. They are soliciting Brussels’s backing for these policy changes: Lithuania has proposed changing existing EU migration rules to legalize pushbacks of irregular migrants when a country declares an extreme situation.

“Lithuania needs more flexible EU relations in this area to organize the flow of immigrants and respond to various means of disinformation from the Belarusian regime,” said Dainius Zalimas, former president of Lithuania’s Constitutional Court. “Lithuania is a small country, so the most effective measure is unfortunately the pushback policy and state of emergency.”

Human rights activists on the ground, however, have witnessed the abuse, beating, and arbitrary detention of migrants. In a joint oral submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture on Nov. 16, Lithuania-based Human Rights Monitoring Institute described instances of “mistreatment of people” held at Lithuania detention camps, “collective expulsion of people who crossed the border,” and a “severely restricted” right to asylum in the country. Some of the abuses in detention sites may have possibly amounted to torture, according to the testimony.

While Lithuania has allowed journalists and nongovernmental organizations into the border zone and has approved humanitarian packages for pushed back migrants, Poland has opted for a harder line. Journalists and NGOs are blocked from entering within 3 miles of the border.


Piotr Bystrianin met with me at the bustling Babeczka café in Sokolka, a small town and rail junction in Poland located 9 miles from Belarus’s border. Bystrianin, who heads the migrant NGO Fundacja Ocalenie, arrived in Sokolka in mid-August to assist a group of Afghan families trapped at the border. He expected to only be at the border region for a few days, but the situation escalated when thousands of migrants arrived in the area. Since then, he and his team have spent sleepless nights roaming the countryside with cars full of food, water, and blankets.

Bystrianin described police and military checkpoints that prevent NGOs like his from accessing the border zone and helping migrants, Polish security forces interrupting his work by following his team and stopping their cars, and a climate of fear and intimidation that leaves migrants often too terrified to call for emergency medical help that might result in their deportation.

“It is illegal to help people and take money or to support them in moving illegally through the border to Poland,” Bystrianin said of Poland’s emergency laws. “They can charge you for helping migrants. You can face one to four years in prison, and so it is very difficult to assist people traveling in any way.”

“If we could do our work and reach people at this border, there would be less fatalities,” he added. At least 11 migrants have died on the border since the standoff’s start.

By banishing humanitarian workers and journalists from the border zone, the Polish government also prevents documentation of its abuses and pushbacks of migrants, Massimo Moratti, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe, told me. “This is a common pattern all over Europe; pushbacks are accompanied by restrictive measures against NGOs that prevent third parties from providing assistance.”

These states of emergency have been accompanied by frenzied efforts to install fences, walls, and motion sensors at Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia’s borders with Belarus, echoing one of the most polarizing debates that emerged from Europe’s response to the 2015-2016 migration crisis. Lithuania has allocated €152 million (about $171 million) to complete the building of 300 miles of wall by September 2022. Poland expects to start formal construction by Dec. 15.

In Brussels, far from the EU’s borders with Belarus, parliamentarians wrestle over whether the European Union should loosen its purse strings to support the construction of these physical barriers. On Oct. 7, the interior and immigration ministers of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and nine other European Union member states penned a letter to the European Commission demanding the EU finance border wall projects stop migration from Belarus. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said if Brussels doesn’t reimburse his government for the billions of dollars it claims to have spent on its own anti-migrant wall in 2015, he is “ready to open a corridor for migrants to march up to Austria, Germany, and Sweden.”

Under heavy pressure from both proponents and critics of border fences, the EU’s top brass have sent mixed messages about their willingness to financially support physical barriers on the EU’s external borders. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has flatly rejected requests for border wall funding. European Council President Charles Michel, on the other hand, indicated the EU could legally fund border walls.

The European Parliament’s largest bloc, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), and its second largest bloc, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), have drawn opposing lines in the sand.

Rasa Jukneviciene, EPP vice chair and a former Lithuanian defense minister, made a point to separate her support for a wall from her stance on migration. “We are building physical borders not against migrants but against the hostile Lukashenko regime,” she told me. “When Lukashenko’s regime collapses and we have a new neighbor at our border, there will be no need for a physical border.”

Pedro Marques, S&D vice president and a former Portuguese minister for planning and infrastructure, told me the Polish government is “playing with the lives of thousands of people, without building the conditions for decent livelihoods or distinguishing between migrants and refugees.”

At the Polish-Belarus border, Bystrianin, the humanitarian aid worker, is skeptical of border walls. “There are more dangerous parts of the border that the wall will not be able to cover,” he said. “People will just seek more dangerous routes, you will see more deaths, and human traffickers and smugglers will get more money.”

In pushes for EU-funded border walls and prevailing states of emergency, activists and critics see a multi-pronged assault on asylum by Western leaders. They allege European states are seeking to create climates of fear to deter asylum-seeking altogether.

“Deterrence is the key word here, an unspoken policy connecting all of these issues,” Moratti, the Amnesty International official, said. “This a new Iron Curtain across Europe, and politicians are using migration to gain power by playing on the fears of their citizens.”

Reluctantly, some of the politicians I spoke to acknowledged that deterrence was part of their strategy. But they insisted it was deterrence principally targeted at Lukashenko, not against migrants. “If we allow the people on the border to enter the EU, it will be used by Lukashenko to convince thousands from North Africa and Iraq to follow the same route,” said Andrius Kubilius, a member of European Parliament and former Lithuanian prime minister who supports EU funding for a border wall. “The situation in the future will be much, much worse if we do not act now.”

The crisis has calmed down in recent days: The first repatriation flights to Iraq have lifted off, and Belarus has cleared out some of its camps. But the last three months have given Europe—and the world—a window into the prevailing migration politics’ pitfalls. Politicians and activists broadly agree that urgent changes need to be made; they disagree fiercely on what those changes need to be.

Austin Kocher, an immigration detention scholar at Syracuse University, warns the camp phenomenon, with migrants languishing in tents on the borders of major Western nations at the mercy of both the elements and rogue actors, will become more acute in future migration crises. “As migrant flows are barricaded and borders become more militarized, we will see more camps and suffering across the West,” he said.

Researchers estimate up to a million migrants a year will attempt to enter the EU as temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere rise. Kubilius, the former Lithuanian prime minister, expressed his dismay: “The EU and other Western democracies are not ready.”

Humza Jilani is a freelance writer focused on migration, technology, and security issues. A Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford, he researches emerging technologies and conflict in the Middle East. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy and the Guardian. Twitter: @humza_jilani

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