The Polish Border Crisis Deepens as EU Ramps Up Sanctions on ‘Gangster’ Belarus

Familiar questions about sovereignty and obligations to migrants that will resonate in the U.S.

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 16, 2021

The European Union (EU) is ramping up sanctions against Belarus for triggering a migrant crisis on its border with Poland. It is a complicated situation in which the EU is accusing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko “of using migrants from the Middle East to conduct a hybrid war against the bloc”, in the words of the Wall Street Journal.

Sanctions against Belarus are nothing new, nor are tensions between the country and the West. And those sanctions appear to be at the heart of the crisis — at least in the collective mind of the EU.

In October 2020, the EU imposed restrictions on certain entities in Belarus in response to allegations that Belarusian authorities had engaged in what it termed “unacceptable violence against peaceful protesters, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detentions” following presidential elections in the former Soviet Republic that the U.S. State Department described as “fraudulent”.

Lukashenko has been president since 1994, even though he was originally supposed to have stepped down in 1999. His poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and interference in the electoral process — including the jailing of opposition candidates — spurred protests during the most recent, 2020, electoral campaign, in which 7,000 were arrested.

Human Rights Watch reports that “Belarusian security forces arbitrarily detained thousands of people and subjected hundreds to torture and other ill-treatment in an attempt to stifle” protests that followed that election, as well.

In June, EU sanctions were expanded after a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Roman Protasevich — a Belarusian dissident who had been living in Lithuania — was seized by officials on the ground, and Belarusian officials released a video of him reading what appeared to be a prepared statement under duress.

Current EU sanctions include a travel ban for identified individuals (including Lukashenko and his son Viktor, the national security adviser) and an asset freeze.

In August, President Biden got in on the act, issuing an executive order that boosted U.S. sanctions against various Belarusian organizations, including Belaruskali OAO (“one of Belarus’s largest state-owned enterprises, one of the world’s largest producers of potash, and a source of illicit wealth for the regime”), and the Belarusian National Olympic Committee (which is “accused of facilitating money laundering, sanctions evasion, and the circumvention of visa bans”).

In the current Polish border crisis, the EU is accusing Belarus of organizing flights and internal passage for migrants making their way to the 27-member political and economic union, beginning in June, in response to those European sanctions. On November 9, a European Commission spokesman explained:

This is part of the inhuman and really gangster-style approach of the Lukashenko regime that he is lying to people, he is misusing people, misleading them, and bringing them to Belarus under the false promise of having easy entry into the EU.

The idea is that the migrants will provoke a humanitarian disaster at the EU’s border in Poland, and in response, the EU will throttle back on the restrictions on Belarus to ameliorate the crisis.

Most of the migrants are from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and they were initially headed toward Lithuania, with Latvia and Poland becoming later targets for illegal incursions.

Thousands of migrants are now in quickly deteriorating conditions between Poland and Belarus near the Kuznica border crossing (which has since been closed), and they are believed to be seeking passage deeper into the heart of Europe.

Polish authorities claim that there have been thousands of attempted border crossings in the area since the beginning of the month.

Representatives of the Polish border guard told CNN that “some of the migrants had been pushed toward the barriers by Belarusian services” in what were described as “forced mass attempts to cross the border" at Kuznica over the weekend.

Specifically, the Polish government has accused the Belarusians of firing blanks into the air, “simulating dangerous events”, and of giving the migrants tools to break through the flimsy border fence (described below) separating the two countries.

Polish authorities have allowed a few migrants to apply for asylum in the country, while others have been pushed back across the border into Belarus. According to that government, seven migrants have been found dead on its side of the border, as have others in Belarus.

By November 16, the situation at the border devolved to a point where adult male migrants reportedly rushed the barriers between the two countries, throwing rocks and branches at guards on the Polish side. Polish authorities responded with water cannons and tear gas, all while the Belarusians were bringing more migrants toward the border.

There are interesting — and familiar — dynamics at play. The EU has hardened its position toward illegal migrants since 2015, when nearly 1.1 million asylum-seeking migrants — again, largely from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq – made their way to Germany.

At the same time, Polish President Andrzej Duda has been accused of employing “nationalist rhetoric” in support of his “government's strict policy of keeping the border with Belarus closed to migrants”. And as CNN reports: “Humanitarian groups are accusing Poland's ruling party of violating the international right to asylum by pushing people back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection.”

Some EU members are calling on the bloc to toughen its rules relating to illegal migration and to provide additional resources and authorities to turn back migrants.

On October 7, representatives from 12 EU countries sent a letter to European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, in which they argued: “Schengen Borders Code (SBC) does not sufficiently address the illegal crossings of the external land and sea borders.” (Emphasis in original.)

That letter continues:

There are no clear rules as to what actions may Member States take in case of a hybrid attack characterised by an artificially created large scale inflow of irregular migrants, facilitated, organised and/or pushed by a third country for the purposes of exerting political pressure, or in cases of similar challenges. [Emphasis in original.]

Then, there are the border barriers themselves.

Unlike the 30-foot high fences that were erected under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations along sections of the national boundary with Mexico, the Kuznica crossing is largely marked by 10-foot tall poles strung with barbed and razor wire, a “no-man's land”, and steel pipe fencing on the side nearest to the European interior.

In their October 7 letter, the 12 signatory nations argued:

SBC does not foresee a physical barrier as a measure for protection of the EU external borders. Physical barrier appears to be an effective border protection measure that serves the interest of whole EU, not just Member States of first arrival. This legitimate measure should be additionally and adequately funded from the EU budget as a matter of priority. [Emphasis in original.]

On November 16, however, French State Secretary for European Affairs Clément Beaune averred that his country does not support building a wall between Poland and Belarus, stating: “I am in favor of a Europe that protects its borders, but not a Europe that puts up barbed wire or walls.” Sound familiar?

I recently returned from the EU capital in Brussels and was asked numerous questions about the U.S. barriers at the Southwest border. My responses included descriptions of the fences themselves, as well as analyses of the political debates in the United States over such barriers, beginning with the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and continuing through the 2020 presidential election and into the Biden presidency.

It was an enlightening trip because, as the Kuznica border standoff shows, what happens in the United States when it comes to illegal immigration — both in factual and political terms — will eventually be replayed in Europe.

The same debates about obligations to “asylum seekers”, the same points about national sovereignty, and even the same arguments about the effectiveness of “walls” were being held there in real-time during my visit as they have been here over the past decade.

Kuznica is a flashpoint for long-simmering questions about the ability of EU member nations to protect their own borders and their obligations to allow those seeking asylum — regardless of the strength and validity of their claims — in. In the same way that the United States has been a bellwether for illegal migration into Europe, the answers to those questions will likely resonate on this side of the Atlantic.