Eastern Europe, Immigration, International

Refugee crisis on the Belarusian border: Let them cross, let them stay

Marx21 organizer and cultural studies tour guide in Eastern Europe Clare Lemlich summarizes the unfolding refugee crisis on the Belarusian border.

There is an enormous humanitarian crisis brewing on the border between Belarus, and European Union member states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Belarus’s authoritarian and quarter-century-long regime led by Alyaksandr Lukashenka received a slew of international sanctions following his sham elections in 2020. Over the summer, Lukashenka responded by vowing to no longer facilitate border control on behalf of Europe. 

Sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, Belarus has an almost 800-mile border that runs between these two imperial spheres. Belarusian border police refuse to let the refugees turn back, while Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian border police refuse to let them in. This geopolitical struggle has trapped thousands of refugees, many coming from war-torn Syria and Iraq, in desperate limbo.

Dire circumstances

Official figures claim that 11 people have died so far, but the toll is likely higher. Temperatures now reach below freezing at night, and the conditions in the forests and marshes by the border are dire. One Syrian teenager was reportedly pushed by Belarusian border guards into the river Bug where he drowned. A 14-year-old Iraqi boy was found frozen to death.

Poland’s right wing, racist, sexist ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has sent 15,000 troops to the border to facilitate pushing the refugees back into Belarus. They have attacked the refugees with water cannons and tear gas. The Polish government insists on referring to the people at the border as “migrants,” in order to prevent them from seeking asylum in the EU and claiming their rightful status as refugees.

Groups including the Polish organization Medycy na granicy (Medics at the Border) have been bringing necessary medical supplies and care to the makeshift camps along the border. This week, their vehicles were vandalized — presumably by fascist, anti-immigrant vigilantes that PiS has enabled for years.

Weaponizing refugees

The West accuses Lukashenka of using the refugees to wage a “hybrid war,” claiming that Belarus is deliberately inviting, amassing, and sending refugees across the border in order to destabilize the rest of Europe. 

It is true that Belarus is cynically using the refugees to wage a geopolitical struggle. Lukashenka is a monstrous dictator, backed by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, seeking retaliation against Western sanctions. 

But it must be said: Lukashenka is only able to use these desperate people as weapons precisely because the EU has manufactured them. The EU and its member states’ collective border patrol policies have trapped refugees from the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia in poorer countries on Europe’s outer rim — where they have few resources, endure long wait times, face deportation, and experience daily violence.

According to the International Organisation for Migration Data, the EU’s anti-refugee policies are responsible for over 22,000 deaths in the Mediterranean sea since 2014. The more difficult the EU makes it for refugees to seek asylum through formal channels, the worse crises like this one on the Belarusian border will become.

The EU must take responsibility for processing and resettling the refugees. They have the most resources to do so — to say nothing of the debt the EU and NATO owe to asylum seekers for their role in bombing, invading, and creating conditions that force people to flee their homes and become refugees in the first place. 

There is a simple way to “de-weaponize” the refugees — let them into Poland and other neighboring EU countries. Last month thousands marched in the Polish cities of Warsaw and Krakow to demand exactly that. In Berlin, Germany, hundreds marched to welcome refugees, and there are more solidarity demonstrations planned around Europe and the world in the coming weeks.

Here in the United States, we can support the efforts of anti-racists in Europe by making the same argument. The more we fight to welcome Haitians, Central Americans, and all refugees stranded at our own southern border, the easier it will be to tear down racist borders in every place.

Clare Lemlich