In 2021, Alexander Lukashenko became the President of Belarus for the sixth time since 1994. His electoral win led to a mass range of protests, some of which occurred before the election. At the same time, one of the most prominent events to occur during this election is the Belarus-Poland Migrant Crisis.
At the Belarus-Poland border, thousands of people wait to cross into Poland. When they do cross, they plan to head further into Europe towards a better life. However, what they were promised and hoped for is far different from what they received. With their entry into Poland denied, over 3,000 people now camp at the Belarus border across from Poland.
The migrants are currently trying to survive freezing temperatures at the borders.
While Belarus remains the reason behind many events leading to the crisis, the main event is the 2020 Elections. Additionally, it started a chain of events with serious repercussions for those seeking asylum from war-torn countries.
Lukashenko is not only the first President of Belarus but has remained the only President of Belarus. In the last five elections, there have been no serious challengers to stand as the opposition. Additionally, many stated that the 1994 elections were the first and last elections deemed fair and free.
The media refer to him as ‘Europe’s last dictator’.
Under his rule, the government suppressed the opposition, which he faced greatly because of how he handled the COVID-19 pandemic. He viewed the pandemic as a threat not to be taken seriously.
August 2020 Belarus Elections
In the final polls, Lukashenko won with 80% of the votes. There were reports of fraud and large-scale mobilization against the opposition.
His opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, won the support of 10% of the votes. She insisted she would have taken more votes if they had been counted properly and, therefore, rejected the outcome.
After the election, Tsikhanouskaya left for Lithuania, where she sent her children ahead of the election.
Lukashenko’s regime banned opinion polls, jailed opposition figures and conducted elections. The jailing of the opposition began three months before the August 2020 Elections and barred them from running against Lukashenko.
The European Commission called the election ‘severely flawed’.
Protests in Belarus
On May 24th, 2021, protests began against Lukashenko’s decision to run for the Head of State in 2020. Protestors held slippers as a sign of protest.
On May 27th, 2021, the protestors marched through the country and clashed with the police. They pelted the police with slippers and their chants included “You Cockroach” and “Resign, You Rat”.
Witnesses saw the police arresting Sergei Tskhanousky, a YouTuber who held strong opposition against Lukashenko and the husband of Svietlana Tskihanouskaya.
June – July 2021
The June – July protests held a strong stance against the jailing of opposition figures, the economic stagnation, and Lukashenko’s poor handling of the pandemic. According to sources, he stated the virus could be cured by vodka and a sauna, despite recently contracting the virus.
At the protest in the capital city, there was an unofficial total of between 100 000 and 220 000 protestors. As well, the police began using harsher tactics.
Between June 2nd and June 3rd, there were protests for the release of the opposition prisoners and the government’s resignation. The police arrested and used pepper spray to disperse the protestors.
Between June 5th and June 7th, 5000 protestors marched to Minsk in heavy rainfall. Students, teachers, workers, and other protestors went on until August 6th. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets as protestors threw slippers at them.
Events Leading Up to the Migrant Crisis
Lukashenko’s sixth electoral win went unrecognized by the United States (U.S.), United Kingdom (U.K.), the European Union (E.U.), Canada, and their allies. The E.U deemed Belarusian officials responsible for violence, repression, and electoral fraud.
As a result, the E.U. imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials.
Ryanair Flight 4978
On May 23rd, 2021, Ryanair Flight 4978 left Athens International Airport. Its destination was Vilnius Airport in Lithuania.
Carrying six crew members and 126 passengers, the plane was intercepted while in Belarusian airspace.
The crew stated that Belarusian authorities notified them of a potential security threat onboard. As well, Belarusian air traffic control mentioned an email sent to Minsk National Airport. A notification came to the pilots, stating that the bomb would detonate once they entered Lithuanian airspace. Therefore, they diverted the plane and forced a landing at Minsk National Airport.
Upon their landing, Ryanair and Belarusian law enforcement found no bomb on their plane.
Then, authorities arrested opposition activist and journalist, Roman Protasevich. They claimed he was on the country’s most wanted list. In addition, they arrested his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, without any reasons given. Lukashenko dubbed both of them ‘agents of Western alliance’. As a result, Sapega was charged with ‘inciting hatred’ and ‘mass disorder’.
Proasevich confessed to organizing mass unrest, although many claimed this was a forced confession. After, the authorities placed him on house arrest on June 25th.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for an investigation. She stated that the death penalty awaits Protasevich, as the Belarus government claims he supports ‘terrorist groups’.
The E.U. deemed the act air piracy.
Then, there came a joint statement by the E.U., U.S., U.K., and Canada on June 21st, 2021. It announced further sanctions against members and supporters of the Belarusian government. As well, the sanctions affected Belarusian state-owned companies. Among those sanctions are travel bans and asset freezes.
Additionally, the E.U. banned Belarusian carriers flying into E.U. airspace and imposed economic sanctions on Belarus. This cut off imports of the country’s commodities, such as petroleum products and potash.
2020 Summer Olympics
Krystina Tsimanouskaya, a Belarusian sprinter, criticized the national coaches.
On social media, she criticized the Belarusian Olympic Committee for having put her in another race on short notice, without her consent. Forcibly, they tried to get her on a plane to Belarus. However, fearing for life, she sought help at the airport.
Subsequently, Poland granted her asylum.
Lukashenko’s Response to the Sanctions
Lukashenko retaliated in a fury.
He stated he would no longer abide by the agreement to remain uninvolved in illegal migration. Moreover, he argued that the E.U. sanctions deprived his government of funds to contain the number of immigrants.
Thus, the Belarus-Poland Migrant Crisis began.
The Belarus ‘Tourist’ Visas
In early summer 2021, the crisis began. Lukashenko threatened to bring human traffickers, drug smugglers, and armed migrants into Europe.
Then, came his latter plan.
Belarusian authorities, state-controlled tourist enterprises, and airlines operating in the Middle East promoted tours in Belarus. Increasing connections in the Middle East aided in the promotion. This was the front used to allow migrants into Belarus.
Those buying the tourist packages were given tourist visas. Their reason for visiting was for hunting purposes.
Planes carried migrants from conflict-torn countries. After their arrival in Minsk, Belarusian authorities gave instructions on how and where to trespass the E.U. border. Additionally, they told the migrants what to tell the border guards on the other side. Often, Belarusian border guards guided the migrants until they reached the border.
Due to this, the number of immigrants increased within countries bordering Belarus.
Lukashenko was accused of giving migrants tourists visas, which he continues to deny.
He helped the migrants enter surrounding countries illegally. Many saw this as his revenge tactic against the E.U. for its sanctions.
Moreover, the E.U. accused Lukashenko of a ‘hybrid attack’ against the 27 opposing nations.
Generally, a hybrid attack is a type of attack that combines two or more tactics to carry out an assault.
Russia, the main ally to Belarus, denied the allegations and blamed Poland for not handling the crisis properly.
The Migrants and the Borders
According to Polish authorities, 3000 – 4000 migrants camp at the Belarus-Poland border. The migrants hope to get deeper into Europe after going through Poland.
Primarily, the migrants are from conflict-torn regions of the Middle East, such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan. As well, migrants come from other countries, such as Africa.
When arriving in Minsk, authorities placed some in government-run hotels. This was barely a haven for the migrants. They received no other aid.
Lukashenko pushed the migrants towards the borders of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. This attempt by Belarus aimed to pressure the E.U. to lift the sanctions.
Reports say, that along with instructions on how to cross the borders, Belarusian security forces provided the migrants with tools. The migrants used these tools, such as wire cutters and axes, to break down the border fences.
On November 13th, 2021, Tadeusz Giczan, a Belarusian journalist, tweeted about an attempt by Belarusian forces to destroy fencing at the Polish border. They used lasers and flashing lights to temporarily blind and confuse Polish soldiers stationed at the border. This was an attempt to help migrants cross.
Lithuania found 4’100 asylum seekers entered illegally through Belarus, 50 times more than in 2020. However, they managed to control the flow of migrants. Poland and Lativia were less successful.
Latvian officials started pushing the migrants back from its border with Belarus.
Poland experienced the same problem as Lithuania. As a result, they declared a state of emergency to deal with the crisis.
In addition, Poland’s prime minister accused Belarus of ‘state terrorism’ for its role in the increase in migrants at their border.
Social Media and the Migrant Crisis
Social media posts play a role in the increase of migrants at the borders.
Kurdish groups on Telegram and Facebook have thousands of members. Their posts consist of telling migrants to head for a single location.
At the time, Poland accused Belarus of sending large groups of migrants to breach the border. However, they discovered the migrants orchestrated the mass gatherings, not the Belarusian authorities.
In the messages sent, they gave coordinates from Google Maps through group chats. As well, they included specific times, preferably after sunset, to meet.
Videos show migrants at the Polish border fences. They tried to break down the barbed wire and wooden fences using wire cutters and shovels. Subsequently, Polish security officers used pepper spray and water cannons against the migrants.
The posts mention it will be harder for border officers to ignore and control a large crowd.
The goal for many is to get through Poland and into Germany.
In 2015, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, opened Germany’s doors to migrants from war-torn countries.
This contributes to the current fluctuation of people wanting to cross the border. Those at the Belarus border have not forgotten about Merkel opening Germany’s doors. Also, that is the main reason for the stampede at the Belarus-Poland border. Above all, they hope for the gesture to be repeated.
Although the migrants are in desperate need for humanitarian aid, they do not receive it.
Volunteers, locals, and activists can only help if migrants make it through the exclusion zone in Poland.
Reports tell of green lights outside of the homes of Polish locals. The green lights show their willingness to help those in the forest. Moreover, some venture out in the forest to search for migrants.
Volunteers and migrants have found some suffering from hypothermia. Others required hospitilization.
Causes for concern lie with the scattered jackets and other items of clothing, documents, and personal items of refugees in the forests of Poland. It is unclear as to what happened to the owners.
Human Rights Violations
Human rights activists accused the Polish authorities of providing the migrants with inadequate care. The inadequate care they refer to is medical, food, and shelter.
This led the European Court of Human Rights to intervene. They ordered Poland and Latvia to provide medical care, food, water, and clothing to migrants, should it be possible.
However, at the Belarus-Poland border, Belarusian authorities refused to accept Polish humanitarian aid for migrants. This occurred on two occasions, the first in August 2021 and the second in October 2021.
In October 2021, Poland legalized pushback of migrants and asylum seekers by force. It limits the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter. Under the E.U. and international law, this act is illegal.
Amnesty international and other human rights groups said the act breaches the migrants’ human rights.
Fate of the Migrants at the Poland-Belarus Border
On November 14th, 2021, a 14-year-old boy froze to death on the Belarus-Poland border.
Within the last week, there have been ten deaths caused by dropping temperatures. Polish activists claim the number might be higher. This is due to the inadequate clothing and shelter provided. The tents and jackets worn are not sufficient to keep in warmth.
European officials accuse Lukashenko of scheming to entire migrants with a false promise of easy entry into the E.U.
Moreover, on November 15th, 2021, the E.U. agreed to impose further sanctions on Belarus as the number of migrants increases.
As a result, Lukashenko threatened to retaliate to the new sanctions.
It is unclear what lies ahead for the migrants. The majority are women and children, seeking a better life. However, the false promise of easy entry forces them to camp in the blistering cold. They continue to hope that one day, they will pass the border and enter a new beginning.
I believe the root of evil is the abuse of power.