One of The Amsterdammer’s Metro International reporters, Céline Zanho, presents the current migration crisis at the Poland-Belarus border, focusing especially on the European Union’s response and how that connects to its general policy and practices concerning migration.
Thousands of people are stuck at the Poland-Belarus border, trying to survive the precarious conditions and the harsh winter temperatures. A constant chase between the Polish police and the migrants is playing off, right at the doorstep of the European Union. The situation has ended in death for many, with the victims being as young as only one year. Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has presented the struggle along the border as a war in which the migrants are used as weapons by the country’s neighbor. However, one needs to ask two main questions here: What kind of war is going on? Have civilians in fact become the primary instrument to fight it out?
The EU blames Belarus for strategically sending migrants coming from the Middle East and North African (MENA) region to Poland. The Belarusian state supposedly encouraged people from the MENA region to make their journey to Minsk, where they were promised swift entry into the EU through Polish territory. However, instead of encountering an open door, the migrants were greeted with backlash from Polish police forces backed by military personnel. The EU also claims that the Belarusian President, Aleksander Lukashenko, is doing this purposefully, in response to imposed economic sanctions and overall criticism of his governance. Striving for clearance of the sanctions imposed on Belarus, he is considered to have caused the border crisis as a strategy to pressure the EU.
In an interview with Meret Baumann and Andreas Ernst, international lawyer Daniel Thym claimed that the EU’s regulation concerning migration is one of its weakest points. The current situation at the Poland-Belarus border has once again exposed a gap between the EU’s values and its practices.
According to Thym, the boundaries of what is considered acceptable to prevent an influx of migrants into the EU are seriously pushed at the moment. People are now being openly pushed back at the borders, which had previously mostly been a secretive strategy practiced at night by governments wishing to conceal their actions from the public eye. Moreover, while European asylum regulations guarantee all migrants a right to seek asylum, Poland passed a new law in October that allows it to push back everyone that illegally crosses the border. So far, neither the European Commission nor representatives of EU member states have explicitly commented on this national legal change.
The Geneva Convention, which first came into effect after World War II, is still lawful today and requires countries to process any asylum claim of people arriving in their territory. This effectively means it is the country of arrival that is solely responsible for handling asylum claims, leaving the peripheral member states of the EU, where migrants first arrive on their journey into the Union, with a huge burden. Some argue that this allows the EU to offload the refugee crisis to its more conservative, less asylum-seekers-welcoming countries, such as Poland. One could thus consider that Lukashenko’s strategy to pressure the EU directed attention to the EU’s own use of the terms of the Geneva Convention. By leading migrants to Belarus’ border with Poland, he has successfully directed public attention to the apparent gap between the EU’s migration policy and its practices.