A crisis developed in recent months on the Belarusian border with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. An influx of migrants mostly from Middle Eastern and African countries with tourist visas in their hands heading to the European Union (EU) through Belarus is believed to be the self-declared Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s plan of revenge. Mr Lukashenko, with the support of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, rejects accusations from the West that he attempted to create tensions on the outside borders of the EU because of the sanctions and geopolitical isolation of Belarus. But he declared not preventing migrants from coming to the borders, as they are making their way to the West. The EU decided to stay firm and imposed more rounds of sanctions but has been facing accusations of prioritising border security over humanitarian aid and ignoring Poland’s way of dealing with the situation.
How an irregular migration escalated into a crisis
According to Lithuanian government officials, the migration flow through its borders swiftly increased after May 26, the day when Mr Lukashenko claimed to “flood neighbouring states with migrants and drugs” . Belarus had shortly after simplified the visa process especially for Iraqis to be able to enter Belarus as tourists . Thousands from certain African and Middle Eastern states were offered an opportunity to access Western Europe, via flights from several Middle Eastern cities, such as Istanbul, Damascus, and Dubai, to Belarus . Traffickers probably played their part in ensuring the transportation according to migrants’ allegations and the numbers of people trying to cross the border were reaching higher numbers continuously , . The situation reached an outbreak in July both in Poland and Lithuania. The countries soon declared a state of emergency, started building a razor-wire border fence and bolstered their borders with troops.
The Polish and Baltic governments and so the EU, the US, the UK, and Canada openly blame Belarusian authorities for using migrants as hybrid warfare to develop a crisis. At the Polish-Belarusian border, Polish guards do not let migrants in, and Belarusian soldiers push them back to cross, according to some testimonies by using force , . Moreover, there have been reports that Belarusian guards and soldiers navigate migrants to the border or help them cross by cutting the fence . Besides, Lithuania recognised the same feature of forcing migrants over the border by Belarusian officers . As a result, Baltic states and Poland started taking measures while asking the EU and NATO for help.
The prompt reaction of these countries has been both praised and condemned. In Lithuania, most migrants have been given shelter in small centres or former school buildings in various parts of the country or near the border . Despite this policy, all the countries tried to catch migrants and bring them back to the Belarusian border. INGOs and activists consider countries’ pushbacks of migrants back to the Belarusian territory illegal, referring to the EU law. The biggest concerns, however, have risen from the handling of the Polish-Belarusian border crisis by the Polish government. At the makeshift camps, migrants have had limited access to food, water, and medical aid. The following outcomes have been deaths, hunger, dehydration, and hypothermia, combined with injuries from beatings and staying in the woods . In addition, Poland denied journalists, aid organisations and EU officials’ access to the border area, making it difficult to verify the information and gain data . There have also been some mass attempts to cross the border towards which water cannons and tear gas were used , .
Polish pushbacks have been legalised by legislation aiming to protect Polish culture and sovereignty, with Mr Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, building upon nationalist rhetoric and defending Christian “tradition and culture” , . Only a small number of people have been offered an option to apply for asylum, others have been sent back to Belarus after being caught . Furthermore, Poland and Lithuania passed bills allowing the construction of a concrete wall along with parts of their borders with Belarus, replacing the razor fence. This is to demonstrate the firm position against Mr Lukashenko’s politics, as the countries declare. Lithuania warned against threats linked to the illegal crossings, having detained about two dozen people with connections to terrorist organisations .
Belarus cleared migrants from the poor conditions of border makeshift camps to nearby warehouses  but long refused to help migrants – now holding invalid tourist visas – to get back to their home countries. Mr Lukashenko even admitted it “possible” that Belarusian forces and institutions “helped” migrants to get to the border . He then proclaimed not to stop them as Belarus is not their end-destination . On the contrary, Mr Lukashenko has been further refusing the idea of a pre-planned border crisis. And to elaborate on the image of Belarus as a humanitarian actor saving migrants, the refugee camps came into being on the Belarusian side along with a humanitarian convoy of food, water, and medical supplies . Besides, Mr Lukashenko has blocked three Polish humanitarian convoys heading to the border since the beginning of the crisis .
The EU broadened its sanctions against Belarus five times since the presidential elections. It targeted Belarusian officials, institutions and companies involved in the crisis . All air routes for Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to Belarus are closed for now . Belarusian state airline Belavia is also under EU sanctions and prevents upper mentioned nationals from taking flights out of Turkey and Dubai to Minsk. The EU is monitoring various flights to Minsk, for instance from Morocco, Syria, South Africa, Somalia, India, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Libya, or Yemen . The latest sanctions have also included 7 representatives of Belarusian border guards, and 5 hotels and agencies organising the arrival of migrants . These sanctions were supplemented on the same day by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada .
Nevertheless, tensions within the EU emerged due to phone calls on the migrant crisis made between the then German chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr Lukashenko in November. Firstly, Poland received a notification about it only one hour before the call, similarly to the Baltic states. Ms Merkel’s call with Mr Lukashenko was not pre-planned or discussed with neither of the states. One of the Baltic leaders was informed about the idea a few days earlier, but none of them knew about the realisation of the call in an expected advance . Secondly, these were the first phone calls made between Mr Lukashenko and a Western leader since the Belarusian presidential elections in 2020. The states in crisis denounced this direct reach to Mr Lukashenko as formally accepting or legitimising him as the head of Belarus .
In the second half of November, Belarus started returning mainly Iraqi’s homes and helped with repatriation flights , . Despite these steps, Mr Lukashenko came to a near-Polish-border warehouse in Grodno to publicly declare that Belarus will not prevent people from crossing the border and will not force them to leave Belarus back home . He also signed legislation denying access to the border area for media and aid organisations .
After – and before – the last presidential elections in Belarus, Poland and Baltic states were among the ones fully supporting political opposition and democratic changes, including the democratisation of Belarusian institutions, creating a background for NGOs, oppositional politicians, activists, or media outlets in Vilnius, and offering Belarusian students’ scholarships at Polish universities . For instance, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a presidential candidate, was given refuge in Lithuania. Poland welcomed Olga Kovalkova, an oppositional activist, and Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, an Olympic athlete that refused to return to Belarus from Tokyo. Oppositional coordination and the spread of news during post-election protests were done mainly from Vilnius and Warsaw. After the elections, the Belarusian brain drain increased, with many leaving for Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – not just the aforementioned, but also persons from an important IT business sector .
Poland and Baltic countries did not wait for long to condemn the situation around the latest presidential elections and did not wait for long with sanctions. The first round of EU sanctions was adopted one month after the Baltic states did . However, the position of these countries has its drawbacks. Lithuania is in the worst one, concerning the economic sanctions, as Belarus is its important trading partner. With Belarus using Lithuania’s ports for trade, threatening to relocate fully to the Russian ones could damage Lithuania – and strengthen Russia among other things .
Current situation and figures
According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, at least 20,000 people have appeared at the borders up until now, whether crossing in Poland or Lithuania, arriving in Germany, or staying at the border . The Polish border guard itself talks about 33,000 attempts to cross . Due to the opacity still prevailing on the Polish-Belarusian border, it is not clear how many people have died during the crisis so far. News media write about 11 to 13 verified deaths in Poland, with 9 of them declared by Polish officials , , and some about a dozen deaths on each side . Grupa Granica, a Polish network of 14 NGOs providing aid to migrants, say the number could be much higher . Frontex data shows more than 7000 border crossings at the Eastern Land Borders – meaning Belarusian borders with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland .
Map 1: Frontex Migratory Map with numbers of illegal crossings and countries of origin of migrants on the Eastern Land Borders route from January to November 2021. Source: Frontex.
Hundreds of Iraqis have been repatriated from Belarus by flights, with the state’s Foreign Ministry declaring 3,350 citizens coming back to their home country . However, there are still people at the border, and Belarus declared not to force them to head back to Syria, Iraq, or other countries of origin . NGOs working in the area report decreasing numbers of given aid, which could either mean a slowing influx of people trying to cross the border or an increasing fear to reach workers for assistance .
Russia’s involvement and influence
Poland’s Prime Minister raised a question of Moscow being ahead of the plan to create tensions on the EU external borders, which Russia immediately refused. This interpretation came with the long-term Russian support of Lukashenko’s regime, its financial and political aid during protests that emerged after the latest Belarusian presidential election, and its support of Belarusian “responsible” handling of the situation on its borders . Russia affirmed this approach by performing joint military exercises over Belarussian airspace and an offer to mediate discussion over possible solutions to the crisis . This evolved into a question of the crisis between Belarus and Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, in fact being another geopolitical crisis between Russia and the EU, which remains open for now .
Mr Lukashenko’s effort to coerce the EU to lift its post-election sanctions has geopolitically isolated Belarus even more and created space for Russia to manoeuvre better with forces in Belarus threatening Ukraine and NATO . Belarus and Russia are further expanding their military cooperation on the Ukraine-Belarus border. On November 29, the Belarusian Minister of defence announced the planning of a joint military exercise on the Belarus-Ukrainian border, their reason being NATO’s alleged enlargement of offensive capabilities there . Belarus might therefore continue in its rhetoric and hold its position towards the EU to help create room for Russia to threaten Ukraine and NATO by undercutting the EU’s institutions and unity in actions .
Negotiations with some Middle Eastern authorities and airlines, and imposing tougher sanctions seems to ease the incoming of new migrants and work for resolving escalation of the situation. But the problem with pushbacks and handling of the humanitarian side of the border situation remains. A call for an update of the Geneva convention, which established international standards for humanitarian treatment during the war , and for Poland to let authorities to the border area and act upon the EU legislation has not completely vanished . Russia profiting from the whole situation is a question raised, especially considering its support for Belarus. Some argue that with its continuation the sanctions are less effective and accuse Russia of helping migrants get to Minsk by flights through Moscow . Mr Lukashenko’s kept promise to flood the EU with migrants and drugs also questions whether the EU will ever be able to prevent him from the unrighteous acquisition of power according to Belarusian democratic institutions.
 Poland has not provided data on detentions or pushbacks yet.
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