Poland, Belarus and the EU: how have we forgotten the people?
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
This piece does not contain very much (if any) political analysis regarding Belarus or Poland, and almost as little regarding the EU.
This is because its point is that there has already been far too much emphasis placed – by a variety of interested parties – on political situations at the direct expense of the most important group in the entire situation.
To put this as simply as possible, Belarus may or may not be breaking the law. Few of the claims against it – including that it has deliberately flown people over with the express purpose of forcing them to cross the border into Poland – have been backed with much evidence.
But, given the nature of their ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, it is not absolutely beyond the realms of possibility that at least some parts of those claims – for example, that Lukashenko can see an advantage in creating a crisis on its border with Poland – could be true.
But this ignores a central point: if Belarus is breaking international law, then so is Poland, which has placed well over 17,000 armed police, along with soldiers and ‘security officers’ and tanks on its border to prevent men, women and children from entering to find safe and decent places to live. And the EU is backing Poland in this.
That is, Belarus may well be breaking the law. Poland certainly is, and the EU is supporting it in doing so.
And this is important because the people who are suffering are those who are being ignored: the men, women and children who are trying to find decent places to live, learn, and work. We know for certain that at least eight people have so far died. But, as people seek to evade beatings at the hands of Belarussian and Polish ‘guards’ in increasingly awful weather, and for as long as entire zones of the border remain closed to all but military and state security operatives, the likelihood is that many, many more people have died or are dying.
We know, for example, of one Somalian boy who survived but watched his two brothers freeze to death.
These people – vulnerable to the weather, to the violence of the Belarussian and Polish state, and to the absolute ignorant lack of interest of the EU – are the exact people we must be focused on. Their lives are at risk, and their rights must be upheld to save them.
So, we decided to write this short piece after the EU offered its full backing to Poland in a situation in which the Polish Law and Justice Party was already breaking international law by using its army and police force to prevent men, women and children entering to apply for asylum, and was planning to do so by building a wall along its border with Belarus for the same purpose.
The EU claims that Belarus is ‘to blame’ for the situation, and that its leader Alexander Lukashenko was deliberately ‘weaponising’ refugees.
We will begin by saying that we believe Lukashenko is the kind of man who, desperately unpopular in his own country, might genuinely consider trying to make the EU 'suffer' for enacting sanctions against Belarus by using desperate, innocent men, women and children to spark some kind of 'border crisis'.
But it is important to note that no-one has actually presented any actual evidence that this is what is happening.
More importantly, these men, women and children do actually want to cross the border to enter Poland. And that is their legal (and human) right.
That is, we cannot absolutely dismiss the idea that Lukashenko may be ‘weaponising refugees’ – even though that is one of the most disgusting phrases spoken by a person who does not publicly claim to stand for the ‘racial purity of their nation’.
And if he is, then perhaps the EU is right to extend the sanctions it already has in place against Belarus (though, as always, sanctions will hit Belarus' poorest people hardest, causing them great suffering and ironically maybe making many of them try to go somewhere better: the EU had better welcome those refugees because they will have created them. Lukashenko, meanwhile, will sleep soundly on a full stomach and a bed stuffed with banknotes).
But if we are going to consider sanctions against Belarus for dehumanising people, treating them as commodities and breaking international law, then, well...
... we really ought to start sanctions against Poland for... dehumanising people, treating them as if they are commodities and breaking international law.
There simply isn’t a justification for Poland posting well over 20,000 armed uniformed officers, as well as tanks, on its border to prevent people from crossing it. Whether Lukashenko is breaking international law or not, so is the Polish government. Nothing Belarus may have done excuses that.
The most important thing, by far, in this situation is that the men, women and children who are trying to cross from Belarus to Poland (and beyond) are being treated by every political body involved as if they are at best a nuisance and at worst less than human and we don't care if they live or die.
The second most important – and concerning – consideration, is the extent to which the EU has changed.
In 2015-16, when a large-ish number of men, women and children entered the EU from the East, the EU did a terrible job, but at least at first, it did try.
It came up with a variety of proposals for how these people could be allowed in, where they could go, how the EU could make sure everyone 'did their bit'.
The member states refused (the UK first, Denmark, Spain and Poland later) and the EU shamefully buckled, drafting the illegal EU-Turkey Statement with the sole aim of keeping refugees out of the EU.
This time, an EU member state is actually breaking international law to prevent refugees from entering (to be clear, Greece is also doing so, while the UK government is attempting to drive its own border authorities to do the same) and the EU's response is to ignore the people at immediate and serious risk, and instead back the law-breakers who have sent tanks to the border to trample on their rights, and in many cases, end their lives.
It is hard to describe this situation, including the EU’s part within it, without using the word ‘disgusting’.
And it is increasingly clear that the EU needs to start asking itself some very serious questions about what it is and why it WANTS to survive, if it is so willing to jettison all its principles - and the actual law - to do so. What is its point?
Almost as depressingly, the entire EU and Polish response has, so far, been extraordinarily stupid.
Because there is one, extraordinarily simple, way to prevent Alexander Lukashenko from 'weaponising' refugees.
Let them in, help them learn and thrive and contribute to a much better society, improved by their presence, their work, and their creativity.
What the EU is doing instead is proving to Belarus’ leader that it is, absolutely, terrified of innocent, desperate, men, women and children seeking safety in the world’s wealthiest political bloc.
We must do better, and we must hold the people on the border, rather than our suspicion of one man, or fear of ‘foreigners’ in general, as our sole priority. The alternative is that we become just one more negative in an already, and increasingly, harsh and dangerous world.