“His name was Ahmad al-Hasan and he was 19. He wanted to continue his education, which he began in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. But his dreams will never come true.” Ahmad al-Hasan’s body was found in the Bug River in eastern Poland after he drowned while trying to cross over from Belarus” – Al Jazeera, 16 November 2021.
As the crisis between Belarus and Poland deepens the stories of human suffering continue to emerge from the border region. Belarus, Poland, the European Union (EU), NATO, Britain and the U.S. throw accusations at each other while the refugees continue to die. One of Trump’s legacies was his barbaric border policies which shocked the world and triggered mass anger. Today, we witness a similarly sickening and deadly game at Eastern European borders.
Last week a 14 year old boy froze to death. The death toll is rising as people are stuck in freezing winter conditions. It’s estimated that ten people have died so far. They are the victims of a sick geopolitical game underpinned by the racism of borders and national interests.
The President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, does not want to let refugees stay in Belarus so his police drive them towards the Polish border. At the time of writing this piece, Belarus has only started providing temporary shelter for about 1,000 refugees who had been camping on its border with Poland.
In September 2021, Lukashenko had said that his government could further suspend cooperation with the European Union on migration as a response to “unfriendly actions” by the EU and its member states. The EU has accused Belarusian president of trying to destabilise the union by using migrants.
The ongoing tension between NATO and Russia resurfaced in the face of the current border crisis. Russia dispatched two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace in a show of support for its close ally.
The Prime Minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki refuses to let refugees in, claiming that Poland is facing a ‘hybrid war’ where migrants are used as living weapons. Polish forces at the border have used water cannons and tear gas to push back the refugees and detained hundreds of people who attempted to enter the country. Poland briefed NATO allies and they pledged their support to Mateusz’s government.
As reported by a local activist, the leading Law and Justice Party (PiS) have strengthened its alliance with the far-right forces in Poland. An annual Independence Day March (November 11) was initially banned by Warsaw’s Mayor. The ban was upheld by the courts but overturned when the government intervened to declare it as an official state event because PiS leaders wanted at all costs to avoid a defeat for the far-right. A minister said: “Today, in the face of the situation on the Polish border, demonstrating our patriotism has taken on special significance”. Soldiers took part in the march and military police acted as stewards – accompanied by fascist banners from the Polish National Radical Camp (ONR) and the Italian Forza Nuova. Despite the threat of the far-right, refugee solidarity among the Polish people is also strong. In October thousands marched in Warsaw and Krakow in support of refugees – the biggest demonstrations so far in solidarity with the people being brutalised on the border. Many people are involved in sending aid to the border area and providing legal support.
Permanent Crisis of European Borders
Neither the deaths nor the unfolding political crisis at Belarus – Poland border are a first in Europe.
Since the beginning of the refugee crisis that started a decade ago, we have witnessed numerous similar tensions such as at Hungary – Serbia, Italy – Austria, Turkey – Greece, and France – UK (Calais Refugee Camp), and borders.
In 2015, Hungarian riot police had fired tear gas and water cannons to force migrants back from the Serbia-Hungary border. Serbia’s foreign ministry has protested over the firing of tear gas and water cannon into its territory
In 2017, Austria passed a racist asylum law and announced the building of border fences. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi criticised the plan, saying closing the Brenner Pass would go “shamelessly” against European law as well the continent’s past and future.
Also in 2017, the EU had threatened Austria, Hungary and Poland with legal action for breaching their legal obligations and refusing to accept refugee quotas. Today, the same EU is defending the Polish government for closing the border to freezing refugees.
In 2020, Greece and Turkey had a new border standoff over refugees pushed from both sides of the border. EU’s response to Turkey was not ambiguous: “We will not react to the pressure that Turkey is exerting on us. The EU and its Member States remain determined to effectively protect the EU’s external borders. Illegal crossings will not be tolerated”. Meanwhile the EU kept its partnership with Turkey as part of the Realignment Agreement.
More recently, Bulgaria has announced that it is sending hundreds of soldiers to its southern frontiers to stop migrants from crossing from Turkey and Greece. And a new row has erupted between the UK and France over the handling of refugees attempting to cross the Channel to reach British shores. Last week, the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, said, “France ‘needs no lesson from the British’ over Calais migrant crisis… the UK is using it as a ‘punching bag’ for British domestic policies.”
A European Union of Hypocrisy and Death
The so-called Schengen free travel zone was in chaos, too. In 2016 the EU Schengen scheme was on the brink after Amsterdam talks. Passport-free areas faced suspension for two years as senior diplomats said the refugee influx cannot continue. The EU was always ‘proud’ of freedom of movement, but seemingly not for refugees fleeing horrible conditions.
Looking back at the past ten years we can list many more crises that erupted within the EU and external EU borders. In each of these, the parties accused each other of not protecting the borders or stopping the flow of refugees.
During the same period we have witnessed the emergence of razor-wire border barriers, further militarisation of the EU borders, and anti-refugee EU policies. The exact number is not known but since 2011, more than 35,000 people have died while trying to reach Europe.
Guardian research in 2021 revealed that EU countries used brutal tactics to stop nearly 40,000 asylum seekers crossing borders. Nearly 2,000 refugee deaths were linked to illegal EU push-backs.
In October 2021, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Hungary broke EU law by making it a criminal offence to help asylum seekers and refugees to apply for asylum, but the continued criminalisation of search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean by EU states has been accompanied by rising refugee deaths.
Since 2011 the EU has constantly shifted its focus to border militarisation. In the Mediterranean the search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum was replaced with Frontex’s Operation Triton which was about border protection and pushback, not rescue of stranded refugees.
The European leaders shed tears for the refugee child Alan Kurdi but continued their border policies that put more lives at risk.
Refugees not to blame
The refugees are not the cause for the current crisis between the Poland/EU – Belarus/Russia camps. They are the victims of right-wing, racist policies of states on both sides that use them as a threat against each other. The Belarus and Polish governments have absolutely no interest in the safety and well being of people that escaped war zones and horrible conditions.
People are forced to move to Europe due to harsh conditions in refugee camps and the uncertainties they face. The global refugee numbers have reached more than 80 million. The vast majority of these are hosted in Asia, Middle-East, Africa and South America. Europe is not invaded by the ‘armies’ of refugees. Most are being hosted by Europe at all.
Furthermore, the wars and conflicts that European states have been involved in and the European arms deals with some of the most brutal regimes have been significant factors in rising global refugee numbers.
More than half of refugees are women and children. Many fall into the hands of human traffickers because they don’t have a safe-legal means to seek refuge. Desperate refugees facing closed borders and anti-refugee policies risk dangerous journeys.
We should demand the opening of borders to freezing refugees and denounce racist refugee policies. We should reject the hypocrisies of the EU and demand humanitarian care and human rights for refugees.
The enemy is not the desperate people outside the European borders. The enemy is racism and deadly borders that kill ordinary suffering people.
The Governments in the North and South are silent on the current humanitarian crisis. Our government must put pressure on the EU and Poland to open the borders and save lives.
Furthermore the unfolding crisis at the Belarus – Poland border is not the making of the refugees searching for safety but political, geographical and economic tensions between the EU-Russia and the states in opposing camps. The refugees are victims in a propaganda war between the European Union and Russian allies.
The Trial of Humanitarian Activists in Greece
Yesterday (18 November 2021) Kerry aid worker and humanitarian activist Sean Binder and his fellow activists Sarah Mardini and Nassos Karakitsos stood trial in Greece. The case was sent to a higher court. All three human rights defenders are accused of “people smuggling”, “money laundering”, “espionage” and “membership in a criminal organisation”, and if convicted, they may face up to 25 years in prison.
As described by Frontline Defenders, Seán Binder, Sarah Mardini, and Nassos Karakitsos are migrant rights defenders who worked with Emergency Response Center International (ERCI) between 2016 and 2018. The humanitarian work of the ERCI was extensive, and included supporting more than 1000 people to reach safety, organising workshops and swimming classes for children in Kara Tepe camp for migrants, and providing residents in Moria camp in Lesbos with medical assistance. ERCI was registered as a non-governmental organisation and regularly cooperated with Greek authorities, including with the Greek Coast Guard on rescue operations.
Sean Binder and his fellow activists have saved drowning refugees from the sea and provided support to people in need.
The European Union and the Irish Government are absolutely silent on this issue. Yet again we see utter hypocrisy at the highest order. The trial in Greece is a threat to all humanitarian activists. It is in contradiction with some of the most basic human and refugee rights. The Irish Government should put pressure on the EU and the Greek government to drop this politically motivated trial.
Saving lives is not a crime and refugees are not to blame for crises not of their own making.