'More bodies will be found': The Poland-Belarus migrant crisis exposes the hypocrisy and failures of European democracy

Migrants receive humanitarian aid donated by Grodno people as migrants continue to wait at a closed area allocated by Belarusian government the Belarusian-Polish border in Grodno, Belarus on November 27, 2021 [Getty Images]
7 min read
14 December, 2021

The day after the border city of Bilyastok saw its first snowfall of the season, the city’s Imam had to lay a stillborn baby to his final rest. 

There were no friends or family who could join the burial. Halikari Dhaker was stillborn when his mother was crossing the Poland-Belarus border. The child’s grave is in a small Tatar village of Bohoniki, located near the border with Belarus. The small grave joined a neat formation of three other graves of Muslim migrants who died while seeking a better life in the European Union. 

"Asylum-seekers have fallen victim to a crisis engineered by the authoritarian leader of Belarus Alyaxandar Lukashenka and exacerbated by the EU’s brutal response"

The four buried in the Bohoniki Tatar cemetery are far from the only victims of the border crisis. Humanitarian groups say that at least 13 asylum-seekers have died.

Adam Balcer, a Polish foreign policy expert and a National Researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The New Arab it is very likely that “more bodies will be found.” 

The Imam of Bilyastok praying at the child’s coffin. [Photo: David Saveliev]
The Imam of Bilyastok praying at the child’s coffin [Photo: David Saveliev]

The asylum-seekers have fallen victim to a crisis engineered by the authoritarian leader of Belarus Alyaxandar Lukashenka and exacerbated by the EU’s brutal response. The crisis was provoked by a drastic worsening of West-Belarus relations in the wake of the merciless crackdown on the 2020 electoral protests in Belarus.

The EU announced sanctions and stopped recognising Lukashenka as a legitimate president of the country. Lukashenka, in turn, threatened to “flood” Europe with migrants and set about to do just that. In August of 2021, the number of migrants crossing the border into Poland sharply increased, and by October, the Belarusian border with the EU, especially its Polish part, became a hotspot of a full-fledged crisis

Little Halikari is buried alongside other migrants. [Photo: David Saveliev]
Little Halikari is buried alongside other migrants [Photo: David Saveliev]

Lukashenka’s government organised flights for mainly Iraqi Kurdish migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and then Belarusian security services provided assistance in crossing the EU’s borders. When assistance was not enough, the Belarusians resorted to cruel tactics of forcing migrants onto the barbed wire by beating and yelling at them. 

The New Arab spoke to a Kurdish asylum-seeker who is pseudonymised as Afran to ensure his safety. He said that the Belarusian soldiers beat him and his family and did not provide any food or water, only helping the migrants to set up campfires. Afran chose the route to Poland because of his son — he has autism, and Afran is hoping to make it to Germany to ensure the right environment for the child. 

A Polish soldier near a school in a small border town. The school’s gym is now used to house military men. [Photo: David Saveliev]
A Polish soldier near a school in a small border town. The school’s gym is now used to house military men
[Photo: David Saveliev]

But the EU member states are also brutal in their response to the crisis. Poland, for instance, instituted a stringent state of emergency for the border area, bringing a total of 21,000 security personnel to the border. The Polish state even felt the need to completely bar journalists from approaching the border, with soldiers constantly threatening the press with arrests and violence.

Only recently, as the crisis is winding down, journalists gained permission to approach the border but only in military minders' presence and with accreditation.

On the contrary, despite being one of the most dangerous places for journalists, Belarus allowed most of the media to get all the way to the border.

Polish border guards repeatedly used stun grenades, tear gas and water cannons in freezing weather conditions. Those asylum-seekers who make it across the border are terrified of border guards and often spend many days in frosty forests. Afran said he spent ten days in the forest with his wife and two children. 

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Migrants are often brutally pushed back into Belarus, and Poland even introduced a law that allows and encourages pushbacks. Dr Karolina Follis, who is a senior lecturer at Lancaster University and a specialist on borders and human rights, told The New Arab that these pushbacks “violate human rights law. People have the right to ask for asylum and have their applications processed.”

Thus aside from putting asylum-seekers in inhumane conditions, the crisis also laid bare the issues undermining Polish and European democracies: fortress mentality and xenophobia.

Dr Agnieszka Kościańska, who is a visiting professor at the University of Oxford and a specialist on racism in Eastern Europe, told The New Arab that the Polish ruling “Law and Justice” party has “used Islamophobia as an electoral platform in the wake of the 2015 migration crisis and was widely successful.” 

"Poland and the EU share the same objectives when it comes to migration — externalisation, containment, deterrence"

Karolina Follis also argued that the EU tacitly encourages Islamophobia in Poland as it needs to ensure the security of European borders. “The situation creates a perverse incentive where human rights become less important [for Poland] than securing European borders.”

Right-wing groups are a significant factor in driving Islamophobia in Poland. The same day Bohoniki buried another asylum-seeker and two days before the funeral of Halikari Dhaker, a coalition of right-wing Polish groups marched through Bilyastok in support of the border guards and against migration.

Marchers showed up despite pouring rain. [Photo: David Saveliev]
Marchers showed up despite pouring rain [Photo: David Saveliev]

Led by an infamous right-wing politician Robert Winnicki, the marchers expressed solidarity with the border guards, bemoaning the fall of traditional values in Poland and “the wave of Muslim migration”.

When talking to The New Arab, Winnicki said that Poland is “under threat from economic migrants, and must continue safeguarding European borders.” He also added that “Polish democracy does not need to be liberal.” 

The New Arab also spoke with Mateusz Marzoch, who at 25 is on the board of a right-wing organisation called “All-Polish Youth.” Marzoch said that Poland has “protected Europe from the Red Army and the Ottomans” and now, he argues, Poland is protecting Europe from a threat of Muslim immigration. For Marzoch, an ideal Poland is built on traditional Christian values, “a Poland for Poles."

Winnicky posing with an activist family. [Photo: David Saveliev]
Winnicki poses with an activist family [Photo: David Saveliev]

This sort of rhetoric is not only fringe ideas of the populist right. According to Adam Balcer, Polish political elites  have a consensus on seeing Islam and Muslim migration as threatening to Polish security. “There is definitely a divergence between liberals and right-wingers here, but in general, a majority [of Polish politicians] have a negative attitude towards Islam,” Balcer told The New Arab.

Poland is often presented as the EU’s enfant terrible, but Brussels' officials have the Polish government’s back in its cruel treatment of asylum-seekers, argues Karolina Follis.

While Poland has a tense relationship with Brussels, “at the heart of this, Poland and the EU share the same objectives when it comes to migration – externalisation, containment, deterrence,” Follis said.

Kacper Wańczyk, a former Polish diplomat to Belarus and a visiting researcher at the University of Warsaw, also noted that the “EU essentially encourages Poland to securitise, which has been Brussels’ policy for quite some time.” 

Wańczyk also pointed out that migrant blackmail is nothing new for the EU. “The technique was employed by Lukashenka going as far back as 2015, although at a lesser scale.”  

The Polish state is adamant in maintaining an anti-migrant narrative. One of Poland’s largest modern arts museums  held a state-sponsored exhibition that portrays Muslim migrants as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” [Photo: David Saveliev]
The Polish state is adamant in maintaining an anti-migrant narrative. One of Poland’s largest modern art museums held a state-sponsored exhibition that portrays Muslim migrants as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” [Photo: David Saveliev]

Agnieszka Kościańska claims that the crisis also allows the ruling “Law and Justice'' party to strengthen ties with the EU, presenting itself as a “bulwark of Europe.” She pointed out that the ruling party uses the crisis to construct a narrative of a hybrid war between the EU and Russia/Belarus. “The asylum-seekers are seen as instruments, tools, rather than living people,” she said. 

Balcer noted that from a security perspective, the asylum-seekers “present no real threat".
Wańczyk added that “Lukashenka is engaging in this blackmail on his own, for the sake of prompting the EU into a dialogue, not in a united front with Putin.” Many experts agree, pointing out that Lukashenka has historically been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side rather than a loyal ally.  

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Overall, the Polish political elites have made the refugee crisis a more significant issue than it is. It is not a part of a hybrid war and the migrants are not armed Putin’s agents. The crisis was engineered by Lukashenka, but it shows the illiberalism and brutality of European border policies

However, not all is doom and gloom in Poland and the EU. As Follis said to The New Arab, research into rights groups suggests that there are “robust grassroots movements against Islamophobia in Poland.”

The New Arab spoke with 28-year-old Jędrzej Czerwiński, a volunteer with human rights group Ocalenie, who spent sleepless nights at the border. Jędrzej said, “I was near the place, and I just think it is necessary to help others in need. So I did what I could.” There are still hundreds of volunteers and rights activists like Jędrzej who work tirelessly to ensure that the EU and Poland treat asylum-seekers humanely. 

David Saveliev is a reporting intern at Responsible Statecraft. He has reported on conflicts, protests and natural disasters on the ground in places such as Donbas, Paris and Yakutia. You can find his work in Nikkei Asia and the National Interest among others. David is currently pursuing an MPhil at the University of Oxford where he researches protest movements and ideology in the former USSR.

Follow him on Twitter: @Saveliev_David