What began last summer in a few isolated cases of migrants and asylum seekers entering the EU through Belarus, has in recent weeks become a phenomenon at the top of the European agenda. The Belarusian route, allowing Minsk authorities to allow Iraqi, Afghan, Syrian and other countries to fly to the country and then cross the border with human smugglers to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, revives European fears of refugee refugees, as well as political and economic clashes between EU countries. Correct to deal with the phenomenon.
Germany is the destination of many asylum seekers however they have to cross reserved borders and travel great distances to reach it. Many succeed. In the first three weeks of October, according to German authorities, more than 4,800 refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers were registered in the country as having arrived from Belarus. A similar number arrived in the country on this route in the months before.
But the numbers are much larger along the path. According to Belarusian asylum seekers, every night between 100 and 150 asylum seekers leave hotels in the city towards the border with Poland or Lithuania. In Poland, authorities reported that they had prevented 1,500 people from crossing the border illegally last weekend alone. It is estimated that there are thousands more on the roads, and photos from Minsk Airport show loads of migrants arriving from Irbil and other destinations. “We came because there is an opportunity to enter Europe,” a young Syrian of Kurdish descent told the BBC, documenting his journey. “The president of Belarus has opened the borders to unification.”
Lukashenko does not pretend
The Belarusian path to illegal immigration into the EU was born in the summer. A few months earlier, the EU had imposed sanctions on the authoritarian regime in Belarus, which is ruled by an iron fist by Alexander Lukashenko.
The so-called “last dictator in Europe” violently suppressed opposition demonstrations after the election, ignored union pleas on human rights and even intercepted a Ryanair plane that passed through the country’s airspace to stop a regime blogger opposing a regime on board. In response, the European Union banned the national airline “Blavia” from landing in its member states, and imposed sanctions on Lukashenko’s associates and on the government’s profitable chemicals business.
Without pretense, Lukashenko announced that he had decided to turn Belarus into a conduit for refugees towards the EU. He justified this by the economic difficulties created for the authorities in the country following the European sanctions. “We used to catch migrants here en masse, but now forget about it – you will have to catch them yourself,” he told a clear message to EU leaders. “It does not pay for us to fight human smuggling,” he said.
Instead, illegal immigration has become a significant source of income for the country. Tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees are willing to pay a lot to get a chance to enter the EU. This is a much safer route compared to the risk of crossing the sea between Turkey and the nearby Greek islands, which then involves a journey of thousands of miles through the Balkans.
Thousands of dollars for a smuggling route trip
In the summer, Belarus began allowing foreigners from Iraq, Syria, African countries and even residents of Afghanistan and Pakistan to reach Minsk on flights, paying thousands of dollars to government-linked agencies for fictitious “visas”. From there, the route became more sophisticated. The immigrants are housed for a few days in hotels in Minsk, then transported by human smugglers to the borders of Belarus.
At first it was the main route towards Lithuania, which was flooded with thousands of refugees and has since significantly increased patrol at the border and even erected an ad hoc fence in parts of the border. Illegal immigration to the country jumped 50 times and reached more than 4,800 asylum seekers by the beginning of October. But now the main route is the one that crosses the sometimes unmarked border between Belarus and Poland.
The immigrants try to cross in the dark and then head west, to Germany. They cannot travel by train or public transport, and rely on expensive taxis or smugglers. In Germany they apply for asylum, receive medical insurance and financial support and accommodation.
The weakest get stuck in border areas
But to reach the destination they have to cross the border. Families with children and the weakest of immigrants, as well as the poorest, have been “stuck” in recent weeks in border areas, while temperatures are dropping to zero. In addition, there is growing evidence that the Polish authorities are “pushing” migrants back to Belarus in some cases. Some return to Minsk, but some remain in rural areas. On the part of the immigrants, too, the conflict is escalating: over the weekend, clashes broke out when immigrants threw stones and branches at Polish soldiers, trying to break through the fence into Polish territory. The incidents were videotaped by the Polish police.
EU responses to Polish policy are mixed. On the one hand, Germany has announced that it will support the immediate reinforcement of the forces on the border by “FRONTEX”, the European border guarding agency. On the other hand, human rights organizations sharply criticize the reports of forced entry, forced return to Belarus, and mention that the Refugee Convention obliges Poland to accept and examine asylum applications. Robert Habeck, the leader of the “Greens” in Germany, who are expected to take part in the next government, called for the refugees to be accepted and asked the EU countries to “disperse” among them the immigrants and asylum seekers who come to Poland.
The extremists in Germany are heating up the atmosphere
In Germany, too, the issue is causing a stir. The refugee crisis in 2015 was a turning point in German politics, and led to the rise of the Alternative to Germany party from the right. Closure of the Balkan route after the crisis and European agreements with Turkey to prevent the illegal crossing of borders with the Greek islands have significantly reduced the number of illegal immigrants entering Germany, but now the winds are blowing again.
Current Interior Minister Horst Zyhofer convened the German government for an emergency meeting last week, ordering the implementation of a plan to patrol the country’s eastern border with Poland. The German police and border control forces do not prevent immigrants and asylum seekers from entering, but only register them and disperse them in the various absorption centers in the country. “We do not want anyone to enter Germany in an undocumented manner,” Zihofer said. “Hundreds of German policemen are deployed at the border day and night,” he said.
But in the wake of these reports, and the reopening of refugee housing centers in East Germany, even extremist elements in the community are beginning to try and intervene. Over the weekend, police in Brandenburg, the county state through which most refugees pass, arrested a gang of more than 50 members of the “Third Way” – a neo-Nazi movement. They organized to “patrol” independently in the border towns with Poland, armed with weapons such as machetes and bayonets, with the aim of intimidating and possibly even harming incoming immigrants.
Merkel threatens Lukashenko
The evolving crisis was also at the center of discussions by union leaders who convened for a summit in Brussels over the weekend. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has threatened Lukashenko with further economic sanctions if he continues to allow illegal immigration. European Commission President Ursula von der Lain accused him of using refugees and asylum seekers as weapons against the union.
But it seems that the number of potential immigrants in Belarus is growing. The approaching winter may turn the situation on the borders of Poland and Lithuania into a tangible danger to the weak among the immigrants. Europe once again finds itself with a possible humanitarian refugee crisis, this time on its eastern border, and with significant disagreements on how to resolve it.