David Eide – Opinion Columnist
There is a major refugee crisis going on in Europe and it’s not the one you might be thinking of. While the Mediterranean Sea is still the most heavily traveled route for migrants fleeing embattled countries like Iraq and Afghanistan in the past year a new path has opened that has led to a humanitarian catastrophe on the European Union’s eastern border. Migrants seeking a better life have found themselves weaponized by Alexander Lukashenko, the brutal dictator of Belarus who has sought to use them to destabilize the EU.
This whole crisis started with the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. In past elections, it was likely that Lukashenko had won fairly in terms of votes cast despite large-scale fraud altering the reported vote totals. However, in 2020 Lukashenko faced his most major electoral challenge ever due to increasing economic woes and a feeling among many in Belarus that their country was growing too dependent on their larger neighbor Russia.
It is likely that Lukashenko actually lost the 2020 presidential election despite the official results from his government showing otherwise. As a result of this massive electoral fraud, Belarusians took to the streets and began protesting the dictatorial regime of Lukashenko, who met these protests with a brutal military crackdown which led to several deaths. This led to many western democracies such as the EU or the US which had previously tacitly supported Lukashenko to impose sanctions and call for his removal, which greatly offended the dictator.
This brings us to roughly the summer of 2021 when the crisis on the Belarussian-Polish border began in earnest. Lukashenko engineered a refugee crisis in order to sow instability among the European Union to get back at them for their support for the protests against his rule, which is currently in effect. His regime went to many middle eastern countries that hosted large refugee populations and offered these refugees discount flights to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Once there, these desperate refugees were promptly rounded up by the Belarussian Police and forcibly taken to the Polish border where they were repeatedly forced to try and cross the border in hopes of eventually reaching Germany. The Belarussian government has also allegedly provided these migrants with wire cutters and axes to enable them to cut through existing border fortifications more easily.
The Polish government has long opposed allowing large groups of refugees into Poland and as a result, has kept the border closed to the refugees that Belarus is trying to force across. This has included such inhumane tactics as tear-gassing large groups of migrants as well as pushbacks involving blunt force trauma with riot shields. Of course, the Belarussian government is just as guilty of violating the human rights of the migrants, with gunfire often being used to drive hesitating migrants across the border. Furthermore, the Polish government has attempted to provide humanitarian aid to the migrants camped out alongside the border which Belarus has flatly refused.
In effect, Lukashenko has weaponized the European Union’s refusal to accept migrants to sow disorder among the bloc as revenge for them opposing his dictatorship. In doing so, he has exposed some of the most vulnerable populations to freezing temperatures, heavily militarized border guards, and immense psychological harm. Already at least 17 migrants have died since July with the actual number likely being far higher. This state of affairs cannot go on for much longer.
What then is to be done about his artificially created refugee crisis? By my estimation, the best option would be to call Lukashenko’s bluff and begin accepting the migrants waiting on the Belarussian border. If, as I expect, Eastern European governments are unwilling to accept any large groups of refugees then the United States should step up and begin accepting the migrants via flights to and from Poland. After all, many of the migrants are Iraqi Kurds fleeing the current instability in Iraq which ultimately stems from the United States 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, so in a sense, we do have some responsibility to these people. While some might say this is rewarding Lukashenko’s efforts, I don’t think that is quite right.
Ultimately, Lukashenko does not care whether the migrants successfully make it across the border, all he cares about is causing tensions within the European Union’s member states over the issue of refugees. If the chaotic situation on the border is resolved peacefully via the migrants being moved to the US or other countries, then Lukashenko will have been unsuccessful in his efforts to undermine the EU’s institutions. If the Biden administration really wants to support our allies as it has long promised, then it should take the lead on resolving this humanitarian nightmare and punishing Lukashenko for orchestrating it.