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Poland and the EU must resist the blackmail of Belarus


The author is a Polish novelist and playwright

Distressing images of mostly Middle Eastern migrants marched by Belarusian police to the Polish frontier are shaking Europe. Belarusian guards watch as migrants cut barbed wire to cross into Poland — and, if they are lucky, from there to Germany or beyond.

Lithuania, facing a similar assault, declared a state of emergency on Tuesday. These scenes mark the escalation of a crisis that began in the summer. Several thousand migrants have made it across the Polish border and into Germany, but many have been pushed back into Belarus. As winter sets in, several have frozen to death in the forests that straddle the two countries.

The use of human “cannon fodder” fired against the gates of Europe — poor migrants who yearn for a better life — is a despicable act. Its author is Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of what the EU rightly calls a “gangster state”. Behind him lurks Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, who has already signed an “integration plan” with Belarus aimed at unifying their defence and financial polices.

Lukashenko’s aims are threefold: to distract attention from his political problems at home, to destabilise Poland and Lithuania and to sow discord in Europe. Distressingly, he is making inroads on all fronts, though the EU has backed Warsaw’s right to defend its borders. Still, Poland and Europe need a more co-ordinated, rational and above all humane policy to counter Lukashenko’s execrable actions.

The story began last year when Lukashenko, fearing he would lose a presidential election, cracked down violently on the democratic opposition. In May, Belarus hijacked a passenger plane so it could arrest a journalist critical of his regime.

By becoming a human trafficker, Lukashenko is lashing out at the European sanctions that followed. Since summer, planes have brought migrants from the Middle East and other regions to Minsk with the promise of an onward ticket to Europe.

People fleeing poverty and conflict pay thousands of dollars for a “sightseeing trip” that they hope will lead to a better life. In Belarus, they are fleeced out of more money. For Lukashenko’s cash-strapped regime, refugee trafficking has become a source of loot.

The Polish government is on the horns of a dilemma. Let the refugees in and Lukashenko will be more than happy to send more. Push them back and Poland violates international laws.

The daily sight of refugees trying to enter the country has polarised Polish society. Some show contempt for migrants, while others defend their rights — even rushing to the border to help them.

Poland’s government wants to construct a Trump-style fence and has dispatched 15,000 troops to the border. Each night guards are involved in ugly clashes with desperate migrants, darkening Poland’s image as an upholder of human rights.

Anti-immigrant feeling in Poland is not new. In 2015 the rightwing Law and Justice party came to power after the refugee and migrant crisis, using Angela Merkel’s admission of 1m Syrians and others to scare Polish voters.

Sadly, such tactics still work. The party is using Lukashenko’s “human wave” to stir up its base. Some of the language applied to migrants is shocking and dehumanising. But refugees cannot be blamed for trying to improve their life, nor know that they are pawns in a larger game.

Though Lukashenko has scored some victories, his policy may yet backfire. Refugees flown to Belarus are sleeping on the streets of Minsk. He must be made to pay in other ways.

Lukashenko hopes to blackmail Europe into stopping sanctions. The EU should ratchet them up instead. Diplomatic and economic pressure should be put on states and companies, including airlines, that have become accessories to trafficking. Other Belarusian officials responsible should be identified.

As for the migrants, those who make it through to Poland should be processed according to international law and humanitarian principles. Those with no right to stay should be swiftly repatriated, those who qualify given asylum.

Poland should work more closely with its EU partners, including the Frontex border control agency. It should lift an exclusion zone so international personnel and journalists can operate near the border. Such actions will not show weakness. They will demonstrate that Poland and the EU will have no truck with Lukashenko’s methods.

The Polish government claims to be on top of things. It clearly is not. It should stop posing as the lone saviour of Poland and Europe from an alien horde. Only by acting legally, humanely and firmly can it call the gangster’s bluff.



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