Escalating Human Rights Crisis: The Plight of Migrants at the Belarus-EU


In recent years, the European Union (EU) has faced a growing number of refugee crises as people from war-torn countries desperately seek safety in Europe. At the same time, Belarus has become a hub of political turmoil and severe human rights abuses. These intertwined issues have created a complex and challenging situation that demands a coordinated response from the EU and the international community. One of the critical concerns revolves around human rights violations at the Belarus-EU border. Belarus has been accused of actively facilitating illegal migration into EU countries, using migrants as political tools due to the sanctions imposed by the European Union on the part of the Belarusian government. 

These actions unequivocally infringe upon the fundamental human right to seek asylum in direct contravention of the protection provided by international conventions and agreements. By exploiting vulnerable migrants for political gain, Belarus undermines the principles of compassion, dignity, and protection that underpin human rights. While the Belarusian government bears significant responsibility for these violations, the European Union has also faced criticism. Some accuse EU countries of disregarding their obligations under international law by forcibly turning away migrants or detaining them in deplorable conditions upon arrival. The substandard treatment and inadequate living conditions in detention centers exacerbate the suffering of those seeking safety, raising concerns about the EU's commitment to upholding human rights. The current state of affairs at the border between Belarus and the European Union has intensified the strained relations between the two, with each party accusing the other of transgressing international law and human rights. This article, hence, tries to highlight the neglected situation of migrants at the EU-Belarus border. 

1. The Authoritarian Grip and Human Rights Challenges in Belarus

Belarus is a nation that emerged out of the Soviet Union's shadow in 1991 and subsequently adopted the name Republic of Belarus. Belarus has unfortunately become synonymous with human rights violations. Situated as a landlocked nation, it shares borders with Lithuania and Latvia to the north, Russia borders the east, Ukraine is situated to the south, and Poland is positioned to the west of Belarus. While its neighbouring countries like Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have embraced the principles of the European Union, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine remain outside its fold. Before 2020, the Belarus-Poland border, spanning a length of 418km, was largely unrestricted, allowing for relatively unhindered movement. Since assuming power in 1994, President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained an iron grip on Belarus, gradually tightening his authoritarian rule. His governance tactics heavily rely on a powerful police force and Special Forces unit known as OMON, which are often employed to suppress dissent. In addition, strict censorship measures and a firm grip on media outlets contribute to stifling free speech and independent reporting. 

A notable incident occurred in December 1994 when various newspapers, prevented from publishing critical articles about Lukashenko, protested by printing their pages with blank spaces as a symbolic act of defiance. Despite international condemnation and calls for reform, Lukashenko has remained at the helm, currently serving his sixth term. The presidential elections conducted in August 2020 further exemplified the erosion of democratic values in Belarus. Lukashenko claimed his sixth term in office in a disputed victory, marking a continuation of unfair electoral practices that have plagued the country since his initial election. Accusations of widespread election fraud cast doubt on the "official" results, prompting supporters of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to assert her rightful victory. The Belarusian people, refusing to accept the questionable outcome, took to the streets in unprecedented numbers, staging protests that endured for nearly three months. These demonstrations constituted some of the largest displays of dissent ever witnessed in the country, underscoring the deep-seated discontent and the desire for a fair and just political system.

2. Human rights abuses and international condemnation

The European Union has condemned Belarus for its blatant disregard of migrant rights and the exploitation of human lives as a political tool. Conversely, Belarus has accused the EU of employing double standards in its treatment of migrants and exploiting the refugee crisis for its own geopolitical agenda. These allegations and counter-allegations deepen the situation's complexities and impede efforts to find a resolution that safeguards the rights and well-being of those affected. Addressing the human rights violations at the Belarus-EU border requires a comprehensive and coordinated response from the international community. It is of utmost importance for the European Union and its member states to ensure that their actions align with international human rights standards and principles. 

This includes providing adequate protection and support to individuals in need, regardless of their migration status, and guaranteeing access to fair asylum procedures. Additionally, engaging in dialogue with Belarus while holding the government accountable for its human rights abuses can be a constructive step toward finding a sustainable solution. Moreover, the international community should collaborate, including regional organizations, neighbouring countries, and relevant stakeholders. To effectively tackle the underlying reasons behind forced displacement and the political instability in Belarus, it is imperative for the European Union and its member states to take measures aimed at addressing the root causes. By addressing the underlying factors that drive individuals to undertake dangerous journeys, such as conflict, persecution, and economic instability, long-term solutions can be developed to alleviate the suffering of those affected and prevent future breaches of human rights. The intersection of the refugee crises in the EU and the human rights abuses in Belarus presents a complex challenge. The violations at the Belarus-EU border, committed by both Belarus and certain EU member states, emphasize the urgent need for a coordinated response that upholds human rights, compassion, and solidarity principles. By addressing immediate concerns while tackling underlying causes, the international community can strive toward a future where the rights and dignity of all individuals are respected and protected.

By November 2020, an excess of 30,000 individuals had been apprehended, with approximately 900 individuals facing criminal charges and multiple casualties reported. President Lukashenko received congratulations on his re-election from Russian President Vladimir Putin, making him the first world leader to do so. Nevertheless, numerous Western nations declined to acknowledge the legitimacy of Lukashenko's extended term, citing the elections as lacking both freedom and fairness. Given the democratic nature of the surrounding countries, the citizens of Belarus, incensed by election fraud, sought to overthrow the dictator. On August 16th, 2020, a significant number of individuals protested against Lukashenko. Distrust in the official election results spurred spontaneous and peaceful demonstrations across the country, including the capital city, Minsk. The widespread and systematic use of torture and other forms of inhumane treatment against detainees triggered a negative response from both domestic and international communities. 

The Human Rights Center "Viasna" documented at least 500 cases of torture, providing evidence of its pervasive and organized nature. Journalists faced persecution for their professional activities, enduring repeated detentions, physical abuse, accreditation revocations, and deportations. In certain instances, reporters were subjected to the use of weapons. Extensive censorship was imposed, blocking access to numerous news sites and civil society platforms, including those of human rights organizations. Internet access was periodically disrupted. The people protested against Lukashenko's government, initially referring to the protest as the "Freedom March" and later, on August 23rd, adopting the name "New Belarus." Each march drew over 200,000 individuals to the streets, demanding new elections. Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya asserted that her country's people had undergone a transformation and would no longer accept Lukashenko's rule. The newly elected government dispatched police forces, including riot police, and deployed dozens of military trucks carrying soldiers to the center of the capital, marking the first instance of military deployment in central Minsk. In neighbouring Lithuania, a demonstration of solidarity commenced, with plans to form a human chain from Vilnius to the Belarusian border. The police crackdown resulted in the arrest of nearly 7,000 people, leading to distressing allegations of torture and mistreatment while in police custody. The European Union dismissed the presidential election results, which awarded Lukashenko 80 percent of the vote. The police used violence, made arrests, and imprisoned protesters. Between August 24 and December 31, 2020, the Belarusian government detained and interrogated opposition leaders and strike committee members. Most opposition figures were imprisoned or compelled to leave the country. Russia was the first nation to express support for the Lukashenko government. In response, the European Union and the USA declared economic sanctions against Lukashenko's government. These sanctions were not significant until a shocking incident occurred by European standards. 

3. EU's Challenges in Addressing Belarus's Human Rights Violations

During a flight from Greece to Lithuania, Belarusian blogger and political activist Raman Pratasevich, known for his critical stance against the Belarusian government, was subjected to a grave violation of human rights. As the previous editor of the opposition's Next channel on the Telegram messaging application, operating from outside Belarus, Pratasevich played a significant role in mobilizing street protests, evading strict state censorship, and accumulating nearly two million subscribers. Following his visit to Greece with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, and participation in an economics conference in Athens, together with fellow Belarusian dissidents, they were returning to Lithuania when the Belarusian authorities took extreme measures. Belarus dispatched a fighter jet to intercept Ryanair flight FR4978, originating from Athens and heading to Vilnius, under the pretext of a bomb threat. The aircraft was forcibly landed in Minsk, where, upon disembarkation, the police apprehended Mr. Pratasevich. Witnesses reported his evident fear during the arrest. Sofia Sapega was also taken into custody. Belarus claimed the diversion was due to a bomb scare issued by the Palestinian extremist organization Hamas, presenting a letter from the alleged group as evidence. However, Hamas denied any involvement, highlighting their lack of historical operations beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories. German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized the implausibility of Belarus’ claims. This incident has garnered widespread international condemnation, with numerous countries demanding the Prompt liberation of Mr. Pratasevich through Inquiry. Disturbingly, both Pratasevich and Sapega later appeared in coerced videos, seemingly confessing to offences committed against the Belarusian authorities. On June 25th, it was revealed that they had been subjected to residential confinement. Whilst Ms. Sapega was subjected to confinement within a residence in Minsk, Mr. Pratasevich's location remained undisclosed, purportedly under the supervision of secret police. This blatant violation of human rights and suppression of dissent has sparked outrage worldwide. His fellow blogger, Mr. Putilo, expressed concerns about the dangers of flying over their home country due to the oppressive regime's actions. Mr. Protasevich, a journalist and activist, found himself facing severe charges as he was included in Belarus's roster of individuals engaged in acts of terrorism despite no substantial evidence supporting such allegations. The charge of causing mass unrest, which he was accused of, carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. However, the authorities used terror offences to subject him to even harsher penalties. As he was forcefully taken off the plane, witnesses heard him uttering words that reflected his fear of receiving the death penalty upon his return to Belarus. 

The act of diverting the flight, which was travelling between two foreign countries and compelling it to land in Belarus, constituted nothing less than a hijacking and should be classified as a terrorist act. In retaliation against the fraudulent presidential elections orchestrated by the Lukashenko regime in August 2020 and subsequent violent repression of opposition candidates and protesters, the European Union (EU) has incrementally expanded its sanctions against Belarus since October 2020. The EU imposed additional sanctions following the Belarusian government's forced landing of a Ryan air flight and the subsequent detention of journalist Roman Protasevich. European Union leaders have declared their non-recognition of the recent Belarusian election results and announced forthcoming sanctions against those involved in electoral fraud. While the EU called for peaceful dialogue between the government and the opposition, it stopped short of explicitly demanding a rerun of the election, as demanded by the opposition. Instead, they offered to support a peaceful transition of power in Belarus. European Union foreign ministers unanimously condemned the election results as fraudulent and reached an agreement on imposing sanctions. The EU demanded the release of unlawfully detained protesters. The United Kingdom has suspended the operating license for the state airline Belavia in Belarus, and European Union leaders have urged member states to adopt similar measures. Various Belarusian officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, are already under EU sanctions, including travel restrictions and asset freezes, due to their involvement in suppressing opposition figures. 

The European Union classified the forced landing of the Ryanair flight in Minsk and the subsequent detention of journalist Roman Protasevich as an act of "piracy." In response, the EU implemented a ban on all Belarusian airlines, prohibiting their operations within European Union airports or airspace. Moreover, the EU prohibited the import of key commodities, such as petroleum products and potash fertilizer, from Belarus. In December, the European Council implemented its fifth package of sanctions targeting Belarus to denounce ongoing human rights abuses and the manipulation of migrants. These new sanctions include restrictions on 17 individuals, including judges, as well as 11 entities involved in facilitating and organizing illegal border crossings into Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. The primary airline responsible for transporting migrants, Belarusian airline Belavia, was specifically named in the sanctions. Additional measures entailed the imposition of travel bans and the freezing of accounts for 88 individuals associated with the Belarusian state apparatus, including seven Belarusian companies supporting the autocratic regime. In retaliation to these sanctions, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus prohibited the importation of beef, pork, specific vegetables, dairy products, fruits, and nuts from the European Union, the United States, Canada, Britain, Norway, and several other countries for the duration of six months. The Belarusian government, renowned for its human rights violations, declared on September 9, 2021, that it would respond to the imposed sanctions by banning food imports from Western nations starting in January of the following year. Belarus, plagued by numerous instances of human rights abuses, reported food imports worth $530 million in the initial ten months of 2021, as disclosed by the Minsk government. Although the government did not specify the items included in the import ban, it threatened to expand the list of prohibited food imports in response to subsequent Western sanctions. 

Nevertheless, the effectiveness of these actions in exerting pressure on the Belarusian regime is overshadowed by the significantly harsher sanctions imposed by the European Union in response to the contentious presidential elections of 2010. Acknowledging the grave human rights conditions prevailing in Belarus, the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed a resolution led by the European Union to intensify scrutiny over alleged human rights abuses subsequent to the disputed August presidential election. According to Anaïs Marin, a human rights investigator appointed by the United Nations, over 10,000 individuals have been subjected to arbitrary arrests following President Alexander Lukashenko's declaration of victory in the presidential election on August 9. Alarming reports reveal the existence of over 500 well-documented instances of torture, accompanied by numerous occurrences of brutal beatings, all of which have been inflicted upon a significant number of individuals. The widespread violations led to Belarus facing economic isolation, resulting in a significant shock to its economy. In 2020, approximately 50% of Belarus's petroleum products were exported to the European Union and the UK. Following the incident involving the forced landing of a Ryanair flight on May 23, 2021, and the subsequent arrest of a prominent opposition activist, the European Council responded by imposing fresh sanctions on Belarus. These measures encompassed a prohibition on the provision of specialized technological equipment and dual-use goods with military applications, as well as limitations on the export of Belarusian petroleum products, potassium chloride (commonly known as "potash"), tobacco, and tobacco-related items. Furthermore, Belarus faced restricted access to EU capital markets, and the European Investment Bank halted funding for public sector projects in the country. Despite the implementation of these new sectorial sanctions, they were not anticipated to deal a fatal blow to the Belarusian economy. 

The regime had the potential to redirect some of its petroleum product exports to alternative markets, such as Russia, for re-export to Western Europe. In a display of solidarity with the protesters and political opposition in Belarus, the European Union offered targeted financial assistance. In December 2020, the EU approved a €24 million aid package, which was part of a larger €53 million support package designed to directly support Belarusian civil society, youth groups, and select small and medium-sized enterprises. Furthermore, in December 2020, the United States enacted the Belarus Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act, which granted the president enhanced powers to impose sanctions on the Belarusian regime and offer support to Belarus in various forms. However, the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, buoyed by the support of Russia, remained defiant. In September 2020, Lukashenko received a $1.5 billion loan from Russia, enabling him to continue suppressing the ongoing demonstrations and maintaining his grip on power. Putin and Lukashenko met twice in February and April 2021, illustrating the robust connections between the two nations. Furthermore, the Belarusian regime received assistance from Russia in thwarting an alleged coup attempt in April 2021 through a joint counterintelligence operation. Given the landlocked nature of Belarus, the country's economic woes were exacerbated by being banned from airspace and restricting exports. The Belarusian dictator pondered how to exact revenge on the European Union, which brings into question the European Union's weak points in addressing the human rights violations perpetrated by Lukashenko's regime." 

4. The Plight of Vulnerable Migrants at the border between Belarus and the European Union

Since July 2021, a significant number of migrants, including individuals seeking refuge from conflict-ridden regions like Iraq and Syria, have encountered grave violations of their human rights as they strive to cross the Belarusian border into neighbouring EU countries, namely Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In response, these nations have declared a state of emergency and deployed their military forces along the borders. The border checkpoints with Belarus have been closed to deter unauthorized crossings, and barriers have been erected. The EU, alleging that Belarus actively facilitates the migrants’ arrival at the border and coerces or aids them in illegally entering the EU, has made alarming accusations. Belarus, however, vehemently denies these allegations. In early January 2021, refugees sought refuge in Minsk, Belarus' capital, due to the devastating civil wars ravaging countries such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Congo. The situation in these countries was dire, compelling thousands of war-displaced individuals to flee for their safety. Online advertisements on various social media platforms to inform refugees and migrants that choosing to cross through Belarus would provide a safe and secure route for entering the European Union. 

The majority of refugees arrived in Minsk via air travel facilitated by tourist agencies operating in the Middle East and other regions. Direct flights from various Middle Eastern destinations, including Beirut, Dubai, and Baghdad, landed in Minsk. Furthermore, flights originating from Istanbul, Turkey, arrived in Belarus under the pretense of tourism, as Belarus offered a 30-day tourist visa. Upon arrival in Minsk, refugees embarked on overland journeys to reach EU borders, particularly Poland and Lithuania, utilizing taxis, buses, or other means of transportation. Human smugglers often played a role in assisting them with illegal border crossings. However, as time passed, it became increasingly challenging for these refugees to enter the European Union through conventional means such as vehicles. Shockingly, the Belarusian government resorted to forcibly abandoning these vulnerable individuals in forests near the EU border, equipping them with wire cutters to breach the barbed wire fences. This callous act put their lives at risk and further violated their human rights. Among the migrants stranded at the border were young men, females, and youngsters predominantly from the Middle East and Asia. This dire situation intensified an escalating international dispute, leaving several thousand individuals trapped in a humanitarian crisis with their rights gravely disregarded. The situation unravelling at the Belarus-EU border is deemed a tool of hybrid warfare, targeting the EU's policies, principles, and values. Over the past months, Alexander Lukashenko has been accused by the European Union, NATO, and the US of deliberately provoking a renewed migrant crisis in Europe. Many migrants from the Middle East have flocked to Belarus's borders near the European Union. Lukashenko, whose legitimacy following widely disproved electoral process election has been questioned, refuses allegations of Enticing people to relocate as countermeasures for imposed sanctions after violent repression of activists and opponents. The severity of the situation has escalated persistent efforts to overcome the razor-wire fences on the eastern frontier of Poland. Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak revealed, "It wasn't a calm night. Indeed, there were many attempts to breach the Polish border." Police documented two distinct occurrences comprising assemblies of roughly 50 individuals. 

The border patrol observed that, within the preceding 24-hour period exclusively, there were 599 unlawful border crossings, culminating in the apprehension of nine persons, all hailing from the Middle East. Both Poland and Belarus have levelled accusations against one another concerning acts of aggression directed toward the migrants stranded in proximity to the fence. As temperatures dropped below freezing, those trapped at the border faced dire conditions, running out of food and water. Aid worker Ania Chmielewska expressed deep concern over Poland's state of emergency, hampers aid workers from entering the affected area. Chmielewska lamented, "For us, it is heartbreaking. We are here near the border but cannot enter the zone and help people. We can only assist those who manage to cross the border and make it out of the restricted area." The actions of Belarus have been denounced by the European Commission, which has accused them of employing deceitful assurances of effortless access to the European Union as part of an "inhumane, criminal-like strategy." The commission has identified approximately 20 nations, primarily from the Middle East, as the origins of migrants who arrive in Minsk, frequently holding tourist visas. In light of these developments, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has asserted that the EU will not yield to extortion and will augment sanctions on Belarus, specifically targeting individuals involved in the organized smuggling of migrants. The European Commission has also criticized Belarus’s strategy of enticing refugees to Minsk on behalf of easy entry into the European Union. Refugees arriving in Minsk are reportedly being directed towards the EU border. Lithuanian officials have further revealed that Belarus has streamlined the visa process for potential migrants from Iraq, enabling them to enter under the guise of "tourists." The memories of the 2015 refugee crisis between Turkey and Europe, where Turkey allowed a massive influx of migrants until a deal was struck with the EU, have resurfaced, causing apprehension among the refugees. While the motives of these migrants - political instability, fear of conscription and lack of employment - are similar to those of migrants worldwide, their chosen route through Belarus is relatively new. Initially, Belarusian travel companies issued electronic invitations for people to board flights to the capital. However, the rules were modified as illegitimate operations emerged, profiting from counterfeit invitations. 

Now, migrants require a physical visa stamp on their passports before they can book a flight. It takes longer, but it still is not complicated. Meanwhile, Lithuania has reported a significant increase in migrants attempting to cross unpermitted from the Republic of Belarus. Lithuania claims that Belarus is facilitating this migration as a form of retaliation against the West's sanctions. The migrants themselves have stated that they are fleeing persecution and war in their home countries. The European Union (EU) has expressed its view that Belarus used this crisis to squeeze the EU over the sanctions imposed. President Lukashenko of Belarus has conceded the possibility that his nation may have facilitated the transportation of migrants toward the European Union; however, he vehemently refutes extending an invitation to them to enter Belarus. Both Poland and Lithuania have claimed to possess evidence suggesting that Belarusian authorities have assisted migrants in arranging their journeys to the border. Such allegations raise concerns about potential human rights violations, including the right to seek asylum, protection from persecution, and fair treatment. It is important for all countries involved to prioritize the protection and well-being of migrants and refugees. International human rights standards require that individuals fleeing persecution or war should be given access to fair asylum procedures and humane treatment. Any actions by authorities that impede or deny these rights may constitute human rights violations. Given the complexity of the situation, it is essential for the international community, including the EU, to engage in dialogue and cooperation to address the root causes of migration and seek solutions that uphold human rights principles. This could involve supporting countries that are experiencing an influx of migrants, enhancing border management practices, and addressing the underlying issues that force individuals to flee their homes. Respecting human rights is a moral obligation and a legal one. The international community must collaborate in order to safeguard the rights of migrants and refugees and to establish mechanisms that ensure accountability for any infringements on their human rights.

5. Humanitarian Crisis Escalates at the EU-Belarus Border

In the year 2021, a multitude of flagrant human rights violations unfolded as a significant number of individuals endeavoured to enter the European Union via Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, originating from neighbouring Belarus. The situation at the borders reached critical levels, particularly during winter, subjecting numerous individuals to prolonged exposure to freezing conditions. Tragically, the attempts to cross the border from Belarus to the EU in late 2021 and early 2022 resulted in the loss of at least 24 lives. Disturbingly, the Polish border guards reported a staggering 977 recorded attempts to cross the border in April 2022 alone, reaching a cumulative count of nearly 4,280 since that year's commencement. These figures, although lower compared to the previous November, when thousands of migrants gathered along the border within days, indicate an ongoing dramatic and overlooked crisis, especially in the shadow of the attention directed toward the exodus from Ukraine. When countries like Poland witnessed this unfolding humanitarian situation, they heightened security measures at the border, called in reinforcements, and implemented stringent checks to impede such smuggling attempts. The installation of additional barbed wire further fortified the border. In January 2022, the Polish government embarked on the construction of a new wall along the Belarus border, specifically designed to deter refugee crossings. Spanning a height of 5.5 meters and extending along 186 kilometres of the border, nearly half of its total length, the wall will be completed by June 2022. The Belarusian government's active encouragement of these vulnerable individuals became evident. Exploiting the refugee crisis that unfolded in 2015 when large numbers of refugees sought refuge in Europe, Belarus seized upon this vulnerability. They openly encouraged refugees to enter their country only to subsequently abandon them at the border. The forested areas surrounding the border, characterized by temperatures ranging from -5°C to -7°C, became the harsh backdrop for their plight. The Belarusian government remained apathetic, offering no assistance in terms of food, shelter, or provisions, leaving these individuals to endure the bitter cold. Tragically, several lives were lost due to the extreme conditions, with approximately ten individuals perishing while awaiting passage at the border. Desperate and left with no other choice, some individuals resorted to fighting the border police and undertaking perilous attempts to cross the border at any cost, driven by the will to survive. In an interview, one refugee eloquently expressed the dire situation: "They are playing with us as if we were a football. Belarus beat us and pushed us to the Poland border; on the other hand, Poland beat us to push us back to Belarus." These words encapsulate the inhumane treatment and disregard for the rights and well-being of these vulnerable individuals caught in the crossfire between the two countries. This series of events constitutes a grave violation of human rights, characterized by endangerment of lives, exposure to life-threatening conditions, lack of assistance, and a cycle of violence perpetuated by authorities. The situation calls for urgent attention and intervention to safeguard the fundamental rights and dignity of those affected by this crisis.

6. The Escalation of the Border Crisis in Poland

The gravity of the border crisis intensified significantly as Polish authorities resorted to using tear gas and water cannons to deter migrants seeking to cross into the country. In response to the heavily fortified crossing, some migrants resorted to throwing missiles at the Polish forces, resulting in several injuries. Notably, Belarus denied the presence of Polish police in the area and advised migrants to cross the border through the wires. Poland's completion of a new steel wall at its border with Belarus aimed to control the influx of undocumented asylum seekers. The erection of this wall served as a preventive measure aimed at deterring individuals who were fleeing from the turmoil of conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. These individuals had been encouraged by the Belarusian government to seek entry into the European Union as part of a broader dispute with the bloc. The leader of Belarus adamantly denied extending any invitations to refugees while simultaneously acknowledging the involvement of his forces in aiding migrants to cross into Poland. For several months, a significant number of migrants, predominantly from the Middle East, have been persistently attempting to enter the European Union through the borders of Belarus. The situation along the border had been obscured by a state of emergency imposed by Poland until September 2, 2021, which restricted access for journalists, human rights workers, and others, impeding their ability to witness the human rights crisis. 

The Belarusian leader, Lukashenko, levelled accusations against the European Union, alleging human rights violations due to their refusal to grant entry to these migrants, asserting that such actions contravened international asylum regulations. Nonetheless, a number of countries within the United Nations Security Council assert that this crisis represents a manifestation of hybrid warfare being employed against Europe. Furthermore, the Republic of Belarus has issued a threat to disrupt the gas supply by switching off the gas pipelines, which would have significant economic consequences for Europe. Since a considerable portion of Europe's gas supply originates from Russia and passes through pipelines in Belarus, such a disruption would have far-reaching effects. The threat has already contributed to high gas prices in Europe, exacerbated by other factors. Poland has blamed Russia for these developments, while the Kremlin spokesperson denied any involvement and challenged the EU to provide financial assistance to Belarus to address the crisis. The EU, in turn, has suggested that it is the responsibility of Lithuanian authorities to ensure their asylum policies align with EU law, although human rights groups have criticized the EU for allegedly disregarding the situation on the ground.

7. Human Rights Violations and Double Standards at the Polish-Belarusian Border

Natalia Gebert, founder and CEO of the Polish NGO for refugees, Dom Otwarty, expressed concerns regarding human rights violations in Poland. She highlighted the discriminatory treatment faced by individuals offering rides to refugees at the Belarus border compared to those at the Ukrainian border. While local citizens assisting refugees from Ukraine are hailed as heroes, those aiding refugees at the Polish-Belarusian border are labelled as smugglers and can face severe punishment, including up to eight years of imprisonment. Poland has been praised for welcoming over two million Ukrainian refugees fleeing the ongoing war. They provide them with support such as a stipend, national identification numbers for accessing healthcare and education, the right to work, and temporary housing. However, a different scenario unfolds at the Polish-Belarusian border, where refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants find themselves trapped in a forested area under the constant surveillance of border guards. They are often taken to detention centers or forcibly pushed back to Belarus. Non-Ukrainian refugees and migrants face further ostracization by politicians and state media, leaving them devoid of aid except for the assistance provided by local activists who themselves risk imprisonment. Human rights activists point out a double standard in the treatment of refugees, drawing attention to the differential treatment of Ukrainian refugees, who are predominantly Christian, female, and white, compared to those originating from the Middle East and Africa, who are primarily male and Muslim. Reports from human rights organizations shed light on unlawful and violent practices employed by Poland, including the forceful return of migrants and asylum seekers to Belarus. Upon their return, these individuals face serious abuses, such as physical assault and rape perpetrated by border guards and security forces. Amnesty International meticulously documented a multitude of instances involving arbitrary detention and mistreatment, which encompassed distressing practices such as strip searches, forced sedation, and the gradual reduction of medication dosage, affecting close to two thousand asylum seekers who made their way into Poland from Belarus in the year 2021. Asylum seekers who managed to cross the Polish-Belarusian border are subjected to detention in overcrowded and unsanitary facilities, where they endure abusive treatment and are denied contact with the outside world. In February 2022, UN experts raised concerns about threats against human rights defenders, including media workers and interpreters, at the border of Polish and Belarusian. These experts urged Poland to thoroughly investigate all allegations of harassment and ensure the safety of journalists and humanitarian workers, granting them access to the area. Instances of harassment against journalists were also reported, as armed soldiers harassed and mistreated Maciej Moskwa and Maciej Nabrdalik, journalists covering the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers. Soldiers who did not identify themselves were subjected to searches, handcuffing, and scrutiny of their equipment and phones.

By March 2022, aid organizations had reported a deepening refugee crisis at the border shared by Poland and Belarus, with migrants in a camp situated in Bruzgi, Belarus, facing forced displacement. This dire situation left the most vulnerable individuals, including families with children, those with existing illnesses, and individuals with disabilities, struggling to survive amidst the surrounding forest. In April 2022, a distressing incident unfolded involving a young man from Yemen who was forcibly pushed back to a compound established by the Polish government near the border police, located between Kuźnica and Szudziałowo. Disturbingly, the man endured physical abuse by the Belarusian police over a span of several days. He was part of a group consisting of four adults and four minors, all originating from Yemen. Video connections with medical professionals revealed the urgent need for medical attention, but their requests for help and water from the Polish border police were refused. As of now, the fate of the man remains unknown, leaving uncertainty about his survival. These accounts paint a grim picture of human rights violations occurring at the Polish-Belarusian border, necessitating immediate attention and action to address these grave concerns.


In conclusion, the ongoing refugee crisis triggered by the actions of the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, raises serious concerns regarding human rights violations and the need for immediate action in accordance with human rights principles. Lukashenko's authoritarian governing style, heavily relying on the police and Special Forces, coupled with the controversial 2020 general election, fueled tensions within Belarus. The resulting protests and opposition against the government led to widespread repression, including the unlawful detention of thousands of individuals, criminal charges against dissenters, and loss of life. These grave human rights violations were further compounded by the persecution of journalists, who faced repeated detention, physical violence, accreditation deprivation, deportation, and even the use of weapons against them. Belarus also enforced extensive censorship, suppressing freedom of expression and information. 

The situation worsened when a blogger's flight was forcibly landed in Minsk under false pretenses. In response to these actions, the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus and expressed its non-recognition of the election results, urging peaceful dialogue between the government and the opposition. However, President Lukashenko retaliated by banning the import of EU goods. Belarus has additionally been accused of facilitating the arrival of refugees at its borders and coercing them to illegally enter the European Union. These refugees, often aided by tourist agencies, have been forcibly pushed towards EU borders, leading neighbouring countries to declare states of emergency and deploy military forces. Border closures and the erection of barriers have been erected and implemented for preventive unauthorized passage. Shockingly, the Belarusian government has abandoned refugees in forests near the EU border, equipping them with wire cutters to cut through barbed wire fences. This manipulative use of refugees as pawns in a hybrid warfare strategy against the EU undermines the principles and values of the Union. Tragically, lives have been lost in perilous attempts to cross the border under harsh winter conditions. 

The European Commission has condemned Lukashenko's manipulation of migrants, labelling it an "inhuman, gangster-style approach" aimed at pressuring the EU over imposed sanctions. EU member states have resorted to employing coercive measures, including the deployment of tear gas and water cannons, as a means to repulse migrants who are endeavouring to gain access to their respective territories. It is important to note that this crisis should not apply to Ukrainian refugees, as borders remain open for them. Finding a resolution to this complex situation poses a challenge. While the EU should consider withdrawing economic sanctions to avoid further retaliation from Belarus, doing so could inadvertently support the oppressive regime. Nonetheless, it is imperative that the EU provides emergency transportation and extends necessary assistance and international protection to the refugees stranded at the Belarus-EU border. Such actions would align with human rights principles and reflect the EU's commitment to upholding the dignity and well-being of all individuals, regardless of their circumstances.


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About the Author

Shan Muhammad, MPhil, Bahauddin Zakarya University, Pakistan

Dr. Malik Hammad Lang, PhD (UK)