Poland-Belarus Migration Crisis: A Dictator’s Revenge Politics

, by Riya Peter, Yash Arya

Poland-Belarus Migration Crisis: A Dictator's Revenge Politics
source: pixabay

Globally, the most vulnerable groups of the 21st century are refugees and immigrants. People flee from their homelands to escape from the economic and political instability. But unfortunately, these people often get strangled at the hands of nations’ power politics. This article focuses on how the country’s President victimized thousands of desperate refugees and migrants from Middle East nations to protect his rule and authoritarian legacy. Then why was this crisis made into global headlines? All credit goes to Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s infamous autocratic ruler.

The influx of refugees and migrants is not a new sight for Europe. The continent has seen mass migration and refugee influx for the past few years, particularly since 2015. According to UNHCR, most of the 2015 refugees were from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea, fleeing war and persecution.

However, the Poland-Belarus migration crisis has a different background. This cross-border exodus comprises both migrants and refugees. Although the number of migrants is not millions like before but only thousands, the majority being economic migrants. Regardless, this results in the deprivation of universally assured rights of the refugees being transcended to prevent large-scale immigration crises. Therefore, it becomes essential to understand the difference between a migrant and a refugee.

A refugee is defined under Article 1(A)(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention. As an individual outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and is unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality- due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

A refugee is entitled to various rights, including the right to seek asylum and adherence to the principle of Non-refoulement by other nations. This puts positive obligations on signatory countries to provide for asylum and prevent any forceful deportation of returning back of refugees.

On the other hand, there is no universal or legal definition of a migrant. Thus, a migrant is a person who moves away from their place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, for various reasons. These reasons can be economic, political, better education, livelihood, etc.

Although migrant workers and immigrants do not come under the larger ambit of specific treaties like the 1951 refugee convention. Nevertheless, they are entitled to protection under the broader framework of human rights treaties in the international regime.

However, here comes the twist, since general human rights principles don’t create binding obligations unless signed as a treaty or turned into customary international law. This allows issues concerning migration to be governed by local policies of the government.

This was the reason for the ensuing skirmish between the courts of the EU and Poland as to whose mandate will be enforced when it comes to the protection of the human rights framework.


The geographic position of Belarus has played a significant role in persuading people who hopes to reach Europe for a better life. People escaping from the economic or politically unstable homelands usually opts for the most dangerous Mediterranean route to enter Europe. If we see through the eyes of these desperately struggling immigrants, they might have thought the Belarus route is safe than the others.

Belarus, a post-Soviet state, still not a member of the European Union, is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe. It shares borders with three EU nations, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The Belarusian-Polish border is 418 km long. Thus, Belarus can be a bridge to get into the heartland of Europe through Poland.


In a 2012 interview given to Reuters, Alexander Lukashenko attributed himself “Europe’s last dictator”. He was the first and only President of the nation after it disintegrated from USSR. Assuming office in 1994, the Belarusian President recently garnered international attention for rigging the 2020 presidential election of Belarus.

He claimed victory before the voting ended and was later declared the winner with a vote share of 80.23%. The result was improbable. Even his only opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said that the results “completely contradict common sense”. Lukashenko rules with iron fists. He suppresses all kinds of oppositions and criticisms. The protesters who questioned his victory were severely injured and arrested by the police forces.


The state-sponsored violence and election fraud were unacceptable to the democracies of the West. Therefore, they refused to recognize the election results. Moreover, as a retaliation, the EU, UK, USA, Canada and Switzerland imposed sanctions on Belarus, including freezing Lukashenko’s assets.

Unfortunately, the story does not end here. In May 2021, through a state-sponsored hijacking of a Ryanair flight, Belarus forces arrested Roman Protasevich, an anti-Lukashenko journalist, for organizing the protests. The EU reacted to this outrageous action with more severe sanctions. Belarusian flights were banned from European skies.

If we focus on the chronological order of the border crisis. The why and how of the previous question starts here. The Belarus dictator’s reaction to the economic blockade was that he would “flood Europe with migrants and drugs.”


The people from Middle Eastern nations who wished to reach Europe turned out to be the pawns of Lukashenko’s vengeance to the EU. So he made a safer Belarus route to the EU. Belarus government started to give tourist visas to thousands from the Middle East, mainly to the Iraqi Kurdish people. In the summer of 2021, Belavia, the state-owned airline of Belarus, increased their flights to more than twice that in 2020.

Flights mainly came from Istanbul, Damascus and Dubai. The Belarusian guards helped these migrants to reach the border of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. With the rise of an unpredicted migrant crossing, these three EU members declared a state of emergency. Nevertheless, with desperation to cross, thousands of them ended up at the Polish border. The situation got escalated here.

Poland is ruled by the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS). They have a firm anti-immigration policy. The Polish government inhumanly treated the migrants who tried to reach the nation. Around 20,000 Polish troops at the border tried to push the migrants back. They even used tear gas and water cannons. Nearly 4000 migrants got trapped here as the Belarusian forces prevented them from going back to Minsk. They became more vulnerable when the temperature dropped to minus degrees. In light of this, it is crystal clear that the Belarusian President has deliberately manufactured a catastrophic humanitarian crisis at the border to reciprocate the four-round sanctions against Belarus by the EU.


Looking at the broader picture, neither the EU nor Poland come out good. The only group that suffered the consequences of these cat and mouse games were the thousands who got stranded at the border. The EU always considered migrants from the Middle East a threat to their national security. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called this “a hybrid attack to destabilize Europe”. So, the Union greatly supported Poland’s policy not to allow the entrance of any of the migrants. Imagine people living in makeshift tents in freezing weather with limited access to food and water with the hope of creating a stable life in Europe. At the same time, Poland denied fundamental rights to these vulnerable people. The NGOs s and humanitarian actors, including officials from UNHCR, were denied entry to the zone. The extreme weather and the deadlock between the EU and Belarus were fatal to some migrants.


The EU has hardly learned much from the past migration crises. For example, during the discussions to mitigate the situation at the Belarus-Polis border, officials have hinted at returning the migrants to their home countries and acting against Belarus’s so-called human trafficking. However, they hardly mention the right to asylum for these people. To illustrate, the Polish Government did not adhere to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union that prohibited collective expulsions (Article 19).

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