Migrants walking from the Polish border to a warehouse shelter on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Bruzgi, Belarus. Image Credit: NYT

Who would be so callous as to play a treacherous chess game where migrants are used as human pawns?

The game is played out thus. Belarus wants to punish the European Union (EU) for having imposed sanctions on it, so it saddles Poland, an EU member state, with a major migrant problem at its doorstep. Thousands of migrants, reportedly between 10,000 and 20,000, from the Middle East who are in Minsk, the nation’s capital — are being pushed into Poland. From there, they are told, they could apply for asylum in any one of the countries in western Europe.

The cruelty of this is there for all to see. EU member states are adamantly united in their opposition to absorbing any more refugees and that, were these folks to come knocking, they would be forced back.

“Some migrants say Belarusian forces beat them if they fail to cross into Poland, turning them back toward the border and refusing them food or water”, wrote Washington Post correspondent Loveday Morris in a news report filed on Sunday from the town of Sokolka, on the Polish border. “They also accuse Polish guards of harsh treatment, including smashing their phones before sending them back to Belarus”. Loveday tells of how these migrants go on being bounced back and forth between the two borders during the day and at night go on to. sleep in the forest, where temperatures are known to drop below freezing

Other reporters have described equally surreal scenes. In the lead sentence to his own news report in The Guardian, Andrew Roth wrote: “Gunshots echo through the forest as Belarusian soldiers fire warning shots to drive back terrified asylum seekers from Iraq and Syria seeking aid”. He goes on to describe gut-wrenching conditions in the encampments in the forests where these folks — most of whom, it would appear, ethnic Kurds — chop branches for firewood to keep warm in the freezing cold.

The affluent north wants nothing to do with refugees from the impoverished south seeking a sheltering refuge in their countries, and they would go to any extreme to circumvent, in this instant, their obligations under international law, which requires countries around the world to process appeals for asylum by all those who arrive at their borders.

The law, ironically, was promoted by Europe and enacted in the wake of the Second World War, when Europeans, in the millions, themselves became refugees, then known as “Displaced Persons”, whose needs had to be attended to, partly for humanitarian reasons but mostly because a resolution of their problem was seen as a necessary function of European, indeed global stability.

But that was then. Today, this affluent north has constantly searched for a way to go around that law.

The US has found that way. Here’s a case in point. In 1991 Washington discovered a loophole in the law. To prevent Haitian refugee boats that year from reaching Florida, for example, which would’ve obligated the US to process all the asylum seekers on-board, it sent Coast Guard vessels to divert them elsewhere. Since then not only have states in Europe adopted the policy, but outdid Washington in its pursuit. They have given billions of euros to countries in the European periphery (five billion to Libya alone in 2007) to keep refugees from getting close to their borders and even, ominously, made the journey more dangerous for would be asylum seekers by restricting the activities of aid groups and curtailing search-and-rescue missions on the high seas, including the closure of ports to emergency rescue vessels.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday and decided to impose a new round of sanctions on Belarus for its “instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes.”

The decision is, shall we say, cold comfort to those thousands of asylum seekers huddled in the freezing cold in makeshift camps on the Belarusian-Polish border.

After the migration crisis of 2015 in Europe, which generated a nativist backlash there after well over a million asylum seekers were admitted there, the gates to the borders of EU countries are now tightly shut.

It is not likely that these folks stranded on the border between two countries whose geopolitical disputes they know little of, have a way out of, around or through their problem — other than repatriation. Those many among them, who had put up their homes for collateral in order to to pay for their ill-conceived journey, will now return home to find themselves homeless.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile