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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Guardian view on Belarus and migrants: exploiting the vulnerable | Editorial

It is no surprise that a man who treats his own citizens so brutally should use others ruthlessly. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has jailed opposition leaders and arrested tens of thousands for protesting against last year’s highly dubious election; many were beaten and tortured. Even in exile, his opponents fear him.

Now, in retaliation for the resulting European Union sanctions on his regime, he is “weaponising” vulnerable people. The European Commission has accused him of gangster tactics, encouraging people from the Middle East and Africa to come to Minsk in the belief it will be easy to enter the EU, and providing transport to the Polish border, where thousands now wait. Armed guards are reported to have forced many across, knowing that they will be rejected. In the words of one Syrian refugee: “We are just an instrument to put the pressure on.”

Mr Lukashenko’s actions are cynical and despicable. But they are enabled by the cynicism of others. Thousands are at the border zone, with children and the elderly among those trapped in sub-zero temperatures with no food or shelter; eight people are known to have died of exposure in recent weeks, and aid workers believe the true figure is higher. Yet Poland is treating the arrival of these desperate people not as a humanitarian crisis, but an invasion.

It has declared a state of emergency at its border, deployed thousands of troops and changed the law to allow summary expulsions, ignoring asylum requests. It plans a Trump-style wall. It has refused to allow EU observers, humanitarian workers or journalists to enter the 3km zone. While Lithuania and Latvia earlier accepted EU help in dealing with crossings from Belarus, Poland has rejected such offers. Locked in conflict over the rule of law with Brussels, Warsaw is exploiting the migrants to capitalise politically on both anti-EU and anti-migrant sentiment and has gone to revolting lengths to demonise and smear them.

The bloc as a whole has its share of responsibility. Refugees make up only 0.6% of its 445 million population, compared with 4.4% of Turkey’s 84 million population. But it has proved incapable of reaching a collective strategy as eastern countries like Poland shut the doors, wealthier northern nations claim the moral high ground while selectively taking small numbers, and arrival points in the south, such as Greece, say they cannot cope without substantial help – and turn to increasingly punitive responses. The UK, too, is increasingly hostile, with the government seeking to give Border Force staff immunity from prosecution if migrants die while they are pushing back boats. Such approaches and the accompanying rhetoric do not merely respond to political pressures; they fuel anti-migrant feeling.

In the short term, the EU may be right that putting pressure on airlines to halt the flights into Belarus, warning them they will face sanctions, may help to tackle the immediate problem. But it will not resolve the underlying issue that war and insecurity drive people from their homes, and more will be forced out in future. A fairer and more humane response across the continent is possible. Current events are further proof that it is essential.


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