Amongst supporters and detractors of Lukashenko alike, the tone in the Belarusian news was far from sympathetic towards the migrants, writes Maryia Ditchkowska in this op-ed for commonspace.eu.
Belarus returned to the news headlines for all the wrong reasons, as the ongoing crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland reached a new peak since its onset in June. Over the past months, thousands of people – whom the border force labelled as tourists upon initial entry – flew to Belarus in hope of illegally crossing the EU’s Eastern border. The majority of them are reportedly coming from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan; however, even Mali nationals are said to have been spotted in the area. Many were forced to gather all of their funds and sell their property to afford the estimated €12000-15000 for the trip.
Locals observe that after their arrival through Minsk International, migrants would wait in the capital for a few days as government officials organised them into groups, before transporting them to the external border of the EU. While waiting, the migrants were typically spotted spending time in the city centre of Minsk. Galleria, one of the most popular shopping malls of the capital, became the hotspot for the migrants, which also caused a considerable amount of anxiety, fear and discontent among the locals. These feelings were not helped by the setting up of spontaneous camps around the city, such as at the entrance to the metro, which is unthinkable in a country with no visible homelessness.
Once they left the capital, however, the conditions were likely to be dire, with no stable source of food, water and shelter, let alone serious medical help or guarantee for personal safety. Lukashenko’s forces are also unlikely to show any mercy. Some sources reported them pushing the people towards the border, directing their movements around the fence and the neutral zone, blocking the way back to Belarus. This essentially cut off any escape routes, subjecting those stranded in the neutral territory to inhumane conditions, progressively colder weather, and survival under extreme circumstances. At least ten have been reported dead so far. The coverage of the events on the border was patchy at best, relying on information posted by migrants on 'Telegram’ chats and official coverage by the Belarusian and Polish border guards. Nonetheless, the issue dominated the Belarusian news cycle as much as it did in the West.
Amongst supporters and detractors of Lukashenko alike, the tone in the Belarusian news was far from sympathetic towards the migrants. Living under constant repression from the government since August 2020, many of the Belarusians are in short supply of sympathy for those involved. Multiple factors are likely at play here, from the exhaustion of government oppression in the past year and the general fear of the foreign-looking individuals, to seeing them as complicit with the Belarusian government’s plans to worsen the situation in the region and relations with its close neighbours. Some go as far as complaining about the visible deforestation of the area, with many trees becoming storm weapons or fuel for the migrants’ fires.
There are strong sociological and political reasons for the antagonisation of migrants in Belarus. Remaining a largely homogenous country with a predominantly Slavic population, foreign-looking people are a rare sight. Whilst no recent formal public opinion survey has been conducted in Belarus, one was during the EU migrant crisis in 2015/2016. The results indicated not only the policy preference of not letting the migrants into the EU, but a general hesitancy and lack of desire for a closer mixing of foreigners and locals. Interestingly, here as well, the indicators were consistent between both the Lukashenko and opposition supporters.
The political context of the crisis is also not doing the migrants any favours among Belarusians. Migrants are largely seen as pawns in Lukashenko’s game of antagonising the West. While their intentions are unlikely to have much to do with the self-proclaimed Belarusian president, they are seen as playing into his game, and by extension, acting as his agents. Two factors are also contributing to such a narrative: on the one hand, the complicity of the Belarusian border guards, such as providing wire cutters, axes and other siege equipment, not only for the migrants’ survival in the neutral territory but also for use on the barbed wire and Polish border guards. On the other hand, targeting Poland is not a popular policy choice. Whilst the sentiments with regards to migrants might be consistent across the political spectrum, the actions of the Polish border guards are seen differently by Lukashenko’s supporters and those opposing him. This Western neighbour is seen not only as a close ally of civil society by many Belarusians, but also as a cultural and religious centre. Some analysts went as far as suggesting that the choice of Poland as the target was primarily motivated by Lukashenko’s personal dislike for the country and the desire to play into centuries-long anti-Polish narratives in Russia.
Naturally, the compassionless view of the migrants is not shared by everyone, with sympathies being shown by some. Due to the ever colder weather, many are in the dire need of not only food but also warmer clothing. With that in mind, some Belarusians tried to bring supplies to those migrants still in Minsk, which was met with gratitude from those unprepared for Eastern European weather conditions. Food, as well as warm clothing and acceptance from the locals, might make their stay in Belarus slightly more bearable. Most likely, those instances of compassion towards migrants that were stranded in a foreign country under fairly severe conditions are not isolated. However, public opinion seems not to be on the side of the migrants, who are assumed to have known what they signed up for before coming to Europe. The most vocal propose that people instead direct their help and sympathy to those suffering domestically, such as political prisoners, the number of which is rising each day. With hope for a better and more democratic future for Belarus waning, attention and compassion remain in short supply for outsiders.
In recent days, there were some indicators that the crisis is shifting from the status quo, in light of Merkel’s call with Lukashenko, the statements of Putin regarding the dialogue, as well as the banning of certain nationals from boarding flights to Belarus. Nonetheless, the crisis is likely to be far from resolution, not least with thousands remaining stranded in Belarus. Currently, the migrants are not considered refugees either — as they entered Belarus on a visa, and Belarus is considered a safe country in which they can apply for refugee status. However, bearing in mind the general public opinion and already reported cases of beatings by the Belarusian border authorities, their future remains largely unclear.