Middle Eastern refugees are blocked from crossing the Belarus-Poland border in 2021. Photo: Al Jazeera / Screengrab

Along the border between Poland and Belarus, a low-intensity battle between the two countries is underway. Desperate migrants from the Middle East are caught in the crossfire.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is arranging with travel agencies to fly Iraqi and Afghan migrants to Belarus, and then having his police and soldiers escort them to the Polish frontier to herd them into the European Union.

His action is meant not as a humane gesture but rather as retaliation for EU sanctions imposed on Belarus over human rights abuses.

Poland, along with similarly impacted Lithuania, responded by forcing migrants back into Belarus and constructing barbed wire barriers, which are soon to be followed by permanent fencing.

The would-be refugees paid thousands of dollars to get into Europe but are arriving only within sight of it. In limbo, they are encamped in forests and fields awaiting their fate in the cold eastern European autumn.

About 2,000 are estimated to be huddled near the Polish border; four have already frozen to death.

The EU is backing Warsaw and considering whether to add more economic sanctions on Minsk. Even nominally migrant-friendly Germany is willing to send police to patrol the Polish frontier.

Officials are calling Lukashenko’s stratagem a form of hybrid warfare, normally defined as a mixture of military aggression with lower-key tools like cyber-warfare and disinformation to harass an enemy.

It’s hard to think of a time when a flow of migrants in flight from war, repression or poverty has been created as a weapon in an otherwise unrelated political conflict.

Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko in a file photo. Photo: AFP via Sputnik / Maksim Gucheck / BelTA

Governments have not uncommonly fomented refugee floods in order to cleanse territories of civilians perceived as enemy sympathizers or agents: Israel drove out Palestinians; Serbia tried to remove Albanians from Kosovo; government forces have driven Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Sometimes, governments displace populations in their own countries as sectarian purges. Stalin moved several minorities deep into Siberia; Turkey and Greece exchanged Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations into still-separate separate territories within Cyprus; Germany’s Nazis tried to eradicate the country’s entire Jewish population, along with Jews throughout the European lands it conquered.

In the Belarusian case, it is about harassing neighboring countries. Lukashenko wants to blackmail Europe into lifting sanctions and let him get on with political oppression in peace.

From 2020 into 2021, thousands of Belarusians protested an apparently fraudulent presidential election. Lukashenko detained thousands and kept about 500 in jail.  Scores of pro-democracy activists fled into exile – welcome in adjoining Poland and Lithuania.

Expanded sanctions came into play last year when Lukashenko ordered his air force to divert a commercial flight from its path to Lithuania and land in Minsk. Police arrested a pro-democracy journalist and his girlfriend.

Lukashenko further retaliated by ferrying migrants from the Middle East to Minsk.

The gambit incited Poland’s fierce opposition to Middle East immigration and coolness even to refugees from Afghanistan, which is once again under the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban movement.

Moreover, since Germany’s one-off welcome to a million aspiring refugees in 2015, nationalist parties across Europe gained political traction through opposition to migration. Even countries that frequently espouse “solidarity” – France and Germany – are fearful of a big wave of migrants from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Afghan refugees gathered at the Iran-Afghanistan border between Afghanistan and the southeastern Iranian Sistan and Baluchestan province, as they try to enter the Islamic republic following the takeover of their country by the Taliban. Photo: AFP via Iranian Red Crescent / Mohammad Javadzadeh

“Poland defended itself against the wave of refugees in 2015 and it will also defend itself now,” said Piotr Gliński, deputy prime minister and minister of culture. “We will act responsibly. We will defend Poland.”

Besides putting the EU in a bind, the conflict created a quandary for pro-refugee activists. They know Lukashenko is only using the issue to win repressive free rein at home. Nonetheless, they want Poland not to push refugees into Belarus but to let them gain entrance and access EU rules for gaining political asylum.

“The pushbacks that are happening are illegal not only in the international but also EU law,” Marta Gorczynska, a Polish lawyer and refugee advocate, told Foreign Policy magazine. That, she said, means that the EU “should condemn Poland for what it’s doing at its external borders.”

Europe seems to be in no mood to liberalize refugee policy. The Belarus border stand-off is happening amid a new wave of refugee movements. The EU is trying to interdict boats ferrying migrants from North Africa to Italy while individual countries are building barriers to curb migration by land from the east.

And Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki raised the geopolitical stakes by blaming Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – whose country is also subject to EU sanctions, over its 2014 invasion of Ukraine: “This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow; the mastermind is President Putin,”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) has repeatedly provided a lifeline to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Photo: AFP / Mikhail Klimentyev

But what to do about it? Lukashenko and Putin have proved resistant to sanctions. And tensions with Russia seem destined to increase.

Putin complained a week ago both about talk of Ukraine and Georgia both joining NATO, and also about US military aid to Kyiv. He has once again moved tank and artillery units near the Ukraine border, as he did last summer, raising fears of another invasion.

Wednesday, in a muscularly showy display of support for Lukashenko Putin, sent two strategic bombers to fly the skies over Belarus.

In that context, Lukashenko’s maneuvers, while cruel and irritating, are but a piece of a larger, unstable eastern Europe mosaic.

Daniel Williams is a career foreign correspondent, currently based in Rome.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.