The Belarus Migrant Crisis Shows the Hollowness of European Humanitarianism

European authorities accuse Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko of mounting “hybrid warfare” by letting thousands of migrants amass at the Polish border. But Poland’s nationalist government is also using the crisis to crack down on migrants — with the EU’s blessing.

Migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region of Belarus. (Leonid Shcheglov / BELTA / AFP via Getty Images)

The grim situation on the on Polish-Belarusian border, where thousands of migrants are attempting to cross into the EU, threatens to spiral into a much more serious geopolitical crisis. Warsaw and Brussels accuse Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko of waging a “hybrid war” against Poland and Europe by encouraging asylum seekers from the Middle East, whose ultimate destination is Germany, to pass through Belarus. They allege that the Kremlin is tacitly backing the operation, in a bid to destabilize Vladimir Putin’s European foes.

In the meantime, a serious humanitarian tragedy is unfolding, as encampments of migrants needing food, shelter, and medical attention are stranded in the freezing borderland forests. The situation has become so desperate that migrants have tried to storm the border unarmed — only to be repelled by Polish border guards. In total there have been thirty-three thousand recorded attempts to cross the border: one solidarity activist compared the back and forth to a soccer game. On Friday, a Syrian man was found dead near the village of Wólka Terechowska, the ninth dead since this crisis began.

Even if the EU’s accusations are true about Belarus’s plans, “hybrid war” is an inappropriate term for what Lukashenko is doing. He is attempting to extract a deal from the EU, where Belarus will be paid — like Turkey — to keep migrants out of Europe. In particular, his aim is to get Brussels to lift sanctions imposed after his repression of protests last summer. He can also look to the example of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom the EU has granted €6 billion euros in aid since 2016 to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey. Erdoğan has himself has threatened to open the border when he feels the Europeans aren’t coddling him enough. This is not war, but business — the act of a smart opportunist with good commercial sense.

Europe denounces Lukashenko’s schemes for using migrants as pawns. Yet, its own addiction to a repressive border regime is what ultimately allows such a situation to occur. Lukashenko is well aware of the racism of an EU that loves to flaunt its humanitarianism, and of Brussels’s inability to dismantle “Fortress Europe.” As a result, under Lukashenko’s pressure the EU suffers daily embarrassment at its purported “values” being so openly contradicted.

Poland’s Anti-Migrant Line

Across the border in Poland, the government in Warsaw has exploited the border crisis to boost its “patriotic” credentials. It invokes the “hybrid war” thesis to justify its hard line on preventing migrants from crossing — but also to build up a wider nationalist posture.

The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has always seen itself as the only force which could ensure the orderliness of post-1989 capitalist Poland — even if the means deployed to this end often intensify social antagonisms, as evident in the backlash against its anti-abortion policies. PiS’s hard-line response to the crisis is a result of its determination to make a great show out of the preservation of “order,” even when the single-mindedness with which it pursues its actions contributes to an even greater crisis.

Today, Poland’s answer to the huddled masses on its border has been to repel them. The state is not even using its own established asylum system. Instead, it started building a wall on its border and sent thirteen thousand border guards and soldiers to “protect” Poland’s frontier. Tear gas and water cannons have been used to push back refugees. A state of emergency has been in place since September 2, making it nearly impossible for journalists, human rights monitors, and aid workers to reach the border.

Now, the Polish government is talking about holding joint consultations with its NATO partners under the alliance’s Article 4, which can only be invoked if “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” This means further militarizing the situation.

For the Polish government, humanitarian crisis and geopolitical escalation is the price they are willing to pay for nationalist excitation. In reference to the crisis, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the Polish border not merely a line on the map but “something sacred, for which generations of Poles shed their blood.” On November 11, Polish independence day, both Law and Justice’s chairman Jarosław Kaczyński and Polish president Andrzej Duda used the occasion to declare that the fatherland was in danger and must be defended.

PiS is using the situation to boost its legitimacy as the elite of the Polish nation. Indeed, it needed such an opportunity. In recent weeks, the government has faced discontent over its conflict with Brussels, with which it is in deadlock over billions of euros of post-COVID recovery funds. The money is currently being denied to Poland because of PiS’s assertion of control over the court system. Under this pressure, fear of an outright break with the EU — unpopular in Poland, a net beneficiary of funding from the bloc — was giving steam to the opposition. Now, hysteria over a Belarusian “hybrid war” has strengthened the ruling party’s hand.

The beefing up of the border guard on the Belarusian border, the mobilization of the army, and the bombastic rhetoric of Duda, Kaczynski, and Morawiecki has now been given a seal of approval by the EU. European liberals and Polish nationalists, formerly at odds, have been brought together by a combination of self-interest and self-delusion. Europe’s pathological fear of migrants complements the Polish government’s patriotic self-indulgence — all evident to cunning Lukashenko, clear-eyed enough to see their failings, and exploit them.