World

Fears grow of new crisis as refugees in Belarus driven into Ukraine | Migration

Belarusian armed forces are pushing asylum seekers from the Middle East who became trapped in the country after they were promised passage to the EU to cross the border into war-torn Ukraine, according to the testimony of people in Belarusian camps.

Dozens of asylum seekers stuck for months in a makeshift dormitory in Bruzgi, a village in Belarus less than a mile from the Polish border, were ordered by a group of Belarusian soldiers on 5 March to leave the building at gunpoint and given two options: crossing the border into Poland, where guards have beaten them back, or entering Ukraine, one of them said.

“A group of seven border guard officers that we had never seen before entered the building,” said a man who arrived in Belarus last autumn, and whose name and nationality cannot be disclosed for security reasons.

“They wore military clothes and, for the first time, they entered the camp holding weapons, beating us and telling us that we had two choices – either crossing into Poland or going to Ukraine.”

The EU last autumn accused Belarus’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, of deliberately provoking a refugee crisis on its eastern frontier by organising the movement of people from the Middle East to Minsk and promising them a safe passage to the bloc. The move was seen as reprisal for sanctions that Brussels imposed on his regime after his crackdown on civil society and political opponents.

Belarusian authorities in November escorted thousands of people to the Polish frontier in an escalation of the crisis. Witnesses told the Guardian how Belarusian troops had gathered groups of up to 50 people and cut the barbed wire with shears to allow them to cross.

Hundreds managed to evade the Polish police by hiding in the forests, but others were caught and violently pushed back to Belarus. As temperatures plummeted, Belarusian authorities began to move those who were unable to cross the frontier into Poland to a giant customs warehouse, turned into a dormitory, in Bruzgi.

Freezing to death: the migrants left to die on the Poland-Belarus border – video
Freezing to death: the migrants left to die on the Poland-Belarus border – video

More than a thousand of them have spent almost four months there, crammed between industrial shelving units, where people built makeshift cots using wooden planks and cardboard boxes. Ten days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which is backed by Belarus, the orders were given to empty the camp.

The man explained that that day, Belarusian soldiers began to inspect “every inch of the camp”, entering each tent and gathering people in order to communicate the new directives. “Everyone was wondering what our future would be,” he said. “We are peaceful people. There are families with children. What do these armed men want from us?”

At that point, the military group reported that they had received the order to clear the dormitory. “They made us sit on the ground,” explained the man, “and the officer again asked people if they wanted to go to Poland or Ukraine. Poland or Ukraine. This is the new way of smuggling people for the Belarusians.”

Despite the arrival of more than a million Ukrainians displaced in Poland, refugee-focused charities in the country haven’t stopped supporting people who crossed the Polish-Belarusian border. Anna Alboth, of Minority Rights Group, and one of the co-founders of Grupa Granica, a Polish network of NGOs monitoring the situation on the border, said they had noticed an increase in asylum seekers crossing from Belarus to Poland lately, corroborating the testimonies of migrants being ordered to leave the camp in Belarus.

“The Polish border guards are still pushing them back to Belarus every day,” she said. “Even yesterday, we were in contact with a Syrian family of 10, including a few kids. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to help them with food and clothes, because they were already pushed back to Belarus.”

Charities fear that asylum seekers will be again used as weapons, opening a new crisis on the Polish north-eastern border that risks causing unprecedented political and logistical chaos in a country struggling to deal the mass migration of Ukranians fleeing the war.

“What if Belarusians this time will push them not to Lithuania or Poland, but to … Ukraine?” Alboth said. “Belarusians don’t care about the lives of those people, this we know since last August already. Belarusians were provoking the refugees on the border already in autumn, recording hateful videos to spread anti-migration propaganda in Poland and in Europe. Those were videos that put in very bad light all the migrants and representatives of different minorities on the Belarusian side. What if they were keeping them in Bruzgi since November, because they knew that they could use them?”

Lukashenko has become closer to Putin in recent months and Russian troops were stationed on the Belarus-Ukraine border before last month’s invasion. In a recent interview with the Guardian, the exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she believes, after the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, Lukashenko has in effect ceded control of his country to the Kremlin.

“We are trying to persuade Belarusian troops not to participate,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “We are communicating with mothers of soldiers, trying to persuade them not to let their children go to this war.”

Some of the migrants who were asked to go to Ukraine initially feared that Belarusian soldiers wanted to offer them a chance to fight alongside the Russians – an offer that the wife of an asylum seeker trapped in Bruzgi said they would have all refused.

Putin gave the green light for what he claimed would be up to 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East deployed alongside Russian-backed rebels fighting in Ukraine, as the two-week-old invasion struggled to maintain momentum.

Syria’s military has begun recruiting troops from its own ranks to fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine, promising payments of $3,000 a month – up to 50 times a Syrian soldier’s monthly salary.

Related Articles

Back to top button