‘They wanted me to fight, and I knew I had toleave, or die.’ My translator, a former English teacher from Syria, wasexplaining how, after the army knocked on his door one day, he had fled thecountry and moved more than 2,000 miles to Liverpool. This was 2018, the bloodycivil war was raging.
Everyone we met in the north west – an old couple, a young family,single men – had said the same thing. As soon as it was safe, they just wantedto go home. Now, three years on, thousands of their countrymen are in a farmore precarious situation, sleeping rough in tents and makeshift shelters onthe Belarusian border, as temperatures plummet to below freezing at night.
Earlier this week, Polish police officers andsoldiers deployed flash-bang grenades, riot shields and fired water cannons atthe crowds as they tried to breach the barbed wire fence. The groups, whichinclude women and children, are part of a far larger battle being foughtbetween Belarus and the EU.
Brussels accuses the Eastern European nation oflaying on flights from war-torn places like Syria and Iraq, encouragingdesperate people to try their luck with a new route to the continent. Some wereundoubtedly displaced by conflict, but many will have just jumped at theopportunity to start a new life. Once in the country,they stock up on tinned goods, buy SIM cards and tents, and jump in taxis orbuses to the border.
However that, for many, is where the journey hasended. Neighbouring Poland and Lithuania have announced the construction ofvast frontier walls, fortified and kitted out with surveillance equipment, inan effort to control a sharp spike in illegal crossings. Warsaw has even nowcalled in British engineers to help reinforce the barricades.
Videos from the area appear to show Belarusiantroops forcing would-be migrants to assault the barbed wire fences, handingout bolt cutters and allegedly deploying plain clothes officers to helpdismantle the defences. Squads of riot police have prevented the groups fromreaching border points where Poland claims it is ready to accept asylumapplications, forcing them back towards the fences.
The worsening crisis, EU leaders say, is part ofa ‘hybrid war’ being waged by Belarus’ long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko inretribution for sanctions imposed on his country. Brussels unveiled a packageof measures against his government and national industries in the wake of lastsummer’s presidential elections, which it says was clearly rigged in hisfavour. Since the election, security forces – or ‘siloviki’ – have embarkedon a brutal crackdown on the opposition, arresting activists and violentlybreaking up the protests that saw tens of thousands take to the streets todemand a fresh vote.
Lukashenko, for his part, has said the countryis now unable to finance its border force because of the sanctions. One idea, mooted by Russia and quickly branded asextortion, was that the bloc could consider a repeat of what it did when largenumbers of refugees were making their way up from Turkey: paying the countryto make them stay put.
After 2015, when more than a million peopleturned up in Europe to request asylum, Brussels agreed a deal to provide billions of euros to Ankara after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedlythreatened that he could open the gates to countries like Greece and Bulgaria.In exchange for the cash, Turkey would host the (mostly Syrian) refugees,building houses and providing education and welfare programs.
Pitched as a humane option that would keepmember states happy, activists slammed it as a way to make asylumseekers someone else’s problem, leaving them to an uncertain fate. More extrememeasures, such as Hungary’s decision to build a lengthy border wall on itssouthern flank to keep out migrants, were widely panned within the EU asxenophobic. In a belligerent press conference, the bloc’s leading light, GermanChancellor Angela Merkel, said that despite the challenges of taking inhundreds of thousands of people from war-torn nations, ‘we can do this’.
It appears she was wrong. The policy, which many people in Germany now oppose, has been quietly dropped, with theEU hardening its heart towards refugees. While once its leaders slammedHungary’s Viktor Orban for building barricades, it is now quietly accepting moves to turn backgroups at its border.
Lukashenko’s ‘weaponisation’ of migrants, asBrussels sees it, appears to be working precisely because Europe sees themas a threat. While in reality, resettling a few thousand people across thecontinent would be no great challenge, anti-immigration sentiment is creepingup in almost every corner of the continent, and some in Brussels still draws clearlinks between the 2015 migrant crisis and the UK’s vote to leave the EU just ayear later.
In France, president Emmanuel Macron ispreparing to face off against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in an electionjust months away. Immigration has been a consistently hot-button issue. And changing attitudes to migration areshaping politics in other major EU nations like Italy, Spain and Greece. The pendulum has swung back the other way, and the countries of Europe now stand resolutely behind hard borders and controls on migration. Those sleepingin the chilly forests on the border with Poland could hardly have picked aworse time to try their luck. Some may not get a chance to go home.
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