The Chess Game and the Fate of the Pawns: The Belarusian Border Crisis

By Yuvraj Singh Walia

Almost seven months ago, in late 2021, the world witnessed the start of a horrifying border crisis of grave human rights violations between Belarus and the European Union. The crisis, still ongoing, has taken a devastating form wherein humans are being used as weapons to further vested interests, and cause turmoil and disruption. This dismal state of affairs needs immediate attention and a quick recourse towards its end. While the respective governments are involved in leveling accusations and impugning their rival’s interests, there are thousands of people that are left stranded to shiver to death. What started this calamity and what course it may further take, is what we shall delve into below.

This crisis was the result of severe deterioration of the diplomatic relations between Belarus and the European Union. The first cracks can be traced back to the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, the verdict of which was highly regarded as rigged and marred with fraud. The controversial sixth win of President Alexander Lukashenko gave rise to widespread protests and resentment from the citizens. This did not sit right with the highly democratic European Union, the members of which fare quite high in the Democracy Index ratings, and as a result sanctions were imposed on several Belarusian officials deemed to be responsible for violence, repression and election fraud.

Another major blow to the already fragile diplomatic relations emerged during the Ryanair Flight incident. Ryanair Flight 4978 was a conventional international passenger flight traveling from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania. Whilst in Belarusian airspace, the flight was intercepted and was forced, upon an alleged bomb scare, to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. During this, the opposition activist and dissident Roman Protasevich was arrested by the authorities alongside his girlfriend- a move which was internationally condemned, especially so by the EU which clapped back with another round of sanctions.

The last straw, bringing the antagonism between the two blocs to an all-time high, emerged with the unsuccessful forced repatriation of sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya by Belarusian authorities for putting out a video on social media that was critical of her coaches. She was ultimately offered a humanitarian visa by Poland, thus further straining the diplomatic ties between the two blocs.

The repeated round of harsh sanctions by the EU prompted Europe’s last dictator, President Alexander Lukashenko, to step right into the centerfold of this ordeal by threatening to flood the European Union with human traffickers, drug smugglers, and armed migrants. Having lured the migrants- that mainly hail from the Middle East- with the promise of an easy crossing into the EU, Belarus went ahead with its ultimatum. Upon arrival, the migrants are not allowed to retreat, but stay at the border and try to enter the neighboring countries within the EU even when these countries have barricaded their respective borders whilst being well aware of the squalid conditions under which the migrants are surviving. The EU has gone as far as repatriating these people to Iraq and Syria under unknown conditions. Gross human rights violations are taking place because of the neglect of these migrants by both conflicting sides.

In doing so, the EU has quite brazenly violated its own legal code which prohibits collective expulsions. Article 19 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, for instance, advocates for the protection of people in the event of removal, expulsion or extradition. Furthermore, Article 4(4) of the Return Directive sets out minimum rights that are also to be applied to persons apprehended or intercepted in connection with irregular border crossing.

The United Nations, taking stock of the incident, has called for an immediate end to the ‘appalling’ border crisis, and at the same time, it has criticized forceful expulsions and the blocking of access to the border for UN human rights team. Investigations made by the human rights team point to the dire conditions with limited access to food, clean water and shelter, and lack of medical aid, amid freezing temperatures. Many migrant refugees have accused the authorities of having beaten them brutally while extorting huge sums for food and water. Besides this, there have been several reports of smuggling of cigarettes and drugs.

Whilst the countries sharing borders with Belarus have their walls raised and their military armed with tear gas, it is the migrants that find themselves stuck in this chess game which ostensibly looks as if it were a trap laid down by the Belarusian authorities with no way out. While EU policies and restricted access for organizations to offer support to migrants continue, thousands are at risk of dying.

Lately, however, there have been signs of easing of tensions between the two conflicting sides. Efforts to resolve this compelling issue are being made by both parties as a way of talks taking place at the diplomatic level. In the meantime, Belarus has accepted the demand to shift the migrants and provide them with temporary shelter in the warehouses situated near the border areas. Reciprocating this positive move, the EU has also been working to make anyone denied of asylum subject to a simplified deportation process. 

The crisis is still far from over. People escaping from the war-torn Middle East have been failed by International Law which dictates that anyone has the right to seek asylum. Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted in 1948, guarantees the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries. In this respect, international law has miserably failed to uphold itself as being just. Furthermore, countries such as Poland have been criticized for not offering asylum seekers the right to make a claim in their country. Human rights activists and international organizations have accused Poland of illegally pushing migrants who make it over the border back into Belarus. As you go on reading this blog, chances are that someone has lost their lives in the midst of this unfurling chaos. It is time that the law did its part and prevented the loss of any more innocent lives.

Yuvraj is a law student at Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla.

Featured Image source: BBC

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