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Humanitarian Catastrophe On Belarus-Polish Border Is Not A ‘Migrant Crisis’ – OpEd

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By Jonathan Power*

It’s always sad to see migrants up against it, whether it be the deadly waves of the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas, the slow churning processes of the US/Mexican border and, in the case now in the news, of 4,000 or so mainly Kurdish migrants trapped on the Polish/Belarus border.

The migrants are facing Polish soldiers on one side of the barbed wired fence the Poles have built along the border. Behind them, guarding the route the migrants took from Minsk airport, Belarusian soldiers are making sure they don’t give up and try and return home or even look for jobs in Minsk.

Some western media and some Western politicians are trying to make a bad situation worse by accusing Russia of being party to this grim state of affairs. Undoubtedly, some Russian officials have a smirk on their face as they see Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko getting his own back for the sanctions imposed on his country early in the summer as a penalty for him rigging the presidential elections.

But to say that President Vladimir Putin is himself complicit is a bridge too far. He has made it very clear he is opposed to the threats, indeed angry about, made by Lukashenko to interfere with the transit of gas through Belarus in an attempt to blackmail the European Union (EU). As Putin has made clear this is Russian gas and only Russia can decide to turn the taps off—which it won’t.

One weathercock of Russian government opinion is what is broadcast on the state-funded RT (Russia Today) television station. On its website on November 13 it had an interesting article: “Do not call this politically induced humanitarian catastrophe a ‘migrant crisis’. Because it’s not. Instead, it is an obstinate clash between a mature authoritarian regime, which runs Belarus, and a nationalist-populist regime with authoritarian ambitions, which runs Poland. The stranded migrants and refugees, abused by both sides, are not the cause of this conflict. Beyond the conflict between the very nasty regime in Minsk and the fairly nasty regime in Warsaw there is also the crisis of the EU—it has simply not done its homework”.

I agree. We are talking about 4,000 would-be migrants. Moreover, this is a pin prick compared with the numbers of Syrians and Africans in 2015 that truly made a crisis of startling proportions. Germany alone took in half a million, later to rise to 1.4 million. But a couple of months later the tide dried up as the will to leave home for an uncertain future waned, and EU patrols at sea aided by ships from Greece and Libya turned migrants back. Moreover, a surge like this has the same chemistry as a stampede. When a few start to run, they panic others behind them. Then it becomes a chain reaction, a mob event, generating even further momentum in a quite irrational way. Then suddenly it stops.

The EU does not need this confrontation on its eastern border. It needs to understand that Lukashenko’s game is overplayed. Already airlines, including those of Turkey, Syria and Belarus, are refusing to transport those they suspect of being migrants.

It needs to be understood more widely than it is that Iraqi Kurdistan is not a basket case like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen or parts of Africa. Sitting on oil, with a well-educated civil service and business class, it has become the most prosperous and safest part of Iraq. There is no need to migrate. Only because Lukashenko decided to order his minions to propagate that Belarus was now issuing cheap visas and that its airline was going to put on more flights did some people (very few) decided to seize the moment and rush to the Polish border where they had been told they could easily slip over into EU territory.

The answer is for the Polish government to move the barb wire fence back 30 metres, let the migrants in, process them quickly in makeshift offices just inside the border, while housing the migrants in weatherproof tents with heating, water, food and medical help. (In fact none of the Kurds, unlike the Syrians, are refugees fleeing persecution, entitled to stay.) Then they should be put on buses and driven to Warsaw airport for the journey home. 4,000 could be processed within a week.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic led a rear-guard effort at the height of the Syrian/Afghanistan/African migrant crisis in 2015 to rebut the EU’s effort to distribute the migrants around all the 29 countries of Europe. On average this would have meant a modest 30,000 or so for each country. For smaller countries like Poland it would have been at most 25,000, for bigger like France and the UK 100,000. In fact, Sweden took in 205,000, Poland 8,600 and Estonia 525. Only five countries took in more than 100,000.

In short there was no burden sharing in the EU, which has a policy of burden sharing on many problems. It must be tempting now for European governments to let Poland be hung out to dry. In 2015 Poland helped sabotage what could have been an equitable system for dealing with migrants. (In this case most of them, unlike the Kurds, were truly refugees.)

Soon, as hunger envelops the country, there may well be a flood of Afghani migrants. It’s important for the EU to look ahead and anticipate this. It means giving the Taliban government all the food that could be needed. It means restarting Western economic aid, held up until the Taliban agree to let girls go to school and women to hold jobs. Averting a famine-driven exodus of Afghanis to Europe is today’s most important priority task.

Besides, there are other ways to help girls and women, as long as the big powers stand together, which should be easy since they all have similar interests. It is to refuse Afghanistan’s new government to belong to the UN and its agencies. (The FAO, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation and WHO, the World Health Organisation, would be the exceptions.)

This would make it impossible for the Taliban government to raise loans and aid. It would make it impossible for its airline to fly outside of Afghanistan. Indeed, it could halt bus traffic to neighbouring countries, since passports would not be recognised.  These restrictions would only be lifted if the Taliban kept to their earlier promise to allow women to work and girls to go to school.

This crisis has its silver lining. It might compel the EU to think through the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan.

*About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com 

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