A Dictator Is Exploiting These Human Beings

Belarus’s ruler has used asylum seekers to destabilize the EU. And he’s not the only one profiting politically from their misfortune.

A migrant family sitting on the forest floor in Poland
Wojtek Radwanski / AFP / Getty

About the author: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.

A small Kurdish boy is sitting on the ground in a damp Polish forest, a few miles from the eastern border with Belarus. The air is heavy with cold and fog. The boy is crying.

Around the boy, sitting in a circle, are his parents, uncles, and cousins, all from the same village near Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are 16 of them, among them seven children, including a four-month-old infant and an elderly woman who can scarcely walk. They don’t speak Polish, or English. One of the boy’s relatives, a man named Anwar, speaks Arabic. Through a translator, Anwar says that the family has been in this forest, moving back and forth between Poland and Belarus, for two weeks. They have eaten nothing for the previous two days.

Surrounding the boy and his family is another circle, this one containing people with cameras. The people holding the cameras are Polish, Swedish, Slovenian, German, Japanese, American. I am one of them. We were all given this precise location on Tuesday by Grupa Granica, a Polish volunteer organization created in the past couple of months to help migrants; its name simply means “Border Group.” The group’s spokesperson sent out text messages with the GPS coordinates of this family because they wanted as many journalists as possible to record the moment when Anwar asks the Polish border guards for asylum. He will hold up a sign, in English. The translator, Jakub Sypiański, also a member of Grupa Granica, will translate his request into Polish as well. Sypiański explains that if media are present, it will be more difficult for Polish border guards to ignore the request and to force Anwar, the boy, and the rest of the family back into the forest, back toward the border, as they have forced other, similar families back toward the border over the past several weeks. Sypiański tells me later that he has personally seen families ask for asylum, only to be taken back to the border immediately afterward.

The scene has a false kind of familiarity because we in the West have all seen this combination of players—migrants, journalists, humanitarian volunteers—in photographs or on television before. But the sequence of events that brought this particular small boy to this particular forest is very strange, when you think about it. So many tragedies were required to create the conditions for it, including wars in Iraq and Syria, the rise of Islamic extremism, and the failure of democracy in Belarus. Stranger still is that fact that this boy’s fate has been determined, and will go on being determined, by the political calculations of two people whom he will never meet, and whose names he surely does not know. One of them is Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus. The other is Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the Polish ruling party, the country’s de facto leader, the man who tells the Polish president and prime minister what to do.

Lukashenko’s brutality is far greater. Belarus’s dictator remains in power in his country only thanks to the violence he has used to suppress the large, sophisticated, and articulate democratic opposition. More than 800 political prisoners now sit in his jails. Many have been beaten or tortured. Thousands have moved abroad. The European Union and the United States have sanctioned him for these crimes, and now he is seeking revenge, not just against particular democracies but against democratic values more broadly, the values that he wants to defeat at home as well as abroad: respect for human rights, the rule of law, impartial justice.

Lukashenko seeks not only to show his contempt for these things but to destroy the international institutions that maintain them. Last May, he used his country’s air-traffic controllers to hijack an Irish commercial airplane and force it to land, in order to arrest a dissident onboard. And last summer, he launched a program of state-sponsored human trafficking designed not only to deceive people in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere about the ease with which they can get into the European Union via his capital, Minsk, but also to take their money along the way.

To get to the Polish border, for example, Anwar said that his family traveled by bus from Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to Istanbul in Turkey. There they would have purchased visas for Belarus and airline tickets to Minsk. Though Anwar did not say what he paid, others have been charged fees that represent, in that region, a small fortune. A recent documentary short, Visa to Nowhere,  put together by Outriders, a Polish journalists’ collective, contains an interview with a Syrian who was living in a refugee camp in Lebanon but planning to travel to Europe via Belarus. He had paid $6,000—money collected from his extended family in Lebanon and Europe—for the travel package, and he was convinced it was worth it. He had been messaging people who had made the trip on Facebook, and they made it sound easy: “They suffered for some days, then they made it through Poland.” That seemed a small price to pay for what he wanted: “a dignified life.” Outriders also taped a travel agent in Beirut, who told them that a visa alone would cost $1,300—money that, presumably, goes to the Belarusian government.

Once they arrive in Minsk, the migrants stay in hotels, which they also pay for, though sometimes they sleep at the airport. Videos posted on social media have shown them clustered in large groups in central Minsk, and there are stories of them buying up rubber boots and winter clothes. What happens next is murky. Some pay to be taken to the border—Anwar said the cost was $300 for each car full of people—but others report having been escorted by uniformed men, probably border guards. When they arrive at the border fence, they are told to cross it—illegally. Trucks transport them along the border, and the Belarusian border guards help them to find deserted areas where crossing is easy. Anwar said that border guards used wire cutters to cut the border fence and allow his family to pass through. Others have been given wire cutters and told to do it themselves.

At that point, they have no other choice. They are not allowed to go to the formal border checkpoints to ask for asylum, though some ask to do so. They are not allowed to return to Minsk, even if they beg to be allowed to return home. The Belarusian border guards point guns in their faces, beat them, and tell them they have no option. And so they start walking westward.

This human-trafficking project began last summer, initially on Belarus’s border with Lithuania, which, like Poland, is a member of the EU. The number of migrants at first was small. But as it grew, the Belarusian border guards began driving people to the Latvian border, and to the Polish border too. Now, with thousands of people arriving in Minsk from the Middle East each week, the situation is changing again. On Monday, the Belarusian border guards gathered hundreds of migrants together and orchestrated a mass assault on the border near the Polish town of Kuźnica. Last night, Belarusian border guards gave the migrants cans of tear gas to use against Polish border guards; they also turned on strobes and lasers so that the Poles couldn’t see what was happening. So far, the Polish police and soldiers who are now massed along the border have held the line. But hundreds of people remain camped along the border, waiting for—something.

Lukashenko’s tactics are diabolically cynical: weaponize human desperation, lure people into making a risky and dangerous journey, take their money, force them to break the law. On the Polish side, Kaczyński’s tactics are cynical too, but differently so. Like Lukashenko, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party also wants to remain in power. But because his country is still, for the moment, a democracy, he needs popular support. (Here I should state for the record that I am married to an opposition politician in Poland.)

One of the ways Kaczyński has built popular support in the past is through the use of fearful, anxious, and xenophobic rhetoric. At the time of the previous European migrant crisis in 2015, Kaczyński warned that refugees from Syria were carrying “parasites and protozoa”; he said they would use churches as “toilets.” This time around, the Polish interior minister and the Polish defense minister actually appeared together on the main evening news, on the taxpayer-funded state television channel, and solemnly played a clip from a film showing a man having sex with a horse. This, viewers were told, was a video found on a telephone in the forest, and it showed one of the migrants camped on the border. In reality, the clip came from a piece of bestiality pornography made in the 1970s and widely available on the internet. But the message was clear: These people are animals.

In this very narrow sense, the migration crisis is useful to Kaczyński. COVID-19 rates are rising again, inflation is very high, corruption is rampant, but now he can change the subject: Poland has been invaded by sick, diseased Muslims, and only I can fix it. In August, the government announced a policy of “pushback”: Anyone found illegally in Poland would be sent back to the border. In early September, the Polish government declared a state of emergency in the border areas, set up checkpoints, and prohibited journalists and humanitarian organizations from entering the locked-down area. In October, Kaczyński called for a “radical strengthening of the army” too.

At the same time, Kaczyński has refused, on principle, to accept any help from the European Union, presumably because that would rob him of the only-I-can-fix-it narrative. But the EU has learned a lot since 2015. The EU’s border service, Frontex, is actually headquartered in Warsaw, and could offer assistance to Polish border guards. A spokesperson for the EU home-affairs commissioner told me that the resources of the European Asylum Support Office and other sources of emergency funding could be made available to the Polish government too. Lithuania and Latvia have taken advantage of these offers, but the Polish government wanted none of them. Nor has Polish diplomacy made any effort to galvanize a unified, international response: sanctions against Lukashenko, for example, or an EU-sponsored mass-information campaign across the Middle East. Instead, Polish party leaders carry on a petty war of words with the EU and barely speak to the Biden administration at all.

In domestic political terms, this might prove a success: The militarized rhetoric of war, invasion, and struggle, now used constantly on state television, seems to be helping to shore up the ruling party’s slipping poll numbers. But on the ground, this policy has created moral, humanitarian, and legal chaos. In reality, migrants who are “pushed back” to the Belarus border do not cross it, return to Minsk, and fly home. They can’t. Instead, they try repeatedly—eight, 10, 20 times—to cross the border. The Polish border guards periodically announce how many people they have stopped but really, these are the same people getting caught over and over again. Some run out of food: People from the Middle East are hardly in a position to live off the land in a Central European forest by hunting wild boar. Grupa Granica has collected reports of at least 13 deaths. On the Belarusian side, there could be many more.

But the incompetence is just as bad as the chaos. Even on its own terms, “pushback” has failed disastrously. Lukashenko has not been deterred. On the contrary, Poland’s hybrid-war rhetoric seems to have encouraged him to find new ways to troll Polish border guards and pile in more Belarusian troops, as if this really were a war and they really were needed. Besides, Poland has a long border with Belarus, the resources of the Polish army and police are finite, and the migrants have a huge incentive to find a way into the EU: They are afraid they might die otherwise. A Warsaw taxi driver told me that he had already been asked if he wanted to get into the lucrative business of ferrying people across Poland, from the Belarusian border to the German border. He told me that he said no, but others have clearly made a different decision. Police in Germany report that more than 9,000 people have now entered that country after traveling from Poland via Belarus, almost all in the past two months. Some of those who do get through boast of their luck on social media, which encourages more to come.

Migrants and soldiers are seen on a street.
Ramil Nasibulin / AFP / Getty

A different kind of chaos has descended on the people who live in the border areas, both inside the strefa—the locked-down zone, which extends a couple of miles inside the country from its frontier with Belarus—and along its edges. This is a famously quiet, famously beautiful part of Poland. Białowieża, a national park along the border, contains the last remaining primeval forest in Europe, as well as the largest remaining herd of European bison. The region normally attracts bird-watchers, photographers, and artists, which is part of what makes the situation so jarring. Katarzyna Wappa, who lives in the famously charming town of Hajnówka, just outside Białowieża, now has to cross checkpoints and show ID in order to visit her grandmother. “Białowieża has more soldiers than inhabitants,” she told me. “All of the Białowieża hotels are full of soldiers; the stadium is now a tent city housing soldiers.”

But the armored cars rumbling past wooden houses offer nothing to local residents, nothing to help them cope with the surreal situation they find themselves in. The Polish government’s official policy is that no one gets through, so nothing has to be done. In fact, almost everyone in the area has encountered starving, disoriented people from all kinds of places—Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon—struggling across their fields and gardens, hiding behind trees. Sometimes they have become too weak to walk, or are too frightened to ask for help. How are they supposed to react? Wappa told me that she simply finds it impossible to do nothing: “If I know that someone is dying outside my fence, outside my garden, my town … I have no option. I can’t allow someone to die of hunger, thirst, or cold right next to me.” Besides, she said, “it’s not normal that saving someone’s life might be a crime.”

She is one of many local people who have organized makeshift warehouses, stockpiling food, water bottles, winter clothes, and cellphone batteries in spare rooms and garages. They have also improvised, together with Grupa Granica and volunteers from the rest of Poland, a miraculously efficient patrol system. Their phone numbers circulate on Arabic social media; groups of migrants pass them back and forth. When people become desperate, they call. Volunteers respond by carrying blankets, shoes, and thermoses filled with soup into the forest.

Some more experienced organizations, including the Polish Red Cross and a popular national charity, the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (known by the Polish acronym WOŚP), have created more formal systems to collect donations from around the country. The WOŚP warehouse that I visited was indeed filled with foil blankets, water bottles, and other supplies. This weekend a larger, more experienced medical-emergency NGO has announced that it will come to the border and help too. Still, the state is absent, international organizations are absent, and until now it’s mostly been amateurs trekking into the forests to help, mostly amateurs who are facing impossible medical, moral, and legal choices. Do they call for an ambulance when someone who is clearly ill begs them not to, because they fear being captured by the border guards? Do they bring food and water to a family of migrants camped in the forest—and then just go home and leave them there?

Polish government policy has also created an information vacuum that volunteers have also been forced to fill. Grupa Granica now organizes press conferences and keeps in touch with dozens of international journalists. Yet it too is staffed by people who have never done anything like this before. Iwo Łoś, the organization’s press spokesperson, is a doctoral candidate in sociology who has postponed everything, including the submission of his thesis, to do what has suddenly become a full-time job. Sypiański, the translator, is also close to getting his doctorate in medieval history—he is an expert on relations between the Arab world and Byzantium—but has spent the past month at the border instead. Theoretically the border guards also have a spokesperson. But after our encounter with the Kurds in the forest, my Polish colleague texted her to ask what had happened to the family. We never received a response.

None of which is to say that this crisis has some easy, obvious alternative solution, because it does not. Neither Poland nor the rest of the EU can open its borders to the millions of people who would like to go there. Neither Warsaw nor Brussels should give in to blackmail from Minsk. The Polish government has every right to defend its borders, especially since the status of the people who have managed to cross them is murky. They have indeed broken the law and destroyed the fence. Although some would have a genuine case, many do not qualify for political asylum. They want to go to Germany because they have family there, because they think they can get jobs there, because the prospect of another decade in a refugee camp in Lebanon or Turkey is so grim. In any case, asylum is something you are meant to request when you reach the first country where you are safe. Some say they should have asked in Minsk, though that’s difficult to do when you are immediately bused to the border. Americans will recognize all of these dilemmas from their own border with Mexico.

But it is precisely because Lukashenko is a cynical autocrat who is using human beings as weapons, and precisely because his scheme is designed to undermine democratic values, that the Polish government’s response has been so disastrous. The democratic world can and should come up with a response to this kind of provocation based on respect for the rule of law, transparency, and human decency. To send people back, repeatedly, into a dangerous situation, knowing they might die, is immoral, in addition to being a violation of international law. To pretend that this is only a hybrid war, and not simultaneously a humanitarian crisis, is to misunderstand profoundly what is happening on the ground.

Part of the answer, as I’ve said, could lie in a consolidated international response of a kind that the Poles should have called for months ago. Already, pressure from the EU seems to have persuaded Iraqi Airways to stop flights from Baghdad to Minsk, and Turkish Airlines says it won’t sell any more one-way tickets from the Middle East to Minsk either. But the strange fact that the Polish border remained for so long open to trade with Belarus also requires some examination. Why aren’t sanctions higher, stiffer, faster? Why has it taken the EU so long to impose more of them?

An even more important part of the answer might lie in speeding up and expanding the legal processing of migrants. In fact, many of the people who make it to Germany will have their cases examined, will be found not to merit asylum, and will then be sent back. This procedure will take a couple of months, which sounds like a lot unless you remember that similar procedures on the U.S.-Mexico border can take several years. What if an emergency system were created to make that process happen even faster? Those people who genuinely qualify for refugee status or deserve some kind of special consideration could then stay, while the rest would be sent home. The sight of large airplanes carrying people back to Erbil from Warsaw might finally persuade others not to come. David Miliband, the CEO of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that provides long-term aid to refugees around the world, told me that “the speed of processing is vital, so that those with the appropriate claims are quickly accepted, but those who do not qualify are just as quickly sent back.” In the meantime, no one would die in the forest.

There isn’t much time. If the situation does not change quickly, we may soon witness tragedy on a much broader scale. Video clips circulating online already seem to show Belarusian soldiers shooting in the air near the border. What if they start shooting straight across it? Russian troops appear to be exercising alongside Belarusian troops near the Lithuanian border. What if they swoop down to Krynki or Białowieża to defend their Belarusian allies? Even if a direct confrontation is avoided, a sharp change in the weather could create a different kind of crisis. Snow can fall in Poland in late November and December. Last year it did. If that happens, hundreds and possibly thousands of people are going to freeze to death.

But I began with a single Kurdish boy for a reason, so let me end with him too. For the truth is that almost everyone with an interest in perpetuating this crisis, or in taking advantage of this crisis, or in profiting politically from this crisis doesn’t want you to see him. They want you to see masses, migrants, or Muslims robbed of humanity and lacking faces and names. They want you to see “waves” of people, “hordes” of people, anonymous migrants who have allowed themselves to become bullets in a hybrid war. But a mass tragedy is really just a set of individual tragedies. Remember that when you see one starting to unfold.