Belarus police Belarus police. Photo: Homoatrox / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0, license linked at bottom of article

A humanitarian crisis is deepening on Europe’s borders as one country after another militarises itself against the movement of refugees and desperate people, writes Kevin Ovenden

For anyone with any sense of history, the most shocking aspect is the thousands of refugees facing sub-zero temperatures and hiding in the forested no-man’s land between Poland, in the European Union, and neighbouring Belarus, an EU bogeyman. Lithuania, which neighbours both, has announced a state of emergency and the fortification of its border.

What is happening to the refugees, who are from Middle Eastern and African countries devastated by war and economic depredations, is not (yet) genocidal killing. But it is still a murderous state policy. As of last Thursday at least eight refugees had died from hypothermia or exhaustion on the Polish border. And it is happening in the area where 80 years ago mass killing took place and Jewish people fled to similar forests to seek refuge.

That, alone, should sound an alarm of recognition and of urgency for the labour movements across Europe and in Britain.

Further, there are specifics over the crisis on the EU’s north-eastern border. But it is not unique. It is happening in Greece, Croatia and the Balkans. It is happening with British Home Secretary Priti Patel aiming to break any legal restraint or international obligation with a policy that will drown refugees and migrants in the Channel. It is happening from West to East in the Mediterranean as the EU franchises out its border policy to organised criminal militias and warlords in North Africa.

What is happening on the Poland-Belarus border? This excellent piece by Gavin Rae provides inportant background:

‘Thousands of refugees have arrived in Belarus in recent weeks, expecting that they could then travel to the European Union. Following the Polish government’s and European Union’s active support for the opposition movement in Belarus, the Belarussian authorities have responded by not preventing refugees from trying to cross the Polish border. The Polish government has accused them of engaging in a “hybrid war”’ with Poland and actively encouraging the refugees to attempt to enter Poland. If this is true, then the Polish government has played into the Belarussian government’s hands through its inhumane treatment of refugees, allowing them to portray Poland as a state that does not respect human rights.’

The government of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus is authoritarian and is using the crisis for his own ends – to try to remove EU sanctions put in place on account of the repression of opposition forces. But the authoritarian Polish government which is refusing to allow refugees in is doing the same.

Since August it has passed a cascade of emergency legislation using the excuse of a few thousand people trying to cross into the country to implement a frightening degree of repressive measures. It has now put 20,000 police and troops on the border.

It says it will build a wall to supplement the barbed wire and two-mile-deep exclusion zone. In this area it is forbidden to take pictures of troops or police, to assemble or in any way to obstruct the authorities.

When Donald Trump announced a wall on the US-Mexico border, European leaders voiced righteous indignation. They are all backing the hard-right Polish government over its measures. That is despite the fact that the Polish government has ruptured with international law in authorising the seizure of anyone who crosses the border and their immediate return without hearing their asylum applications.

EU leaders have called for rallying ‘democratic nations’ to Poland’s side to ‘protect the eastern frontiers of Europe’. This is the same Poland that has introduced an anti-abortion law that is already seeing women die. It is the Polish state that faced leaned criticism about its breaches of the ‘rule of law’ only last spring. Now it is a bulwark against both refugee ‘invasion’ and the manoeuvres of Russia and states such as Belarus.

The great irony is that the Lukashenko government for years sought to balance between the EU and Russia. But it was the EU’s expansionism – and above all the intransigence of the right-wing governments in Poland and the Baltic states – that was part of tipping it into this confrontation.

In any case, the victims are the thousands of refugees. And we are talking just thousands here. Yet they are being used by the Polish and other governments absurdly to claim that ‘Europe’ faces the biggest threat of invasion on its eastern frontier since the end of the Cold War. 

Meanwhile, local and international NGOs warn of a humanitarian crisis taking place, as the Polish authorities whip up anti-refugee and anti-Russian feeling to cover their declining popularity. The centrist opposition party led by Donald Tusk is, however, no better.

Polish activists report that ‘in the east of the country’ some local people have offered food and shelter to those who have managed to make it through. They have also faced state reprisal for doing so. This is a frighteningly familiar story.

It is not just in north-eastern Europe. It is in the south-east too.

This major investigation by the German magazine Der Spiegel and a consortium of European news organisations revealed a shocking and similar picture in Croatia and in Greece.

It goes beyond what had already been normalised through the disgraceful EU-Turkey anti-refugee deal in 2016. That paid the authoritarian state in Turkey to stop people travelling across the Aegean and it introduced a fast-track system of sending people back if they did avoid drowning and made it.

The investigation found that Greek authorities, buttressed by balaclava-wearing additional forces, have been seizing people who make it to dry land, forcing them into unseaworthy dinghies and towing them back to sea – to meet whatever fate.

The sanitising term being used is ‘pushbacks’. That was the policy pioneered by Australian governments of intercepting boats in the ocean and pushing them away from Australian territory or maritime space so that Australia could avoid its legal international obligations to them.

What the Greek government is doing is worse. Along with the European border agency Frontex and who knows what private contractors, they are taking people from a place of safety on dry land and dumping them at sea. People have drowned.

In many legal systems that satisfies at least the initial stage of considering a charge of murder.

The Dutch journalist Ingeboug Beugel, who has scrupulously researched this, confronted the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis about it at a joint press conference in Athens on Tuesday with his Dutch counterpart.

The meltdown of Mitsotakis in response has ripped through Greek media. He has been so used to a tame press corps that he could not deal with someone pointing out that he and the EU authorities are lying about the illegal anti-refugee policy.

Of course the same EU authorities, especially in the better-off north, will occasionally issue words of concern when an atrocity becomes so widely reported that they cannot keep quiet. They do this on occasion when some truth about the Libyan militias they work with leaks out.

So Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, came to the rescue of the ranting Greek prime minister. Horst Seehofer, interior minister of the outgoing German government, rallies support for the Polish government, as do all the EU officials even as they talk piously of the need for judicial independence in Poland and that ‘rule of law’.

As for the British government? It is in no position to say much at all as even its Border Force guards and its own lawyers warn against Priti Patel’s drive for Britain to be like Poland and Greece in putting migrants’ lives further at risk. She wants to institute her own form of pushback, and doubtless have a political war with France. The currency is to be paid for by both sides in refugee lives.

This is where we are. It is set to get worse. So are the false excuses. Oh, it’s Russia trying to destabilise us. Maybe. But that isn’t the issue. Or it is Turkey using Syrians against Greece. Or it is the French trying to make Britain pay for Brexit.

All that is in the margin even where there is a scintilla of truth. The big issue is this:

We are seeing just a glimpse of the future. All week we have had the great and the good in Glasgow talking about the dislocation and mass movement of people that may happen as a result of climate change, and just how urgent everything is. 

We have the merest part of that now in the forests of northern europe and the seas of the south. So the issue is this: people are going to move. They are already uprooted by often western-driven wars and economic despoliation. Do we say they are welcome – or do we ally with those who do not care how many die attempting the crossing?

And this is to a continent that is for the most part aging and crying out for people to fill all sorts of shortages.

Many networks in Europe are discussing mobilisations over this crisis. Not next year. Now. There is urgency. More people are opposed to this unfolding atrocity than we might think. That is true in Poland where a minority, but it is a third, are with the refugees.

This is something to take deep into the working-class movement.

The alternative is to harden our hearts to refugees cold and hungry hiding from armed men in the forests of eastern Europe or the shores of the Aegean.

Not this time. 

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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