Europe

Belarus border crisis: Citizens deeply divided over migrant arrivals

Published : November 19, 2021 18:10 IST

Thousands of migrants have been stranded in freezing conditions along the Poland-Belarus border. Photo: Oksana Manchuk/BelTA/REUTERS

While some Belarusians have refused to aid the new arrivals, others are pitching in to help wherever they can.

It was a spontaneous decision. "I packed a wool coat, vest, warm scarves, mittens, a blanket and jacket," writes a Minsk-based blogger, who requested anonymity. The items were part of an impromptu donation drive to support migrants holed up in the Belarus capital.

She describes in the Facebook post how "grateful" they were to receive the clothing. "The black coat fit a slender woman, I then pulled the mittens onto another person's hands, she had stuck her cold hands out me, it made me cry." The blogger says she spotted the group outside a shopping center in central Minsk and decided to help. The woman's message has garnered over 500 likes so far, and has been shared more than 50 times. But not everyone applauds her efforts.

Some users on the platform accuse her of assisting people who have supposedly paid the Belarus government to reach Germany. They question whether the individuals are "fleeing war and repression." Others accuse most migrants of being financially better off than people in Belarus, who, they say, face enough hardship already. The average monthly income in Belarus is equivalent to roughly €500 ($570).

Belarus public opinion is divided over how the new arrivals should be treated. While some regard the migrants as victims who fled abusive regimes in their home countries, others disagree. They say migrants in Belarus are wearing expensive clothes, own premium smartphones, and merely care about reaching "wealthy Germany." Many of those who show solidarity with migrants are accused of backing President Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian regime, which is suspected of having encouraged people from the Middle East to travel through Belarus to reach the European Union.

Compassion 'regardless of skin color'

Belarusian Daria Sapranetskaya says she began noticing how migrants were increasingly in Minsk since late summer. "By autumn, there were more and more. Initially, you could have thought they were tourists and that Belarus had become popular with Middle Eastern travelers," she says. "But now, we see them with sleeping bags." The photographer says she hasn't observed any negative reactions from her compatriots on the street — but she notes: "If Belarusians are unhappy with something, they discuss it at home or on the internet."

Sapranetskaya, too, has donated warm clothes to the new arrivals. "It's none of my business to know what drove them to come here. I consider them human beings just like us, regardless of their skin color," she says. She then describes some of the scenes she witnessed: "There was a little girl, too young to walk, in a carrying pouch slung around her mother's stomach — with socks but no shoes on her feet." Daria recounts seeing another young girl, presumably two years old, wearing nothing but a fluffy pajama made from synthetic fabric, and no hat.

"It would be life-threatening for a child to travel to the Belarus-Poland border dressed like this," says Sapranetskaya. "When you see people in need and you can help, you help. I feel sorry for the people who are freezing on the streets."

Financing the Lukashenko regime?

Aleksey Leontshik set up ByHelp, a foundation that aids Belarusians who are being persecuted by the Lukashenko regime, as well as those who have decided to flee abroad. For Leontshik, there is a difference between Belarus refugees, and migrants today hoping to emigrate to Europe by way of Belarus. "These people are buying travel tickets from the deceitful Lukashenko [regime]," says Leontshik, adding that it helps finance the regime and puts further strain on neighboring countries like Poland and Lithuania, which are keen to promote democratic reforms in Belarus.

He says most migrants currently attempting to cross from Belarus into the E.U. are Syrians, Yemenis and Kurds from Iraq. "I do not consider Syria a safe country, though Syrians are fleeing to Turkey, instead of Germany," says Leontshik, adding that Yemeni citizens are less certain of where to flee to. "Iraqi Kurdistan, meanwhile, has always been the safest region in Iraq, both prior to IS (Islamic State) and now."

While he considers the migrants in Belarus as victims of their respective political regimes, he also underscores that many chose to buy a flight to Belarus. "I would not buy a flight from this dictator, I have zero compassion for anyone joining forces with my enemy," says Leontshik. For Leontshik, migrants may have been deceived by Lukashenko — but he has no sympathy for people who finance the Lukashenko regime that tortures people, even if unwittingly.

Belarus divided over migrants

Human rights activist Nasta Loyka has spent years working with refugees and says the recent arrivals of migrants from the Middle East are polarizing public opinion in Belarus. "On the one hand, some lash out against migrants on the internet and hurl abuse at them. On the other hand, people provide help and feel sympathy towards them."

Loyka says it is not uncommon for people to be skeptical of or reject migrants, given their different language, appearance, culture and religion. "But since people are intelligent beings, we label this discrimination — and call on people to refrain from expressing anything crude and stereotypical," says Loyka. "People can change their views if they look at the facts."

Loyka thinks many Belarusians view migrants in a negative light because they know the Lukashenko regime has deliberately organized the migration route. Many are projecting their low opinion of the government onto the new arrivals, she says. Loyka, however, believes most migrants have little knowledge of the regime's tactics and were focused entirely on buying a visa in the hopes of reaching Germany.

But she is also well aware of other Belarusians who are more than willing to help those stranded in her country. Human Constanta, the organization for which she works, recently published a guide setting out how ordinary folks can help migrants and where to bring donations. "Our guide is among the most-shared, most-read and commented on," according to Loyka. "Many people are reacting to it; it's on their minds."

The activist says it's important to note that refugees hail from all walks of life: "These are also people who may have had some wealth, who may have been forced to sell property. But their lives, health and safety were threatened in their country of origin." And for many, she says, their lives and livelihoods are once again at risk, as they hunker down in the Belarus-Poland frontier.

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