Belarus border residents rattled by migrant arrivals

Published : November 11, 2021 17:03 IST

Migrants stranded at the Belarusian-Polish border face freezing temperatures. Photo: Leonid Shcheglov/Belta/AFP/REUTERS

Belarusian villagers on the border with Poland are unsettled by the growing numbers of migrants stranded in the area.

The Kamenets district near the well-known national park Belovezhskaya Pushcha is a rather deserted area on the Belarusian-Polish border. There's only one border crossing here to get to neighboring Poland legally. But, the Pestschatka checkpoint hardly sees any traffic nowadays due to coronavirus restrictions in Belarus. Residents of the surrounding Belarusian villages, however, have been watching their country's western border with concern for the past two months for another reason —a large number of migrants crossing over.

‘Strangers are reported immediately'

Mikhail (name has been changed), a 50-year-old driver, lives in the village of Upper Ovshchina and works in a local agricultural company. It is only about 5 kilometers from his house to the Polish border, a fact that Mikhail has never paid much attention to. "The border is close, but legally you can't cross it there. You have to drive to Pestschatka, 8 kilometers (5 miles) away," Mikhail said, adding that access to the nearby border strip is restricted for non-residents. But only local residents can pick mushrooms and berries in the forest, provided they are issued a pass by the responsible border service. Violations are punishable by fines and, in the case of foreigners, deportation.

"Here, everyone has the phone number of the nearest border post. If someone notices a stranger, it is reported immediately," says Mikhail, adding that this fall, however, dozens of people from Iraq and other countries suddenly appeared in the border area, although Belarusian laws regarding the presence of Belarusian citizens and foreigners in the area have not changed.

Waiting to travel onwards to the E.U.

According to Mikhail, no migrants have yet been seen in Upper Ovshchina itself, but they have been spotted in neighboring villages in the Kamenets district. "I know that the head of the district police was at the village council and was questioned there, because people fear for their own safety," Mikhail said.

The visit of police chief Viktor Vodchitsa was covered in a short report in the local state press, which generally reports very little about the situation on the border. According to the report, Vodchitsa assured readers that the local police had the situation under control. "The migrants are setting up tent camps and waiting to continue their journey to the E.U. Otherwise, they will be taken back to their home countries," he stressed. But the news report did not say who allowed the migrants to set up tents at the border and how they would get to Poland legally.

More flight connections from the Middle East?

Sergey is from Brest and used to be a border guard himself. He prefers not to give his last name. Sergey is still in contact with his former colleagues. In view of the current situation, he feels sorry for them. "Today, the Belarusian border guards are only carrying out the orders of planned provocations. At first, the Lithuanian border was considered a weak point, and they tried to drive the migrants there. Now the situation is coming to a head on the border to Poland," Sergey said. However, in the big cities on the Polish border, in Grodno and Brest, there are hardly any migrants to be seen so far. That's because after their arrival in Minsk and a short stay in the Belarusian capital, they are taken directly to the green border area.

But that could change. The capital, Minsk, has regular flights from destinations across the Middle East. According to a report by German weekly Welt am Sonntag further connections from the Middle East to regional Belarusian airports are in the works. The article says those are in addition to a planned 40 flights per week to the capital Minsk — more than twice as many slots as were on offer pre-pandemic. There are no flights to cities like Brest yet. At the end of October, the last charter planes from resorts in Tunisia and Egypt landed there for the tourist season. No new flights have officially been announced.

A blame game

In early October, several leading representatives of Belarusian security agencies visited the Brest region. Aleksandr Wolfovich, state secretary of the Security Council, also visited border posts in the Kamenets district. He told state media that Belarus must now "de facto fight illegal migration and protect the interests of its European neighbors." According to him, Belarusian authorities "had repeatedly pointed out to their European partners that the cross-border cooperation projects, which have been stopped, should be resumed." However, proposals to that effect were ignored," he said. In reality, the migration problem is a welcome reason for the West to pass on the consequences of its own short-sighted actions to the Belarusian side," Wolfovich said.

In view of the worsening situation on the border between Poland and Belarus, Brussels accuses Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of deliberately smuggling migrants from the Middle East into the E.U. in retaliation for European sanctions against the authoritarian regime in Minsk.

E.U. Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has meanwhile called for further sanctions against Minsk. Belarus must stop its "cynical instrumentalization of migrants" for political purposes, the Commission president said. Brussels no longer recognizes Alexander Lukashenko as president of Belarus since the disputed presidential election in the summer of 2020.

Sergey, the former border guard, also says that the relationship between Belarusian border authorities and neighboring countries has been seriously damaged. "There were many joint projects, for example, to facilitate border crossing for residents of neighboring territories. Now they, too, have become victims of the migration crisis," he said.