Though it is seldom talked about outside Strasbourg and Brussels – and maybe not often even there – for around three months at the end of 2015, the EU effectively ceased to exist.
As roughly 800,000 men, women and children entered the EU from the East, fleeing war, terror, chaos and death in their homelands, the bloc’s member states, despite being part of a political organisation which was almost uniquely suited to responding to such a situation, refused to accept its proposals and laws and instead built barriers and posted armed officers on their borders with one another, in direct contravention of its central foundations.
The bloc’s panicked response was the EU-Turkey Statement, in which it demanded that the Turkish state must break the law by preventing people from travelling, in exchange for ‘accelerated accession to the EU’ (undelivered), ‘visa-free travel across all parts of the Schengen zone for Turkish citizens’ (undelivered), and €6billion by 31 December 2018 (so far, €4.8billion has been paid).
The first two of these promises were, to be as fair as possible, effectively impossible to make happen, because of the policies and behaviour of Turkey’s government. But we should be clear: these were promises made by the EU to Turkey. It did not have to make them. It chose to, solely so that it – the EU – could avoid its obligations under international law to allow the entry of people seeking safe, decent places to live, learn and work, and process their applications for them.
Today, a similar – though far smaller – situation has arisen on another section of the EU’s Easternmost frontier: around 4,000 men, women and children are effectively trapped at the Polish border with Belarus, with soldiers and other armed, uniformed officers either side of them, often using violence against them. And winter is closing in.
This situation is not entirely of the EU’s making: the reasons people need to flee their homeland are (mostly) out of its control, and the alleged activities of Alexander Lukashenko are also beyond its remit.
But its response to it, and its failure to control its own member state, Poland, which is actively breaking international law, certainly are its responsibility. And by focusing solely on what it claims may be the situation’s cause, it has deliberately ignored its solution, and is actively endangering the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
‘Law and Justice’
In October this year, Poland’s far-Right Law and Justice party, which governs the state, began to deploy soldiers, armed police and other armed ‘security personnel’ to its border with Belarus. By the middle of the month, it had passed a law under which it would build a wall along this border, in order to prevent men, women and children from entering and applying for asylum.
Today, there are more than 20,000 armed, uniformed Polish operatives on the border, along with tanks and other ordnance. At least 11 people have died, from starvation, lack of water, and in one case suspected hypothermia, and aid organisations, monitoring groups and the media have been banned from large stretches of the border. On Tuesday, (16 November 2021) these forces fired teargas and used watercannon against men, women and children attempting to enter Poland.
This is absolutely illegal. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that it is the right of any person to leave any country, while under the Refugee Convention and Protocols, any person may enter any country, with or without paperwork, as long as they inform the relevant authorities of their intention to apply for asylum as soon as possible after they arrive. Poland is signatory to all these laws.
The EU, as a body which insists it must be regarded as a promoter and protector of international law and human rights, had and still has the opportunity to prevent this outrage by calling its member state to account – and indeed by helping the few thousand vulnerable people to enter and processing their asylum applications.
Instead, it has offered its ‘full backing’ to Poland, accused Belarus’ dictator Alexander Lukashenko of ‘weaponising refugees’ (a deeply poisonous phrase) and increased its sanctions against Belarus.
Law and Justice’s claim, fully accepted and repeated by the EU, is that Lukashenko has paid for men, women and children to enter Belarus, and then pushed them towards the Polish border, in order to create a ‘crisis’ to avenge the EU imposing sanctions against Belarus following the leader’s retention of power last year in an election the international community believes to have been severely flawed.
We should note that it is perfectly possible that Lukashenko has done this. He is exceptionally unpopular in his own country, and may well consider trying to make the EU ‘suffer’ for its sanctions by attempting to spark a ‘border crisis’ using desperate, innocent men, women and children.
On the other hand, no-one has actually presented any evidence that this is what is happening.
And fundamentally, whether Lukashenko has or has not done this is irrelevant to the current border situation. Because these men, women and children do actually want to cross the border to enter Poland. And that is their legal and human right.
In response to the impasse, the EU spent five days in discussion and on Monday (15 November) announced its ‘solution’: extending its sanctions against Belarus. Perhaps, if Lukashenko really is doing what is alleged, it is correct to do so (though, as always, sanctions will hit Belarus’ poorest people hardest, causing them great suffering and ironically in the process, the EU may actually cause even more people to leave Belarus in search of asylum. Lukashenko, meanwhile, will sleep soundly on a full stomach and a proverbial mattress stuffed with banknotes).
But if the EU is imposing new sanctions against Belarus for dehumanising people, treating them as commodities and breaking international law, then, well…
…we really ought to impose sanctions against Poland for, um, dehumanising people, treating them as if they are commodities and breaking international law.
There simply isn’t a justification for Poland posting well over 20,000 armed uniformed officers, as well as tanks, on its border to prevent people from crossing it. Whether or not Lukashenko is breaking international law, so is the Polish government. Nothing Belarus may have done excuses that.
And the most important thing, by far, in this situation is that the men, women and children who are trying to cross from Belarus to Poland (and beyond) are being treated by every political body involved as if they are at best a nuisance and at worst less than human and we don’t care if they live or die.
The Polish government is attacking refugees at its border. The Belarussian government – even if it did not actively cause the situation – is preventing those people from leaving that border. And the EU is focusing on punishment for Belarus, rather than the welfare of the desperate men, women and children who need urgent assistance. They are already suffering food and water shortages, and exposure. And winter is drawing in.
The second most important – and concerning – consideration, is the extent to which the EU has changed.
In 2015-16, when a large-ish number of men, women and children entered the EU from the East, the EU did a terrible job, but at least at first, it did try.
It came up with a variety of proposals for how these people could be allowed in, where they could go, how the EU could make sure everyone ‘did their bit’.
The member states refused (the UK first, Denmark, Spain and Poland later) and the EU shamefully buckled, drafting the illegal EU-Turkey Statement with the sole aim of keeping refugees out of the EU.
This time, an EU member state is actually breaking international law to prevent refugees from entering (to be clear, Greece is also doing so, while the government of former member-state the UK is attempting to force its own border authorities to do the same) and the EU’s response is to ignore the people at immediate and serious risk, and instead back the law-breakers who have sent tanks to the border to trample on their rights, and in many cases, end their lives.
Despite the fact that we know these people are from war-zones and states with horrendous records of human rights abuses and regions to which people cannot return (Iraqi Yazidis, for example, cannot ‘go home’ because their homes have been destroyed, and conflict continues in the places they have fled), politicians on Europe’s Right demand they must ‘return’ to their ‘homes’. The EU has made no response.
Even those on the Union’s nominal ‘Left’ are refusing to properly engage with the fact that it is these people’s legal right to enter, and the EU’s legal responsibility to allow them to.
On Tuesday (16 November), German MP Nils Schmid, a representative of the SDP, suggested the EU should send refugees who wish to enter the EU, to Ukraine, where their asylum applications could be processed.
There are several serious problems with this suggestion. First, the Ukraine conflict with Russia is far from over, with many observers including the US government warning that Russian troops are ‘massing’ on Ukraine’s Eastern border.
Secondly, there are concerns – not all of them very reasonable, but concerns nonetheless – that the current Ukrainian government draws a significant amount of its support from nationalists and fascists.
Thirdly, that it would actually be more difficult and expensive to send thousands of people from Eastern Poland/Western Belarus to Ukraine, than to simply let them enter the EU and process their asylum claims here.
And finally, because this proposal is effectively the world’s wealthiest political bloc proposing to outsource its obligations under international law, to other nations: effectively, buying its way out of having to obey the law.
We can of course, perhaps understand the EU’s ‘survival instinct’ – though it is bitterly ironic that the bloc seems unprepared to extend the same consideration to a relative handful of starving, freezing, vulnerable people on its own borders. It still believes that the 2015 ‘crisis’ could be repeated, and this time prove terminal.
But the bloc must remember a central fact about that situation: it was not the people arriving who posed a danger to it, but its own member states, and its failure to convince or oblige them to follow its – and international – laws.
And it is increasingly clear that the EU needs ask itself some very serious questions about what it is and why it wants to survive. If it believes in international law – and it should, because while the system has flaws, it is largely well-designed and generally does work when followed – but is prepared to jettison all its principles, and those international laws, in order to continue to exist, then what is its point? What is it ‘surviving’ for?
The simplest solution
Almost as depressingly, the entire EU and Polish response has, so far, been extraordinarily stupid.
Because there are just 4,000 or so men, women and children at the Polish border. The EU is extraordinarily wealthy, and has a population of around 447 million people.
That is, there are less than a thousandth of one percent of the EU population – one 111,750th of the total number of people in the bloc – on the Poland/Belarus border.
If Alexander Lukashenko is ‘weaponising’ refugees, there is one very simple way to sidestep his gambit.
Let them in.
Help them learn, thrive and contribute to a much better society, improved by their presence, their work, and their creativity.
If we must play games, we can also issue a statement while we welcome them, perhaps: ‘We are very sorry that Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus was incapable of providing a decent place to live for these vulnerable people.’
What the EU is doing instead is proving to Belarus’ leader that it is, completely, terrified of innocent, desperate, men, women and children seeking safety in the world’s wealthiest political bloc. It is actually helping Lukashenko to attack it.
We must do better. Our sole priority must be the people on the border.
The alternative is that we become just another negative in an already, and increasingly, harsh and dangerous world.
The author, Rory O’Keeffe, is an international reporter and writer, who specialises in political and contextual analysis, as well as communications, for national and international aid organisations.
He has worked with humanitarian organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia, but his primary focus has been the Middle East and North Africa, on which he has regularly commentated for international media including the BBC, Sky, and Al Jazeera.
Rory founded Koraki, a humanitarian political analysis, communications and advocacy service.
The powerful artworks are by Yorgos Konstantinou, Illustrator and Creative Director at Imagistan.
Yorgos is a teacher and offers his great illustrating skills to the causes of immigrants and refugees all over the world, in particular in the Mediterranean Area.