Observations of an Expat: Belarus and State Sponsored Human Trafficking

Up to 20,000 Middle Eastern refugees are stuck in a narrow strip of no-man’s land as winter descends upon them. To the west—the dreamed of destination—is a razor wire fence and armed Polish guards. To the east are tens of thousands of armed Belarussian troops to prevent them from going back into Belarus proper.

These refugees have paid thousands of dollars to the agents of Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko who are scouring the Middle East in search of displaced persons in search of a better life in Europe.

They collect their money. Tell them they are going to the promised land of Germany. The refugees are then put on flights to Minsk from Damascus, Dubai or Istanbul. In the Belarussian capital they are met by armed guards who herd them into lorries that transport them to the border with Poland, Latvia or Lithuania. They are unloaded and told to march west. That is when the dream becomes a nightmare.

The Belarussians are not providing food, water or shelter. The insufficient aid that is reaching the refugees is coming from mainly Polish aid agencies. The UN has called on Lukashenko to allow the Red Cross and other NGOs immediate access.  Temperatures are dropping. So far, at least eight refugees have died of hypothermia. Expect many more.

Although many Poles are working hard to supply food, medical supplies and tents the issue of immigrants is the hottest of the country’s hot political potatoes. Poland is a charter member of the illiberal Visegrad Four. Their two main tenets are Euro scepticism and anti-immigration. Latvia and Lithuania are pro-EU, but not keen on immigrants.

The refugees are pawns in the battle between Lukashenko and an EU attempting to unseat the dictator with sanctions and sanctuary for his opponents. The EU has threatened to increase sanctions on Monday. Lukashenko has said he would respond to any sanctions by cutting Russian gas supplies that pass through the Yamal pipeline that goes across Belarus and, with links to various offshoots, stretches all the way to the UK and nine EU countries.

Also on Monday, the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are meeting to discuss the crisis. Joining the meeting by video link will be Polish President Andrzej Dudas. The UN Security Council has condemned President Lukashenko for the “orchestration of the utilisation of human beings” for political purposes.

The refugee crisis has raised questions in other areas: Poland’s problems with the EU, The position of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Ukraine, the fragile balance of power in central Europe, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the position of NATO and the US.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has strongly backed Poland’s decision to construct a fence and called on the EU to support the Poles. But at the same time, the Polish government is in bad odour with fellow Europeans over its refusal to accept the primacy of European law over Polish law and is facing the possibility that $200 million in European funds earmarked for 2021-27 may be held back.

Putin is unlikely to rein in the Belarussian dictator. Lukashenko is clearly trying to economically and politically destabilise the EU. A shaky Europe is to Moscow’s political advantage. If, on the other hand, Lukashenko is unable to make an impact then he will likely be forced into a closer relationship—maybe even political union—with Russia, a main foreign policy goal of the Russian president.

Then there is Ukraine. While the world public has been focused on Belarus, Putin has sent 100,000 troops to the Russian/Eastern Ukraine border. Washington fears that Putin may use the distraction of the refugee crisis for a final push to annex Eastern Ukraine. The Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania are also worried about Russian troops on their border and Poland and Latvia are concerned about forces in the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

Up until the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 there was a sort of post-Cold War Central European balance of power. NATO and the EU had pushed its border about 500 miles to the East as former Soviet satellites left Moscow’s orbit to join the West. Ukraine and Belarus were left as buffer states. But their changing status vis a vis both the West and Russia threatens a reaction from either side.

If it is a military reaction then the West’s involvement will have to come primarily from the US. And here, Putin appears to again have the upper hand. Both the US and the NATO alliance are politically bruised after their embarrassing failure in Afghanistan and the American public’s appetite for foreign intervention is at a new low.

NATO may need to quickly rediscover its mojo and Washington may have to reassess the threat from Moscow if Lukashenko—backed by Putin—keeps pushing in a desperate attempt to keep the Belarussian dictator in power.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Most of the EU’s borders are now surrounded by cement and barbed-wire barriers or by the sea. It’s people seem terrified of “outsiders” coming in. They used to be outraged or laugh at Trumps “Mexican” wall and called the UK little “Englanders”. Now they appear to be building their own “Iron Curtain” to hide behind – what has happened to their leaders that they have sunk to this?

  • Jenny Barnes 13th Nov '21 - 4:23pm

    “Now they appear to be building their own “Iron Curtain” to hide behind”
    Well, there’s going to be many climate refugees soon. Unless something big changes. Like no more coal.

  • France is also playing politics and weaponising their border and migrant, the U.K. is certainly not getting value for the millions they are giving to France to help prevent migrants crossing the channel, we should stop paying.

  • Martin – I’m a live and let live sort of guy, who is happy to welcome refugees to this country, but realises there has to be limits. I don’t believe I’m “xenophobic” or a “right wing populist”, but I have voted Tory in the last couple of elections. In the past I have also voted Lib Dem when Kennedy was leader and in pre Corbyn days I’ve voted Labour. The only point I was trying to make was that when Trump was building his wall on the Mexican border, there was outcry from the liberal left in this country and the EU. These days the EU has barbed-wire fences around much of it’s borders and naval ships in their waters with the sole aim of stopping refugees. When refugees do get through these barriers they end up in camps that make those on the US/Mexican border look like the Savoy. Children are hungry and dying at EU borders, but the liberal left remain silent.

  • Alison Willott 14th Nov '21 - 11:30am

    Thank you for that very clear exposition of this appalling situation. There is no answer, is there. Italy and Greece are already struggling with the burden of cross-Medit immigrants. So is France. The UK has, I gather, taken far less immigrants per head of population than many other EU countries. What should liberal people be advocating? Where do we stand on letting in economic migrants? How do we deal with the thousands on the Polish border, in Sicily and other Italian islands, in Lesbos, in Calais? Any suggestions?

  • Peter Hirst 14th Nov '21 - 3:28pm

    It’s an extremely dangerous situation. Is there no way of applying diplomatic pressure on Belarus? Perhaps we should offer them a gateway into the EU. It and Ukraine are caught in the middle, not a nice place to be. Perhaps Putin will have a change of heart.

  • @ Peter Hirst
    “Perhaps we should offer them a gateway into the EU.”

    What have I just read? And how is that supposed to work? We can’t offer anybody a gateway into the EU. We’re nothing to do with the EU, or have you missed the events of the last 6 years?

    Honestly, the more I read on this site the more I feel like banging my head against the wall. I keep promising myself that I’ll stay away but somehow keep getting drawn back. It’s a horrible compulsion. I think though that on balance I’d be better off taking to drink – it would be better for my blood pressure.

  • @ Adam, you say, “What have I just read? And how is that supposed to work? We can’t offer anybody a gateway into the EU. We’re nothing to do with the EU, or have you missed the events of the last 6 years ?”

    By ‘we’ I assume you mean England, Adam. You may have missed it, but some other bits of the UK feel and vote differently…… and may well do so again in the future. In fact the latest polls for the whole of the UK show a growing majority now oppose Brexit and regard it as a huge mistake.

  • Thankfully, despite Scotland’s vote, the U.K. which currently includes Scotland is out of the E.U. and cannot offer Belarus a gateway to membership. I can think of little that would be likely to probeke Putin more, other than a successful first strike and therefore fully expect Vonderleyen to advocate for this as a solution.
    Why not go the whole hog and offer Russia membership of the E.U. and NATO with Putin president for life of the E.U.?

  • @ David Raw

    It doesn’t matter how anywhere in the UK voted. It doesn’t matter if Scotland and Northern Ireland voted differently. It doesn’t matter whether people have changed their opinions. What matters is that we aren’t members of the EU any more, and as such are completely incapable of offering anybody a gateway into the EU!

    Unless you are privy to some top secret deal whereby the UK is still a member of the EU but nobody is aware of this, or unless you think that the EU would accept a request from Nicola Sturgeon to let Belorus into the EU without requiring all current members to agree, and dropping all the usual membership criteria, then there is only one word that that needs to be said. I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that it’s German – an official language of the EU; Realpolitik!

  • Hang on a minute, somebody else has just come up with a suggestion… it’s a bit far fetched I know, but maybe you’re in the know, so here goes.

    The Libdems have gone all Trumpian and have secretly been doing private diplomacy, and have done a secret deal with the EU that in the event they ever win an election the UK will automatically be readmitted to the EU, single currency, Schengen and all. A secret ballot has already been taken by all EU members, and neither the population of the UK, nor the populations of the member states know anything about this.

    Are you guys in the Libdems privy to something that the rest of the world isn’t? Naah. I doubt it… that’s moving into lizard territory.

  • Peter Hirst 14th Nov ’21 – 3:28pm:
    Is there no way of applying diplomatic pressure on Belarus? Perhaps we should offer them a gateway into the EU.

    EU and whose gas?

    ‘Belarus energy profile’:

    Belarus depends heavily on imports for all types of fossil fuels, supplied mainly by Russia.

    The country is one of the world’s largest importers of natural gas:

    Belarus is part of the Union State of Russia and Belarus and a member of the Common Economic Space (CES) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) along with Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.

  • David Raw, Scotland like the rest of the UK is no longer in the EU and has no influence there. They may have voted to stay in the EU, but they also voted to remain in the UK and the polls suggest they would again. As Adam said we (the whole UK) are no longer anything to do with the EU.

  • Charles Smith 18th Nov '21 - 9:28pm

    Belarus is forcing migrants to breach the European Union border, and the government of President Alexander Lukashenko must be held accountable for human trafficking, EU members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia said on Monday.
    The European Union has accused Lukashenko of orchestrating the influx of migrants to pressure the EU to back down over sanctions slapped on his government. Belarus has repeatedly denied the accusation.

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