On December 14, the Belarusian state news agency Belta published an article headlined "Belarusian MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) Slams EU’s belligerent attitude to migrant crisis." The story quotes Anatoly Glaz, head of Digital Diplomacy for the Foreign Ministry press office.
Glaz claimed that the policies of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member states are most responsible for migrants massing at the Belarusian borders with Poland and other European Union countries.
Glaz specifically called out Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.
"He (Borrell) has kept mum, again, on the main thing: Over the past decade, NATO countries, including EU members led by the United States, have become a real machine producing refugees on a global scale,” Glaz proclaimed.
“The world still remembers well the events of 2015-2016 when refugees spent months sheltering under the open sky in European capitals. Not to mention the ongoing loss of life in the Mediterranean region, the English Channel and the Polish forests.”
This narrative is misleading and appears designed to deflect from the Lukashenko regime’s documented actions to entice migrants (not necessarily refugees) to Minsk, where they are driven to – sometimes even pushed across – the border into Lithuania and Poland.
Firstly, many are in fact Kurdish migrants from Iraq. But the leading country of origin for refugees is Syria, where the decade-long civil war has displaced millions. The primary responsibility for the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 lies with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its ally, the Russian Federation.
It was in October 2015 that Russia sent a contingent of its air force to directly intervene in the Syrian war, which had been raging since 2011. Officially tasked with fighting Islamic State (IS) militants, Russia’s sophisticated air force spent most of its time attacking non-IS rebel factions to back up the Assad regime’s militia forces.
The effect on civilians was devastating. In 2016, the city of Aleppo fell after a long siege that included Russian bombing. Either out of fear of reprisal, being left homeless, or both, Syrians from Aleppo and other cities suffering from bombing fled in massive numbers.
That year, the U.N. refugee agency summarized the situation in a strategic plan:
“Over the last 12 months, the number of registered Syrian refugees in the Republic of Turkey, the Lebanese Republic, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Republic of Iraq, and the Arab Republic of Egypt has increased by more than 1 million, bringing the overall total to almost 4.3 million. Based on the most recent trends in displacement and population growth, and with access to safety in some countries becoming increasingly managed, it is expected that some 4.7 million Syrian refugees will be registered in the region by the end of 2016.
“Fighting has intensified in almost all Syrian governorates, driving thousands more people from their homes. The 2016 Syria Humanitarian Response Plan estimates that there are 13.5 million people in need, of whom 6 million are children and 6.5 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs).”
Reporting on the Aleppo bombing campaign, Human Rights Watch accused Russia and Syria of war crimes:
“A global coalition of 223 nongovernmental organizations on December 1 called upon U.N. member states to request an Emergency Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly to demand an end to all unlawful attacks on civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, and immediate and unhindered humanitarian access so that life-saving aid can reach all those in need. Member states should also explore possible avenues to bring those responsible for serious crimes under international law on all sides to justice, the organizations said.
“The appeal comes in response to Russia’s October 8 veto of a draft U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an end to all aerial bombardment of Aleppo, the fifth time Moscow has blocked council action since the conflict began in 2011.”
To be sure, U.S. actions in Syria are not above criticism: Witness recent exposés by The New York Times reporting that bombing caused many civilian casualties in the rush to mop up Islamic State, with special military units allegedly disregarding protocols meant to protect innocents. (In response, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered an investigation into one strike the Times said may have killed dozens of civilians near the town of Baghuz.)
With regard to migrants moving through Belarus, however, the Foreign Ministry is deceptively blaming other governments for a crisis of its own making.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime had been advertising cheap trips to Minsk and giving out visas in locales such as Iraq.
Lithuanian officials cited reports and documents shown to them by some of the migrants as evidence that Minsk has been encouraging travel to Belarus. The Reuters news agency found evidence that smugglers in Iraq were distributing airline tickets to Belarus for more than $10,000 per person. The Assad regime’s state-owned airline, Cham Wings, helped fly would-be migrants to Minsk.
Upon arrival, migrants reported being conveyed to the border by Belarusian authorities and in some cases reported being pushed across. Due to winter conditions at the border, some have perished from exposure.
In two speeches delivered in the summer of 2021, Lukashenko all but acknowledged his plan to flood his neighbors with migrants.
“If some think that we will close our borders with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, they are mistaken,” Lukashenko said in a speech in July.
“We won’t hold anyone. They are coming not to us but to enlightened, warm and cozy Europe.”
In November, the European Union announced new sanctions against the Belarusian regime, which already was being punished for its treatment of protesters and dissidents after the disputed August 2020 election, in which Lukashenko claimed victory.
In December, the United States expanded sanctions against the regime, this time targeting 20 individuals and 12 entities. The new measures also sanction Belarusian sovereign debt.