Written by: Pola Zabuska
Edited by: Celina Ferrari


The topics of human rights and migration are intrinsically connected, as politicians have a tendency to avoid compliance with international norms and regulations within this area, to gain political leverage or bring over the public opinion. This article will delve into the humanitarian crisis on the Belarus-Poland border, as the issue remains unresolved since 2021. The paper will firstly illustrate how the crisis was constructed by the Belarusian leader, and then analyse the inadequate response and politicisation by the Polish government. The crisis reflects the continuous disregard and violations of the human rights of people who have been weaponised for the interest of states and international competition, specifically by actors in the European sphere.


In the context of a new wave of migration from the Middle East and Africa to Southern Europe, and the European Union’s (EU) negotiations over new relocation mechanisms, the ongoing refugee crisis on the Belarus-Poland border cannot be forgotten. Since the start of the crisis in the summer of 2021, thousands of people from Syria and Iraq have been flying to Belarus, attempting to enter the EU through one of the Baltic States (Human Rights Watch, 2021). The topic’s importance in 2021 and the ongoing refugee crisis in the region seem to have been forgotten by the West, even though migrants continue to appear at the Polish border (Protecting Rights at Borders, 2023).

This article will analyse the ongoing humanitarian crisis focusing on human rights violations performed by the  Belarusian and Polish border patrols, as well as its political roots. Accordingly, it aims to highlight the disrespect to migrants’ lives at national level, and the weaponisation of their status in the international forum. The article will thus first provide background information, including the state of bilateral relations between the involved actors. It will then analyse the violations carried out through the lens of actions and discourses shaped by political leaders in Belarus, Poland and Russia. Finally, the article will provide conclusions and recommendations for the future. 


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus and Poland experienced a significant breakdown in their relationship. This was partly attributed to the diverging decisions regarding their relations with Russia: as Poland began to cut ties with Moscow, Belarus chose to strengthen them (Kuleszewicz, 2017, p.94). Consequently, as economic and military integration between these countries was growing, and Belarus started taking an autocratic path, the Polish government along with the Baltic states began to support the Polish democratic opposition (Bendarzsevszkij, 2021, p.620). Therefore, considering the tensions between Western Europe and Russia, Belarus is an actor of crucial importance to the region, with its proximity to the EU and NATO borders (Kuleszewicz, 2017, p.95). For example, Moscow placed their soldiers in the cities of Brest and Grodno, close to Poland, and performed common military exercises, executing a scenario in  which NATO is perceived as an enemy and threat (Kuleszewicz, 2017, p.95).

More recently, due to the evidence that the 2020 Belarusian elections were falsified, sanctions were imposed on its members of the government and electoral commission (Miadzvetskaya & Challet, 2022, p.8). Nevertheless, the one event specifically considered ‘the final straw’ is the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger flight in May 2021, which resulted in the undertaking of the actions leading to the humanitarian crisis at the borders. As a reaction to this breach of air transportation regulation by Belarusian forces attempting to arrest a local activist, the EU implemented the fourth package of sanctions. This time it aimed at disturbing not only the representatives of the authoritarian government, but also the state’s economy (Miadzvetskaya & Challet, 2022, p.11).

Instrumentalisation of Migrants

Firstly, the flow of migrants considered ‘unnatural’ presented Lukashenko with the strategic opportunity to instrumentalise the refugees for his self-interest. Drawing on the information above, it is visible how in 2021 the EU’s harsh reaction to the Belarusian actions amounted to further tensions between these actors (Łubiński, 2022, p 45). Therefore, the Belarusian leader decided, following Russia’s footsteps, to threaten the EU’s external security without causing serious diplomatic damage or war (Łubiński, 2022, p 46). Consequently, the whole apparatus of the authoritarian state got involved in facilitating the travels of migrants to the EU borders by spreading information in the Middle East, promoting travels to Minsk, and increasing the number of flights available by the state-owned Belavia airline (Muraszkiewicz & Piotrowicz, 2023, p.7).

As a result of this strategy, around 30,000 people were caught trying to cross the Polish border by the end of November 2021, being transferred there with the help of Belarusian officials or smugglers (Human Rights Watch, 2021). The fact that the border patrol was directly pushing migrants through the non-official Polish crossing, thus endangering their ability to claim legal asylum there and criminalising them, highlights the instrumentalisation and lack of respect towards migrants presented by Lukashenko (Łubiński, 2022, p 51). Furthermore, Belarusian guards conducted direct abuses against migrants, such as violent treatment, forced incitement to attempt to cross the border, limitation to the freedom of movement and food, medication and shelter restrictions. (Human Rights Watch, 2021). Therefore, the Belarusian authoritarian regime indirectly infringed the rights of migrants by engaging in human trafficking through the facilitation and promotion of travelling to Minsk. Moreover, they also did it directly, through the abuses by the border patrol.

Secondly, the reaction of the Polish government to the unravelling events at the border was disregarding the situation as a humanitarian crisis and focusing  instead on the political intentions behind it. For a democratic EU Member State, Polish officials behaved with extreme disrespect for human lives at stake and decided to play the game with Belarus and Russia. This is specifically portrayed by the discourses used by its political leaders, highlighting that the situation is a security crisis and hybrid warfare, ignoring the dire effects on migrants (Bekić, 2022, p.161). This attitude is best illustrated by Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki who contended that, due to Lukashenko’s ‘blackmail’ against the EU, Poland would not be able to welcome all migrants (Bekić, 2022, p.161). Nevertheless, the artificial nature of the crisis should not take away the responsibility of the Polish government to protect and uphold the human rights of migrants.

Furthermore, the measures undertaken by Polish officials in this crisis are centred on the militarisation of the border and thus, externalising the issue of migrants who are stuck in the border areas without any aid. A state of emergency has been announced in the areas along the border, signifying that access to the area is restricted and strictly controlled by military forces (Bekić, 2022, p.161). As a consequence, journalists trying to report from the ground, and, most importantly, activists attempting to provide humanitarian aid, have been arrested for their actions (Gall, 2022). Moreover, in June 2022, the Polish government announced the completion of the border-long wall, a project worth 350 million euros (Ministerstwo Spraw Wewnętrznych i Administracji, 2022). Therefore, the reality of  Poland’s decision to militarise its border with Belarus and criminalise human rights defenders, displays that in this humanitarian crisis, politics and self-interest ranked higher on the agenda than the respect for human lives.

The Polish government acted inadequately vis-a-vis the humanitarian crisis, thus not according to the norms expected from a liberal democracy, and escalated it by pursuing anti-migrant discourse. As the government was highlighting the need to militarise the border, people began to feel more anxious about the threat. In return, it facilitated the dehumanisation of migrants and increased the acceptance among the population of the border patrol’s violent behaviour towards them (Górska et al., 2023, p.1). Adding to this intensification is a xenophobic and racist dimension of the issue. The Polish right-wing government is led by the Law and Justice party, known for its anti-migrant stance, especially visible during the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe (Klaus & Szulecka, 2022, p.473). Nevertheless, the Polish officials’ attitude is clearly anti-Muslim when analysing the more recent cases of migrant flows to Poland. This was clearly noted when the people fleeing from Belarus on account of the authoritarian regime in 2020 and escaping the war in Ukraine in 2021 were warmly welcomed by Polish authorities and the legal formalities of their stay were facilitated with ease in contrast to the current crisis (Klaus & Szulecka, 2022, p.474). 

Accordingly, one can see that discriminatory attitudes, fuelled by internal politics also influenced compliance with the human rights of migrants. Against this background, Polish border security guards are reported to be using physical violence, as well as, stealing valuables from the incomers (Human Rights Watch, 2021). Moreover, the push-back has been legally allowed since August 2021 through new legislation, which allowed border patrol members to expel refugees caught crossing the border illegally, without considering their asylum applications (Protecting Rights at Borders, 2023). Thus, Polish officials continue to force migrants back to Belarus, leaving them in cold swaps without access to food and medication, or pushing them through the small gates created in the fence to allow wild animals to travel across both countries (Human Rights Watch, 2021; Protecting Rights at Borders, 2023). Another consequence of this new measure is that people illegally crossing the border cannot claim their asylum status, resulting in them being transferred to Belarus. Thus Poland breaches the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, as migrants cannot be sent to a country that is unsafe for them (Human Rights Watch, 2021).


Overall, the Belarus-Poland border crisis is a clear case of weaponisation and, as a consequence, instrumentalisation of migrants. I discussed how the Belarusian government weaponised the migration from the Middle East to Poland, as well as, the inappropriate reaction of Polish officials to the humanitarian crisis, which resulted in the dehumanisation of asylum seekers. Each side involved in this state of affairs opted to put their political interests above the lives of the people trapped between the borders. 

Was it in any way beneficial for them? Did anyone win in this situation? 

On the one hand, Poland did not let the migrants in, meaning that Lukashenko’s plan to disrupt the EU’s internal security did not work as planned. On the other hand, the Polish government spent millions of euros to build the wall which has not been constructed properly, meaning that people are still able to pass through the border undetected. Nevertheless, as the attention of the Belarusian regime, public opinion and Western leaders shifted to War in Ukraine, this means that the actions of Polish officials are even less monitored, leaving the migrants more vulnerable to human rights abuses. Since the beginning of the crisis, there have been around 50 deaths reported, only from the Polish side with the most recent one happening in the first week of November 2023 (Mierzyńska, 2023).  Moreover, one must account for the lack of available data from Belarus, which has a history of undemocratic practices, meaning that the number of people who lost their lives there is likely much higher. Consequently, this situation demonstrates how the current human rights regime structure is not equipped with sufficient measures for the effective implementation of protection mechanisms.

The outlook on the end of this crisis, as well as preventing similar situations from happening, is not optimistic, as long as the ideas of power politics in international relations will persist. In spite of that, one has to acknowledge the enormous efforts and role of the civil society and non-governmental organisations in this situation, as due to them the public is aware of violations of human rights committed by the Polish and Belarusian officials. Consequently, the crisis did not escalate in the way it could have if they did not monitor what was- happening on the border and did not provide the humanitarian aid themselves.


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