Europe Tried to Seal Itself Off. It Didn’t Work.

In the vast primeval forest that lies between Poland and Belarus, European bison graze under ancient trees alongside refugees, weak from cold and hunger. The new arrivals — from countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria and Cameroon — have different stories, but a shared predicament. They all purchased flights to Minsk, Belarus, with the promise that they would be taken to the European Union, only to end up stranded in the woods.

Left to wander the forest in freezing conditions, the migrants are the victims of President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus. In retaliation for European Union sanctions against his regime, he is reportedly luring people to Minsk and then depositing them at the country’s border with Poland. But the problem goes beyond Belarus. The Polish government, presenting itself as the nation’s protector from invasion, has refused the migrants entry — and, in some cases, actively pushed them back into the woods.

Far from earning rebuke, Poland’s approach has the backing of the European Union. It is, after all, more or less what the E.U. has been doing for the past five years. To avoid a repeat of the migrant crisis of 2015-16, when over a million people sought refuge in Europe, the bloc has tried to seal off the continent from another influx of people.

But these efforts, often draconian and brutal, have failed. In the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and as unrest continues across the world, more people will head for Europe. The next migrant crisis has arrived.

With southern routes choked off, the bloc’s eastern border has become a major point of entry. Since August, there have been thousands of attempts to cross the Polish border outside official checkpoints. It’s a perilous undertaking: For almost two months, a group of 32 people from Afghanistan has been trapped near the Polish border village of Usnarz Gorny. They receive meager rations, lack fresh water and, according to aid workers, are losing strength and struggling to move.

Poland’s response has been severe. The government ignored a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which is separate from the European Union, to provide food, clothing and medical care. And by declaring a state of emergency, it barred journalists and aid workers from coming within three kilometers of the border zone. Not content with a media blackout, it’s also, like neighboring Lithuania, erecting a fence along the border.

In adopting this stance, the Polish government is following its own example. In 2015, at the height of the crisis, the leader of Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, claimed that Muslim refugees carried parasites. After riding popular fear to electoral success, the party made good on its anti-migrant agenda and refused to accept quotas of refugees assigned by the European Union. It was joined by the Czech Republic and Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, began building a wall on Hungary’s border with Serbia and Croatia.

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Polish soldiers at the border zone near Krynki.

Credit…Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto—via Associated Press

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    Polish soldiers at the border zone near Krynki.

    Credit…Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto—via Associated Press

  • Slide 2 of 3


    A migrant at the border between Belarus and Poland.

    Credit…Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto—via Associated Press

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    Border guards circling Afghan refugees at the Polish and Belarusian border.

    Credit…Attila Husejnow / SOPA Images/Sipa US—via Associated Press

Their approach now seems prophetic. In “fortress Europe,” enclosure is the new normal. In the past five years, the bloc has paid Turkey and Libya to keep out migrants and patrolled the Mediterranean Sea, while member states including Austria, Greece and Bulgaria have installed new border fortifications. The E.U. is currently working on a financial deal with Afghanistan’s neighbors to prevent people fleeing the Taliban from coming to Europe. Violent border pushbacks are increasingly common, illegal measures that critics say are supported by the bloc’s border agency, Frontex. The message is clear: Newcomers must be turned away, no matter the cost.

European officials insist such policies are necessary. Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, said in late September that the bloc must “stand together to protect our external borders.” But what kind of politics is the E.U. enabling?

On Sept. 27, Poland’s interior ministry held a news conference accusing the refugees of terrorism, zoophilia and pedophilia. As “proof” it offered a presentation of photos supposedly taken from migrants’ cellphones, which included images of Islamic State decapitations and a man having sex with a horse. Journalists revealed that these shots actually came from the internet and had no connection to the migrants.

The presentation was “crazy and evil, but also silly and poorly done,” Franciszek Sterczewski, a member of the Polish parliament from the opposition party Civic Coalition, told me recently. Mr. Sterczewski made headlines in August when he was filmed trying to dash past soldiers and border guards to deliver bags full of supplies to the refugees at Usnarz Gorny. His stunt generated right-wing parodies on social media as well as statements of support. “Right now, the government controls the story,” he said. “We should have a strong response.”

There is no time to lose. At least five people, according to Polish officials, have already died. But Piotr Bystrianin, head of the Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish refugee charity that is trying to help people stuck at the border, told me the real number is unknown and probably higher. He cited the case of a 16-year-old boy from Iraq whose family called Ocalenie after being pushed back into the forest. At the time of contact, the boy was vomiting blood; in the morning, the organization learned that he was dead. As temperatures drop, Mr. Bystrianin said, many more may perish.

In his book “Strangers at Our Door,” written during the 2015-16 crisis, Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish sociologist and World War II veteran, argued that militarized borders are a misguided response to uninvited guests. The only solution to fear, he wrote, is to replace hostility with hospitality, showing forms of solidarity that recognize our interdependence as a species. Mr. Bauman, who died in 2017, did not live to see his hopes realized.

Instead, as more and more people displaced by armed conflict and climate change are turned away by the world’s richer nations, refugees are left to languish in Europe’s forests. Their fate feels like the dark premonition of a future that is already here.

Joy Neumeyer (@JoyNeumeyer) is a historian of Russia and Eastern Europe, and a fellow at the European University Institute.

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