Yazidi and Kurdish refugees, many of whom are fleeing ethnic cleansing and genocide in Syria and Iraq, are among the thousands of people being used in a political game along the Belarus-Polish border this week.
While some outlets have been reporting for weeks about the refugees from Syria and Iraq and other countries who have ended up in Belarus and other eastern European countries, some of them dying in the cold, the crisis has now burst onto the international stage.
Belarus appears to be using a tactic perfected by Turkey back in 2020. It was also perfected by European countries in 2015. The tactic is to push migrants and refugees into neighboring countries, or at the very least create a situation in which they are stuck at the border.
In this case, it may not be entirely the fault of Belarus, as the migrants and refugees have become a huge issue for countries all across the continent, most of which pass the buck to the next state by doing precisely what Belarus is doing.
The differences between policies of European countries, as well as Turkey and Belarus, can appear stark, but they may not be as stark as the media might portray them.
I spent time crossing the borders of Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary in 2015 with the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were amassed there in the Fall of 2015. In those days, Germany had invited refugees to come to Europe and Turkey enabled Syrians and Afghans to move to Greece. Greece in turn would move the people, sometimes by ferry or by other methods, to the border with North Macedonia.
I watched as people in cars crossed into North Macedonia, while refugees were gathered together in a field and local authorities lined them up in groups of 20 to 40 people and moved them to a bridge. On the other side, in North Macedonia, the authorities would stop the people and let some board buses to Serbia. Then, from Serbia, they crossed to the Hungarian border until Hungary closed it.
This is a tragic game that plays out between states but mostly harms refugees. Small countries like Greece or Serbia cannot take in a million Afghans and Syrians. There is also no reason that countries in Europe necessarily have to take in all these people. However, the fact remains that millions are on the move and no one has quite figured out what to do with them.
Turkey currently has millions of Syrians and claims it does so as a benevolent helper. Yet Turkey has used the refugees under its care as a weapon. In March 2020, it used refugees against Greece, claiming that it had “opened the gates” to Europe in doing so. Turkey has periodically threatened to send millions of Syrians to Europe unless the EU or NATO supports its policies in Syria. Those policies include the ethnic cleansing of Kurds, Yazidis and Christians, the very people who then become refugees. In fact, Turkey had backed extremist Syrian rebel groups in 2018, paying them to ethnically cleanse Kurds from Afrin.
Some of the Syrians who were displaced in Syria, either by Turkey or by the Assad regime, along with refugees from Iraq, have ended up in Belarus. Various accounts of how they got there differ, but the reality is that the refugees are there and Belarus isn’t interested in hosting such large numbers of civilians. Belarus, an authoritarian state with low socioeconomic status, has no experience with large numbers of minorities from the Middle East. Additionally, none of the bordering countries - Lithuania and Russia - seem to want the migrants.
The policies being put in place may be based on a mix of the cynical use of refugees and migrants as well as racism. What is important is that this is a new frontline crisis now on the European continent and is recalling past experiences, like the ones in 2015 and in 2020 when refugees were used and the crisis grew.
The experience of 2015 likely helped fuel Brexit as well. In addition, it led to terror attacks of unprecedented mass killings in France thanks to France's "open gate" policy. In some cases, the terrorists were not actually from Syria or Iraq, but rather from where ISIS members who had actually journeyed from Europe to the Middle East and returned.
Either way, the huge masses of people moving to Europe were never properly accurately counted. I witnessed tens of thousands of people moving across borders with not a single border check, no attempt to fingerprint or take photos for facial recognition, or any effort to get the people to even sign their names when entering a state.
It was total chaos in 2015 and it is total chaos today. Why?
Because even though Europe has organizations like the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, it never bothered to streamline a process of immigration and identification. Despite having the most advanced software and artificial intelligence systems available - some of which have been used during the pandemic - the theory is that when it comes to migrants and refugees, people will be treated as they were back in 1911 or 1946.
There’s almost no difference to the chaos of Europe’s inability to deal with refugees today as it was in 1946, and it might be argued that actually in the 1940s and 1950s, in the aftermath of the Second World War and Holocaust, that European countries were more organized in resettling and dealing with major movements of people.
The tragedy unfolding today along the borders of Belarus and the media’s attempt to cast blame on one or another state fails to capture the realities of 2015 and 2020 when little was done to learn the lessons of what Turkey and other countries did in those years.
Since then, EU countries have often paid Ankara to keep migrants from traveling to Europe. That is clearly a short-term solution and has had the effect of outsourcing abuses to Turkey, sometimes even Libya. For instance, Turkey is now building a border wall along Iran’s border to block Afghan migrants and it has built a wall along the border with Syria. Now, more fences and walls are going up in Europe between Belarus and Poland.
Poland is in the unenviable position of dealing with the migrant crisis now. Belarus may be cynically exploiting it, but the overall context is that there are refugees and migrants in Belarus who don’t want to be stuck there. Where are the Western asylum-seeking policies set up to help genocide survivors? Where were they when genocide was enacted against the Yazidis and the Kurds in Afrin?
All across Europe, various museums relating to the Holocaust lead many people to say “never again,” but when it comes to actual genocide survivors, little is actually different than when IDPs fled the camps in 1945. By the 1950s most of those IDPs were resettled. For Yazidis who suffered genocide in 2014, there is no end in sight, whether in Belarus or elsewhere.