As the ‘Kurdish refugee problem’ along the Belarus-Poland border has once again taken centre stage in several governmental and supra-governmental EU and NATO deliberations, several political observers worldwide have condemned the actions and cynical stances taken by certain governments, NATO and the EU.
Vadim Gigin, chairman of the board of the Belarusian Znanie society, writing for BelTA, raised his concerns that the genuine plight of refugees (many of whom are Kurdish) was being exploited for political ends by political parties in Poland.
“The Polish ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) is known for ultra-conservative ideology and over-the-chart nationalism. So, PiS,” he observed, “decided to take advantage of the situation and use it, amid the falling ratings, to consolidate their electorate by fanning xenophobic sentiments and fierce Islamophobia. Don’t believe me? Then have a look at the Polish social media, read the posts of supporters of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of PiS and the true master of Poland.”
Gigin added that “Polish politicians seemed unsatisfied with the chauvinistic frenzy” and have “started whipping up war hysteria. They began to pull troops to the Belarusian border. It is not in vain that they purchased German Leopards [Leopard tanks], right? Why not use them against migrants?”
He also criticised the opposition for being not far behind the ruling party, as well as Donald Tusk (the former prime minister of Poland and former president of the European Council) for using the situation to advocate a “military style” solution that conveniently and geopolitically ramps up tensions between the US/NATO and Russia.
Tusk, the leader of Poland’s main opposition party, Civic Platform, has “called to trigger Article 4 of the NATO treaty, that is, to resort to the help of the North Atlantic Alliance.” Subsequent to this, as Gigin has noted disapprovingly, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, “made her copy-book statements. The US Department of State did it too. Probably, over time, the Polish initiative on sanctions will get a go-ahead. Why not? The more sanctions the merrier,” in terms of geostrategic and geopolitical posturing and strategies by a number of governments and the EU against Russia and its ‘sphere of influence.’
The FT has reported that Ursula von der Leyen “has called for member states to approve further sanctions on Minsk, and said the bloc would target airlines helping ferry migrants to Belarus.”
For Gigin, several governments have behaved in a shameful manner in the face of this humanitarian crisis: “All their rhetoric about democracy and human rights has been washed away by the tears of a Kurdish child who is now freezing in a Podlaskie forest.”
Tusk’s call to trigger Article 4 of the NATO treaty implicates Kurdish and ‘Othered’ refugees as linked ‘threats’
At a time when Turkey is engaged in an ever escalating ‘war against Kurds’ in Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and AANES in Syria, leading to war crimes and crimes against humanity being perpetrated against Kurds in those regions, and at a time when there have been reports of Turkish armed forces allegedly using chemical weapons and toxic gas warfare against Kurds – also at a time when many Kurds in the diaspora in Europe face unjust criminalisation by state authorities due to profitable and historic military and arms trading/economic ‘special relationships’ they have with Turkey – it would appear that Tusk’s call to trigger Article 4 of the NATO treaty now chooses to additionally implicate Kurdish and ‘Othered’ refugees struggling to survive in sub-zero temperatures along the Belarus-Poland border as linked ‘threats’ to Poland’s ‘territorial integrity, political independence and security.’
NATO’s Article 4, after all, simply states: “The Parties [in NATO] will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” This, after it was reported that some migrants/refugees, trapped in a zone along the border, “camped in sub-zero temperatures and surrounded by armed guards, water cannons and barbed wire,” trying to move into Poland, have been involved in “clashes” with Polish border guards.
Tusk has explicitly referred to “the threat posed by the migrant wave,” adding: “What is most important is perhaps to consider whether we should trigger NATO’s Article 4 if our border is under direct threat from physical pressure with Belarusian involvement, and I mean Belarusian state services.”
Various reports have suggested that Belarusian state and non-state services have been engaged in trafficking and facilitating the transport of refugees to the Polish border.
The actions and stances taken by Polish authorities against the refugees have been criticised by the Grodno Oblast branch of the Belarusian Union of Women, who have also criticised European officials for their collusion by silence over what is happening in real-time: “Why do you keep silent when Polish law enforcement personnel use gas, scare with gun fire and the wail of sirens the defenceless children, women, and families of refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan right in front of your very eyes?
“Why can’t we hear angry voices complaining about Polish authorities, who blatantly defy international laws, norms and rules, multiple directives and resolutions of the human rights summits that Europeans love so much? Do you even treat these hapless refugees as humans? It is high time to raise your voice in defence of rights of women and children.”
KRG’s Ziad Rauf accuses Kurdish ‘migrants’ of harming ‘the reputation of the KRG’
There have also been reports that certain Kurdish refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan, when interviewed, have stated that they were fleeing because of “the lack of human rights, freedom and democracy, and the high rates of unemployment,” their extreme targeting as journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan and also because they were being forced to fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Certainly, it is the case, as MedyaNews and other news platforms have extensively reported, that freedom of the press has come under extreme attack in Iraqi Kurdistan and journalists have a well-founded fear of being persecuted – detained and tried without due process and subjected to torture.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), for example, states that, “in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, there seems to be virtually no limits to the persecution of journalists who criticise its ruling families. They are jailed on charges of spying or endangering state security on the basis of confessions extracted under torture or by means of threats.
“Some journalists in the region have died in unclear circumstances, and the suspicion that the authorities were responsible is reinforced by the lack of any serious investigation into their deaths.”
Only last month, RSF and the Metro Centre, an Iraqi Kurdish NGO that defends journalists’ rights, called “for the immediate release of five journalists detained in Iraqi Kurdistan, three of whom are on hunger strike in protest against the conditions in which they are being held.”
It is also the case, as several commentators have noted, that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has mobilised against the PKK and played an accommodating role to Turkey’s military operations in the region which have been accused of perpetrating ecocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In response to some of these reported assertions by the Kurdish refugees, it was reported that on Wednesday the representative of the KRG in Poland, Ziad Rauf, “accused Kurdish migrants on the Belarus-Poland border of telling falsehoods to European officials, that have harmed the reputation of the KRG.”
Rauf is reported to have “told the Voice of America (VOA) that he ha[d] heard from the Polish authorities and European observers about what the migrants [we]re telling officials to justify their emigration.” He characterised their stated reasons for fleeing Iraqi Kurdistan as “‘inaccurate and unfair.’ He claimed that some of the migrants said that they are journalists who will be arrested and tortured if they stay in the Kurdistan Region and that others said that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) had forced them to fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). ‘They have fabricated many other stories that the mind does not accept,’ he added.”
Many human rights defenders and human rights observers monitoring the state of affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, might beg to differ with his statements and assertions.
Kurds: Once again ‘pawns’ in greater geopolitical ‘games’
With these strategies and ‘developments’ unfolding, Kurdish refugees once again would appear to be ‘pawns’ in greater geopolitical ‘games’ and conflicts over territorial control that are being played out by the superpowers and regional powers. This, even as Gigin has emphasised that, “footage from the Belarusian-Polish border is scary. Here it would be worth recalling that on 25 August, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Poland to provide refugees with housing and clothing.
“On 30 September, Amnesty International harshly criticised the Polish authorities for their treatment of refugees. The very practice of forcing migrants out is contrary to international law.”
As reported in the Independent, Alyona Chakhovich, “a human rights activist in Minsk, says few of those who made the trip to Belarus understood the dangers they would face. ‘They are promised money and an easy passage to Europe,’ she said. Now they don’t see a way back: ‘It’s either too dangerous back home or they think that they’ve spent too much money to give up.’
“Chakhovich says the migrants she has met come in all kinds: women, families, young children, single men. Thousands of them are sleeping rough as they wait for their chance to cross into Europe. A lucky few make it across the border into the hands of smugglers. Many do not – turned back for the pleasure of Belarusian border guards. At least ten are reported dead.”
Chakhovich, the Independent reported, “criticised the positions of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in refusing to consider asylum applications once migrants made it to their border. They were in breach of their international obligations like Belarus, she argued.”
Aid workers, we are informed, “complain that Poland’s state of emergency means they are unable” even “to enter the affected area: ‘For us it is heart-breaking. We are here, near the border and we cannot enter the zone and help people. We can only help those who manage to cross the border and make it out of the restricted area,’ Ania Chmielewska added.
The State Border Committee of Belarus also reported on Wednesday that, “in addition to the use of physical violence and tear gas, Polish servicemen use military-grade weapons and fire shots over their heads of the refugees as they try to cross the border. The events of the recent days have shown that the Polish security forces do not restrain themselves in their means, beating refugees severely and forcing them out from the Polish territory. This is done to intimidate and show force in front of defenceless people fleeing from war-torn countries. (…)
“The EU has not reacted to Poland’s actions, which indicates silent approval of almost all illegal actions in solving the migrant crisis. It should be noted that such ill-considered actions can lead to a border conflict.”
The refugees, trapped along the border, will also find that “Poland and Lithuania have amended their legislation on asylum procedures in a way that deprives migrants, who often lack documents, of any practical way to apply for asylum. According to the [European] Commission, it is still analysing the changes to verify if they are compatible with international and EU law on asylum.”
“With winter closing in,” and with the refugees trapped in the geopolitical games of governments, the Independent concluded that “the lion’s share of suffering looks to be falling on the shoulders of vulnerable migrants” – many of whom are Kurdish refugees, reportedly from Iraqi Kurdistan and parts of Syria.
It added: “According to Polish and Lithuanian authorities, at least 10,000 remain in Belarus. Most have nowhere to go. ‘They could die if they attempt to cross the border, but they could die from the cold if they stay for the Belarusian winter. (…) This has the makings of a major humanitarian crisis,’” concluded Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst in exile in Kiev, who also suggested that Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko was exploiting the situation because he “believes the migrant emergency is a way of creating leverage for negotiations with Europe. It’s also convenient ‘revenge’ for support of sanctions and the opposition.”
Shraibman was also reported in the Financial Times as arguing that Lukashenko was also motivated by the following: “When you’ve got problems with your rating at home, you need to generate this threat on steroids and find new ways to force conflicts with your neighbours so that your own security apparatus remains well-toned.”
Johnson: Lukashenko’s ‘inspiration’ comes from ‘the devil’s pact that the EU made’ with the ‘notorious despot’ Erdoğan
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, has “floated the idea that the EU should provide financial assistance to Belarus to encourage it to stop the surge in migrants, comparing the situation to a deal that Brussels struck with Turkey during the 2016 migrant crisis.”
To Daniel Johnson, a journalist writing for the Article, an online news platform, the EU, despite pitching itself as a ‘wronged party,’ is to be criticised for the way in which it has actually indirectly encouraged Lukashenko to act in the way he has. Even though it clearly and scandalously, in the opinion of many seasoned observers, succumbed to blackmail by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan to facilitate a ‘refugee deal’ with Turkey, “German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had the audacity on Wednesday to state that the EU would not be blackmailed” over a refugee deal. It would appear that he hoped that no-one would correct him in this matter or hold him to account by pointing to the Turkey ‘refugee deal.’
Hişyar Özsoy, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MP and co-spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, for example, has stated that “when it comes to the ‘international community,’ there has been some criticism against Turkey in the past, about Turkey’s military incursions into northern Syria, but to be honest, mostly, the ‘international community’ has turned a blind eye to the kinds of atrocities that have been committed by the proxy forces of Turkey and sometimes the Turkish army itself.
“And the reason [for that] is, of course, mostly the refugee crisis, I would say. Syria is equated with millions of people, on the move, trying to reach European countries. Europe, they just don’t like the idea of having a lot of ‘refugees’ and Turkey has been keeping ‘those people’ away from Europe and Turkey has also been threatening European countries that if they want Turkey to still keep those refugees, then they should be ‘okay’ with Turkey’s military adventures in Syria.
“And that is what happened, unfortunately. The Europeans cut a deal with president Erdoğan in 2016 and between 2017-19, there were three different military incursions in Kurdish territories and mostly, mostly, the western community has remained silent on this issue.”
Daniel Johnson also asserts that the EU did strike a legally and morally reprehensible ‘dirty’ refugee/cash deal with the “despot Tayyıp Recep Erdoğan,” in which it agreed to “turn a blind eye to his atrocities and repression,” which remain ongoing against Kurds and targeted ‘Others’ in Turkey, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.
For Johnson, Lukashenko has merely responded to EU sanctions by “weaponising this criminal trade in desperate people. Not only is he enabling migrants to mass along his borders, but when Polish guards intervene, his troops threaten to shoot them. The tyrant is counting on the idea that if he can put enough pressure on the richer countries to the West, not only will they lift sanctions but also bribe him” – as they did Turkey – “to stop the migrants coming. (…) Lukashenko is trying to engineer a shakedown of the EU.
“His inspiration is, of course, the devil’s pact that the EU made a few years ago with another notorious despot: Tayyıp Recep Erdoğan. The Turkish President has repeatedly threatened to reopen his borders with Greece and the Balkans unless the EU keeps the subsidies flowing and turns a blind eye to his atrocities and repression.”
In this context, Johnson reports that “Turkey has received more than £5 billion from Brussels so far to keep up to three million Syrians in refugee camps: a tempting sum in hard currency for the ramshackle regime in Minsk. (…) Hence Europe, with its porous periphery” and supposed “democratic politics”, Europe which facilitates these types of ‘calculated’ deals with despots, “is uniquely vulnerable to blackmail by unscrupulous autocrats.”
Geopolitical ‘games’ and the road to war, using ‘migrants’ as the pretext?
This ‘refugee crisis’ has led to – and/or has been used to facilitate – what many ‘deep political’ planners and hawkish ‘pro-war’ and far right politicians and circles had hoped for in terms of an ‘escalation in tensions’ and the ‘next round of sanctions and military mobilisations’ between NATO/US/EU and Russia and its perceived allies.
“Poland’s army is on high alert, with 12,000 troops and anti-terror squads mobilised in border areas. To the north, fellow EU member Lithuania on Tuesday also declared a state of emergency. It explained the move as a protection against what it described as an act of hybrid warfare from Belarus. Local media reported large numbers of cars loaded to capacity travelling towards Lithuania. Social media footage from Minsk also showed groups gathering ahead of what could be a journey to the same border. (…)
“The European Commission said on Tuesday Belarus was taking a ‘gangster-style’ approach to the issue by illegally offering migrants easy entrance into the EU via its territory. It said more sanctions against Minsk were on the way.”
“This regime is seeking to destabilise the European Union by encouraging migrant trafficking,” the French Foreign Ministry also stated on Tuesday. “What we are facing here, we must be clear, is a manifestation of state terrorism,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated on Wednesday in a news conference with visiting EU head Charles Michel.
Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, has made the accusation that Lukashenko’s “strategic goal – and that of his patron in Moscow – is to destabilise the eastern border of the EU and NATO, to test the unity of NATO and the EU.”
“This week,” the Article reported, “the German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, accused the Russian President of ‘orchestrating’ the burgeoning migration crisis in Eastern Europe for ‘political purposes.’ His accusations echo those of Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, who accuses Putin of using his proxy, Belarus, to carry out his plan of ‘rebuilding the Russian Empire.’”
Morawiecki has also reportedly “criticised Turkey for its role in transporting migrants to Belarus as a refugee crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border intensified. (…) Morawiecki made the comments in response to a question from parliamentarian Maciej Gdula. (…)
“‘A month or two ago, Turkey seemed to want to work closely with us. I will say it out loud here, because I think they will hear it there too, that we can see these actions in the nature of full synchronisation of Turkish actions with Belarus and Russia,’ he said.”
On Wednesday, in response to the aforementioned initiatives, perceived provocative statements, mobilisations and accusations, a session of the Defence Ministers Council of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) “took place in Moscow,” where “representatives of the Belarusian Defence Ministry added that Belarusian Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin met with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on the sidelines of the CIS Defense Ministers Council session. They discussed cooperation and its prospects. Viktor Khrenin also met with other CIS defence ministers.”
“Moscow and Minsk,” Tass has reported, “have serious grounds to believe that NATO’s policy towards deterring Russia and Belarus reflect the bloc’s long-term strategy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a press conference on Wednesday. ‘We have serious grounds to believe that the continued policy towards the so-called deterrence of our countries and NATO’s practical measures to move its military infrastructure to the borders of the Union State reflect the long-term strategy of that military and political alliance,’ Russia’s top diplomat said, following the results of a board meeting of the Russian and Belarusian Foreign Ministries.”
On Tuesday Lukashenko also reportedly said “he did not want an armed confrontation but ‘will not kneel’ in the stand-off. ‘We are not seeking a fight,’ he said, warning that any conflict would draw in Belarus’s ally Russia.”
“Pardon me but fighting against migrants with Leopards?,” Lukashenko responded elsewhere. “We are well versed militarily and understand what it means today to wage war with these poor people on Poland’s border with, say, Belarus, and to advance columns of tanks. It’s obvious that this is either some sort of training or blackmail. (…)
“You must agree that in today’s world, taking up arms is tantamount to death or suicide. Especially here, in the heart of Europe and even more so [in a conflict] with Belarus. You always unleashed all the wars on this piece of land in the centre and everything began from here. Haven’t you learned anything from history?” he asked.
According to Fars News Agency, “the Polish side has also decided to send units of the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade on Leopard tanks to the town of Biala Podlaska on the border with Belarus. Also, US Abrams and German Leopard tanks were engaged in drills in Lithuania near the borders with Belarus.”
The Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei was drawn to comment on Wednesday: “Political intimidation of the Belarusian state continues. The fifth package of sanctions is on its way, according to the speculations in the West. The reason for which this time is the migration crisis, triggered by the European Union and its member states bordering on Belarus. Given the increasing sanctions pressure, which our countries are experiencing, we are aimed at consolidated work with our Russian colleagues and mutual support, including the joint response to the unfriendly actions against our states.”
On Wednesday, B92 reported that, “on Tuesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described the refugee crisis on the border with Belarus as a new type of war and part of a ‘coordinated attack,’ accusing the Belarusian side of deliberately releasing migrants. On the other hand, official Minsk considers that the accusations of Warsaw that Belarusian soldiers are crossing the border with Poland are unfounded, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence announced. Russia has sent two strategic bombers into the airspace of Belarus. (…) Two long-range Tu-22 bombers of the Russian Air Force patrolled the airspace of Belarus”.
The Moscow Times has reported that “the Kremlin said it was ‘irresponsible’ for Poland to blame Putin for the crisis, while Belarus’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said the EU was causing the crisis because it wanted a reason to impose new sanctions. ‘The migrant crisis was provoked by the EU itself and its states that border Belarus,’ Makei said on a visit to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov”.
Oleg Gaidukevich, an MP of the House of Representatives and Chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus presented a counter-accusation: “What Poland and Lithuania are doing now on the border is a mockery of people, putting the army against women and children and asking for NATO’s help. This is the violation of all international laws. It is not only inhuman towards children and women, it is also a deliberate provocation aimed at justifying the presence of NATO troops on our border.
“Everything is done exactly for this purpose, under the pretext of the migrant crisis” – with Kurdish and ‘Othered’ refugees used as ‘pawns’ – “to fight against 2,000 migrants, including pregnant women and children, against whom they use tear gas and frighten at night with loud music and bright flashes of lights. However, the Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian ‘friends,’ who are now speaking and acting together, must be well aware that there will be an adequate response.”
Gaidukevich suggested that, in retaliation, there would be an immense escalation in the militarisation of the border region that will raise the stakes in the ‘games’ being played out: “They will have S-400s, Polones and more serious military systems, joint Belarusian-Russian weapons on the border. We will strengthen the military presence on the border, but we will not allow any military scenario against our countries.”
It was also reported on Wednesday that “the duty air defence units along the western border and the north-western border have been reinforced, the Belarusian Defence Ministry told BelTA. Interaction of units and assets belonging to the Belarusian-Russian joint regional air defence system was practiced on 10 November upon the Belarusian Defence Ministry’s decision and with approval of the Russian Defence Ministry. Belarusian Air Force units and Russian ones took part in the drill. (…)
“The patrolling of Belarus’s aerial border was arranged with assistance of two Russian Tu-22M3 aircraft. (…) Flights of strategic bombers used to be cyclical in the past. Starting 10 November, they will become regular.”
BelTA also reported on Wednesday that “Belarusian-Russian political dialogue has noticeably gained pace, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said at a meeting of the Russian-Belarusian ministerial collegium. (…) ‘Today’s event is part of an intensive Belarusian-Russian political dialogue, which has noticeably intensified lately,’ Sergey Lavrov said. He called the meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of 4 November momentous. (…) ‘These decisions will pave the way for deeper integration of Russia and Belarus in various fields,’ Sergey Lavrov said.”
And whilst diplomatic and geostrategic moves and initiatives of the kind outlined above proceed, desperate Kurdish and ‘Othered’ refugees remain trapped in a zone along the Belarus-Poland border, being terrorised – there is no other word for it – in the manner described earlier.
Desmond Fernandes is a former Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at De Montfort University and the author of several books, including ‘The Kurdish and Armenian Genocides: from Censorship and Denial to Recognition?’ He has written a number of articles and book chapters focusing on the targeting of the ‘Other,’ the physical and cultural/linguistic genocide of Kurds and the criminalisation of the Kurdish diaspora, most recently for the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Genocide Studies and Prevention, The Kurdish Question and the ‘Routledge Handbook on the Kurds.’