Why Lukashenko’s plan still doesn’t work out

The Belarusian ruler Lukashenko wants to punish the EU by letting thousands of refugees pass through. On the face of it, he has achieved his goal – but appearances are deceptive.

“ALARM. The Polish border is tight. The Belarusian authorities have told you lies. Go back to Minsk! Do not take pills from Belarusian soldiers.” Numerous people who were in the Polish border area with Belarus have received these SMS messages in the past few weeks. According to Poland’s Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński, the news reached almost 31,000 people in just one night.

An attached link leads to the website of the Polish government. One sentence stands out among all the warnings: “You could be poisoned!” The warning is intended to deter people. The government had set up a restricted zone on the border with Belarus weeks ago. Only residents and authorities are allowed in there, journalists are excluded. The background: Belarus is sending thousands of asylum seekers across the border to Poland and into the EU – in response to Brussels sanctions. Ruler Alexander Lukashenko wants to increase the pressure. With consequences for Germany?

More than 4,600 illegal entries since August

“Any attempt to hide and sleep in the open air can end tragically,” the Polish government warns the migrants. In fact, several people died on the border trying to enter in September.

For the people, most of whom fled to the EU from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Iran via Belarus, returning to Belarus is out of the question. The journey was too long, strenuous and expensive; the hope for a better life in the European Union is too great. More and more refugees use the escape route via Belarus and Poland to get to Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania or Saxony. Since the beginning of August, more than 4,600 people have entered illegally, as the federal police told t-online. You will be picked up at the border and then handed over to the immigration authorities or an initial reception center.

A strong trend is emerging

According to the spokesman, people mainly walk in groups, some are smuggled in in an organized manner. The police not only arrest the migrants in the German-Polish border area, but also pull suspected smugglers out of traffic. Officials only caught two suspects from Ukraine in the border area near Görlitz on Tuesday. According to media reports, smugglers take between 1,000 and 6,000 euros to bring people illegally into the EU. They mostly travel under inhumane conditions.

And there is a clear trend: by July the Federal Police had registered a total of 26 people with reference to the Belarus route this year. In August there were 474 and in September 1,914 people. This month this high was exceeded on October 11th.

There are clear reasons for the sharp increase in illegal entries. “There are a number of indications that show that the refugee movement is being promoted by the Belarusian regime,” said Jakob Wöllenstein in an interview with t-online. He heads the office of the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Lithuania. The Baltic country is one of the main arrival countries for people from the crisis regions. The fact that more and more refugees are now being apprehended on the eastern German border is only the tip of a development lasting several months – and a reaction to the sanctions imposed by the EU against the Lukashenko regime in the spring, according to the expert.

A Syrian asylum seeker in Eisenhüttenstadt: After arrival, the refugees are in corona quarantine at the facility. (Source: Fabian Sommer / dpa)

Agencies are said to have recruited refugees

From Wöllenstein’s point of view, several factors have led to the high number of refugees. First of all, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry suspended a readmission agreement in May, which meant that neighboring states could no longer deport the newcomers to the country.

At the same time, it is likely that Belarus actively recruited the refugees: “There is reason to assume that state-affiliated agencies in the refugees’ countries of origin have deliberately advertised to come to Belarus in order to get into the EU from there,” explains Wöllenstein. Most of the migrants were flown in from Turkey or Iraq.

“Comparable to Germany in summer 2015”

From there it was only a small step into the EU, for example to Poland or Lithuania. Wöllenstein reports that Belarusian authorities have even brought refugees to the border area. By August, more than 4,100 people had crossed the largely unsecured Lithuanian border into the country – 44 times more than in the entire previous year. “Those were dimensions that were comparable for Lithuania with the conditions in Germany in the summer of 2015,” says Wöllenstein.

This had several consequences: Lithuania negotiated with Turkey and Iraq to suspend flights to Minsk for the time being. Together with Latvia, support was also obtained from the European border protection agency Frontex. Poland also expanded its border protection – but too late. As a result of Lukashenko’s measures, the asylum shelters in Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony are filling up. In the three federal states, more people have arrived illegally than planned – capacities are shrinking every day.

Capacities need to be expanded

“The Dresden reception facility has already reached its capacity limit. At the other locations, however, the occupancy situation is also already tense,” explains a spokesman for the Saxon Ministry of the Interior to t-online. The creation of additional accommodation capacities as well as ensuring the registration and forwarding of asylum seekers is the greatest challenge. There are currently around 3,900 places available for migrants in Saxony, 3,160 are already occupied. If the rush continues in the next few weeks, the remaining almost 750 places will be quickly exhausted.

The Saxon government now wants to expand capacities. How exactly, is still unclear. According to the spokesman, some of the arriving people will later be forwarded to other federal states. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania also wants to increase reception capacities. “The ongoing pandemic situation and the increase in the number of asylum seekers who come to us from Belarus across the Polish border pose challenges for us,” said Interior Minister Torsten Renz (CDU).

More and more women and children are coming

The situation in Brandenburg is comparable – but the facilities are not yet overcrowded. “It’s not a dramatic situation, but it’s a tough situation,” says Olaf Jansen, head of the Central Immigration Office in Eisenhüttenstadt. The big challenge is to isolate all comers in such a way that the coronavirus cannot spread. Jansen expects a further increase in arrivals. “We don’t see any effort to stop this,” he said. Most of the men traveling alone came in August, often emaciated, torn down and exhausted. Meanwhile, women and children are also often there.

Shoes in barbed wire on the border between Poland and Belarus: Recently, an increasing number of migrants have come to the EU from the country.  (Source: imago images / Viktor Tolochko)Shoes in barbed wire on the border between Poland and Belarus: Recently, an increasing number of migrants have come to the EU from the country. (Source: Viktor Tolochko / imago images)

According to EU rules, the so-called Dublin procedure, Germany could send the majority of migrants back to Poland. According to this, the country would mainly be responsible for the asylum procedures of the people because they first entered EU soil there. In practice, however, this is pointless, explains facility manager Jansen: In Frankfurt, people are brought across the Oder bridge to Poland – and come back almost immediately on foot.

Lukashenko’s plan does not work out

Poland had already started building a temporary fence along the border with Belarus at the end of August, a barbed wire barn about 2.50 meters high. This is now to be replaced by a permanent attachment. A “solid, high barrier that will be equipped with a surveillance system and motion detectors” is planned, said Interior Minister Kaminski about the project, which parliament has yet to approve. Polish government officials speak of a barrier – they avoid the word wall.

Despite the high increase in illegal immigrants, there are no signs of a crisis like 2015 in Germany. Expert Wöllenstein is currently not assuming that the number of refugees on the German-Polish border will rise dramatically. Instead, it is more likely that the Belarusian regime is at a dead end: “The Poles estimate that there are now up to 10,000 refugees in Belarus. If they can no longer enter the EU, it will be problematic for Lukashenko,” says Wöllenstein .

Lukashenko will hardly admit any mistakes in public. Allegedly, his foreign ministry is said to have already suspended the issuing of visas for several countries such as Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. It turns out: Lukashenko’s plan is probably not going to work.

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