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Belarus-Poland: one example of borders that kill

A new and already deadly refugee crisis is forming on the eastern edges of Europe. Socialist Worker investigates what’s behind the situation on the borders between Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia—and looks at the some the world’s killer border crossings
Issue 2781
A warning sign: Fortress Europe

Dangerous crossing and border controls await those fleeing for a better life

Tensions between Europe and Belarus mean little to Karwan who is cradling his sick child while hiding in a cold and rain-soaked forest on Poland’s eastern border.

The two-year-old in his arms has ­cerebral palsy and epilepsy. After three days with little food and water she is in a poor state. With Polish border guards and soldiers patrolling the nearby perimeter fence, Iraqi Kurd Karwan told the New York Times newspaper that he must make a terrible choice.

Either he tries to get medical help by returning to a town in Belarus and risks ending his family’s dream of ­freedom from warring factions in Iraq. Or he pushes on and risks his daughter’s health.

Karwan and his family are among thousands of people who have gambled all they own and are trapped on the borders between Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

They have neither shelter nor food—and now the freezing winter is setting in.

According to official sources, at least eight people who made it to Poland have died from exposure. Aid workers say the real number is likely much higher.

The migrants are pawns in a power play. A battle is being waged by a European Union increasingly hostile to refugees and the dictatorial regime in Belarus and its Russian backers in Moscow.

The crisis began in late August when groups of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, began massing on the borders allegedly directed there by Belarussian troops. That movement has since grown to at least 4,000 people. 

European governments accuse Belarus’s ruler Aleksandr Lukashenko of orchestrating the flow of migrants to the border, insisting it is an act of revenge.

The European Union (EU) denounced Lukashenko’s presidential re-election in 2020 as a fraud. It paid lip service to the popular movement that rose against him, and imposed sanctions on leading figures in his regime.

In response, EU leaders say, Belarus has allowed an array of new flights into its Minsk capital from Turkey, north Africa and the Middle East.

Refugees are sold packages of flights and visas and are then transferred to the borderlands.

Planes carry people desperate to escape from war, poverty and unbearable climates. Their aim is to seek refuge in an EU country and start a new life.

For those investing their family’s life savings, this ­crossing appears much safer than trying to get across the Mediterranean sea. The waters are made deadlier by winter currents and Europe’s Frontex gunboats. 

If Lukashenko was trying to use refugees to create a crisis for the EU, his calculation of a racist European reaction has been proven correct.

The European Council president Charles Michel last week stood shoulder to shoulder with the hard right Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

“Poland is facing a serious crisis that we take seriously,” said Michel. “It is a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack.”

Language once reserved for invading armies is now easily applied to poor and desperate people.

Polish Defence minister Mariusz Blaszak declared that his department was “ready to defend the Polish border”.

The number of his troops at the border now stands at 12,000. They have joined the thousands of border patrol police already there. 

And the government has announced that its 29,000-strong Territorial Defence Force—which recruits heavily from the ranks of the far right—is on standby. 

With the troops has come a legal ­crackdown. Governments in Poland and Lithuania have declared a state of emergency. This means that aid organisations and journalists are banned from the border areas. Many human rights laws are also suspended.

In Lithuania migrants are not allowed to communicate in ­writing or by telephone with anyone.

Poland has all but abolished the right of asylum and is ordering troops to use force to “push back” any migrant that attempts to cross the border.

Despite this being a clear violation of EU law, Europe is offering both money and military support to extend the policy. 

Hajar, a Kurd from Iraq, has already experienced the Lithuanian ­“commandos” on the border.

He said that after being captured by them he was hit with sticks and plastic cables while being shocked with stun guns. His body is now covered with deep bruises. “They said, ‘You don’t have the right to come to our country,” he told the New York Times. “They said, ‘You make our country dirty’.”

The EU leaders denounced Lukashenko for beating people last year.  Now their forces are doing the same. Politicians in Brussels not long ago denounced former president Donald Trump for wanting to build an anti-migrant wall between the US and Mexico. Now they are urging Poland to do similar.

The Polish parliament recently voted to spend around £300 million on a new wall between it and Belarus. This week the German interior minister Horst Seehofer gave his backing to the new wall.

He said the Polish government has “reacted correctly so far”. Seehofer went on, “I say as well that we need structural security at the borders.”

There is little doubt that Lukashenko is manipulating refugees for his own ends. 

If the regime really cared about the migrants’ plight, it could offer them sanctuary and allow them to settle in Belarus. Instead, migrants talk of rough treatment and being quickly herded out of the country.

But no power comes out of this worse than the EU. With politicians of the far right breathing down their necks, Europe’s leaders have chosen to adopt their anti‑migrant agenda in full. 

Borders of “Fortress Europe” are to be fortified with ever more armed and brutal troops. There will be physical walls, electric fences and razor wire.

The laws that European institutions claimed were a hallmark of civilisation can now be bent or broken with ease.

Looming dangers that migrants will either freeze to death in the borderland forests, or will be shot down by troops, is a devastating judgment on such an “advanced” society.

The blood of any such atrocity would be as much on the hands of the EU’s leaders as it would be upon the regimes in Belarus and Russia.

Contested territories and dangerous crossings
India/Bangladesh Length 2,545 miles

The border between the two countries, which were once part of greater Bengal, is a killing ground.

A 1,250-mile border fence scars the landscape and is policed by an Indian Border Security Force (BSF) that has orders to shoot on sight.

More than 1,200 people have been killed trying to make the crossing in the last two decades, but no one has ever been prosecuted as a result.

Alauddin Biswas described how Indian border guards killed his 24 year old nephew, who was suspected of cattle rustling, in March 2010. 

“The BSF had shot him while he was lying on his back. They shot him in the forehead,” he said.

“If he was running away, he would have been shot in the back. They just killed him.”

The BSF claimed self-defence, yet no weapons were recovered.

The border has long been crossed by local people for trade.

It is also used by relatives and friends separated by a line arbitrarily drawn by the British colonial masters as they partitioned India when leaving the colony in 1947.

North/South Korea
Length 155 miles

Korea was divided in two at the end of the Second World War after 35 years as a Japanese colony.

Soviet troops occupied the North while the US army occupied the South. Both Russian and US imperialism crushed resistance and established loyal regimes in their halves of the country.

A three-year war between the superpowers ended in stalemate in 1953—and without a treaty.

The space between the two states is now a “Korean Demilitarised Zone” wasteland.

Barbed wire fences line all sides, while tank traps and active minefields make the area impassable.

The exception is a six-lane “Reunification Highway” that is almost permanently empty of civilian traffic. 

There have been over a thousand “fracases” and a further approximately 50 serious incidents since the end of the war.

During conflicts in the zone between 1966 and 1969, some 299 South Koreans, 397 North Koreans and 43 Americans were killed.

In 1976, the US admitted that there had been 200 military raids or incursions into North Korea from the South.

Today, many people in South Korea are more worried that the US may use nuclear weapons against the North than they are that the North will invade.

Length 1,954 miles

2020 was the deadliest year for migrants trying to cross into Arizona illegally.

The remains of some 227 migrants were and at least 7,000 people have died along the length of the border since 1998.

During the hottest summer on record many including children died where they fell in the desert before reaching walls, fences and crossings.

Under Donald Trump’s presidency the US walled more of the border off, increasing the risks to those still determined to make the journey.

“That’s a longstanding tradition, these barriers and walls have pushed people into more remote and treacherous terrain,” said Jeremy Slack, who teaches geography at the University of Texas-El Paso.

Trump signed an emergency order in March 2020 allowing the expulsion of migrants at the border if there were “concerns” they might have Covid. More than 380,000 people were forced back into the desert.

Under Joe Biden, migrants trying to cross the border have been met with border forces on horseback with whips.

Why capitalism needs borders

Borders are a way for the system to control workers. 

Wealthy people fly around the planet with barely a need for a passport. Money can be exported from one country to another at the touch of a button.

Bosses can shut down a factory in one part of the world and be welcomed to restart production in another.

But the movement of people and labour is strictly controlled.

There are times when it suits the bosses to allow more workers from one country to move to another. But most of the time, they want to encase workers in a particular state. 

This benefits the ruling class in a number of ways.

First, it allows them to create a sense of national belonging that they hope will undermine class consciousness. 

Second, nationalism helps them sow divisions among workers of different backgrounds living in the same country.

Third, having a pool of workers that are not considered to be citizens is very useful to the bosses. 

Illegal workers can be paid less and are often scared to demand their rights. 

Last, our rulers are only to happy to have a group that it can scapegoat for its own failings.

Low pay, a lack of housing, jobs and benefits can be blamed on the most vulnerable.

The only way to counter the ruling class agenda is to reject their divide and rule tactics, and their notion of borders and countries.

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