The Belarusian migrant crisis and state propaganda

The Belarusian migrant crisis and state propaganda

Hanna Vasilevich

The height of the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border made headlines around the world last year in what was to become a prelude to Lukashenka dragging Belarus into Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

The migrant crisis at the Belarus-EU border is still being used by Belarusian state media to distract people from domestic politics. Even though the current number of migrants at the Belarus-Poland border does not exceed 1000 (Minsk’s media claims that the exact number is 713), the problems surrounding this issue have not been fully resolved.

Media in the EU remains largely focused on issues such as strengthening the Belarus-Poland border and debates over the use of migrants by its authoritarian neighbour as a weapon. Meanwhile, official Belarusian media is trying to persuade its population of the supposed “atrocities” committed by western (mainly Polish) border officers against peaceful migrants. These people were allegedly “invited by Germany” but not allowed to pass through Poland to reach their final destination. As a result, Lukashenka justified the migrants’ attempts to cross the EU border and blamed Poland for not letting people through. The Belarusian leader claimed that “They are saying straight out: we are not going to Poland, we were called to Germany, we are going to Germany, let us through.”

The deserter from Poland

Those who work for the Belarusian regime have recorded numerous videos and interviews with migrants “testifying” against Polish guards who presumably forced them back across the border. The testimony of the former Polish border guard Emil Czeczko offers an interesting case regarding this issue. Czeczko escaped from Poland and asked for asylum in Belarus. On February 10th, he gave an interview to Belarus state media BELTA and accused Polish border guards of killing migrants in cold blood.

Czeczko was detained on December 16th at the Belarus-Poland border crossing point. He requested political asylum in Belarus “due to his disagreement with Poland’s policy on the migration crisis and inhumane treatment of refugees”.

In his statements, Czeczko accused Poland of committing genocide on the Polish-Belarusian border. He claims that he participated in the execution of migrants during the ten days that he spent at the EU frontier. According to Belarusian media, the number of those killed by Polish guards varies between 200 and 700 people. He also claimed that he was forced to personally participate in the execution of more than 200 people. This number includes women and children.

Emil Czeczko accused “Polish counterintelligence” of supervising all of these executions. He also claimed that President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki were aware of these actions.

The Investigative Committee of Belarus launched a criminal case in relation to the high rate of migrant deaths on the Belarusian-Polish border. Though Czeczko publicly called himself a murderer, he is currently a witness in this case.

In an interview, Belarus State Border Committee representative Anton Bychkouski claims that the “collective West” is spreading misinformation about the ongoing migration crisis. This supposed strategy aims “to mislead the public, maintain tension around the migration crisis and make unfounded accusations against Belarus. In addition, the release of statistics showing more crossings provides EU countries with a justification for their actions in moving the units of national armed forces and their NATO allies to the border and the unprecedented militarisation of the border area.”

He also believes that all of this has been done to “promote the image of Belarus as a state that poses a threat to Western countries, to disseminate negative attitudes regarding refugees, distract public attention from internal problems…”

Polish reaction

The Polish authorities see Emil Czeczko as a deserter and a tool used by Belarusian and Russian propaganda to attack Poland. Warsaw claims that all the information presented by Czeczko is false.

Polish media has also revealed some inconsistencies in Czeczko’s statements. In his first interview with Belarusian television, he said that “Polish border guards shot at least two Polish volunteers who were trying to help migrants.” However, no NGO has been able to confirm this claim. Moreover, other inconsistencies can be seen regarding the number of people allegedly executed by the border guard. Whilst Czeczko argued that he had been involved in about ten executions in one interview, he later claimed that he “executed people by the dozen”. Now, in February 2022, he claims that he was involved in the deaths of over 200 people.

Back in Poland, it seems that Czeczko often had problems with the law. He was convicted of abusing his mother and sentenced to six months restriction of liberty and a one-year ban on approaching his mother. This conviction also demanded that he refrain from alcohol abuse. In addition to this, he now faces ten years in prison for desertion.

In Belarus, Emil Czeczko has filed a lawsuit titled “On Genocide and Crimes against Humanity on the Territory of Poland” to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

A Belarusian group called the Systemic Advocacy Centre (SAC) appears to be working closely with Czeczko. This state-sponsored body is assisting him with his refugee application and promoting his statements on atrocities committed by Poland.

Raman Pratasevich, a co-founder of the Telegram-channel NEXTA, is also working with the SAC as one of its new human rights defenders. He is now promoting Czeczko’s case along with many others.

From Ryanair to sanctions

The opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich was detained by Belarusian law enforcement together with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, on May 23rd 2021. They were arrested after their Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius agreed to make an emergency landing in Minsk. A criminal case against Pratasevich was soon opened under three articles of the country’s criminal code. These articles discuss issues such as “incitement of racial, national, religious or other social hatred or discord”, “Mass riots” and the “organization and preparation of actions which seriously violate public order, or active participation in them”. All of these individual crimes could result in years in prison.

Following alleged pressure from the Belarusian KGB, Pratasevich confessed to having a direct connection to an attempted coup d’état in Belarus. After seven months under house arrest, Pratasevich entered into a pre-trial agreement and started to actively cooperate with the regime. Pratasevich claimed on February 3rd that he will sue Ryanair following the release of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) fact-finding report on the forced landing in Minsk last year. Overall, the report fails to offer any real judgments or recommendations. The regime in Minsk has subsequently promoted the report given that it offers no proof of illegal actions.

A fourth package of sanctions was introduced against Belarus in reaction to the Ryanair case. Belarus soon unilaterally withdrew from its readmission and illegal immigration agreements with the EU. Naturally, this led to the ongoing migration crisis. In relation to these moves, Lukashenka declared that “You have imposed sanctions against me, against Belarusians. You have launched a hybrid war against Belarus (media, economy, politics, you have already affected the military, security). And you, scoundrels, madmen, want me to protect you, including from migrants?”

Crisis development

The flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa through Belarus began in early summer 2021 and is still a noticeable problem now.

Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have all accused Belarus of artificially creating this crisis, bringing migrants to the border via tourist trips, and promising them passage across the EU border. Such actions soon resembled hybrid warfare against the EU as the level of illegal migration from Belarus reached a high point. According to the EU’s border agency Frontex, the maximum number of illegal immigrants crossing the entire eastern border of the EU in the last ten years has not exceeded 280 per month. While only 74 illegal migrants crossed the Belarus-Lithuania border in 2020, around 2400 had already done so by mid-July 2021.

 As a result, around 8000 illegal migrants attempted to cross the Lithuanian border in 2021. Lithuania then accepted 4338 of this group.

 The Polish border soon became the main focus for these attempted crossings. There were 33,000 recorded attempts to cross the Belarusian-Polish border in the months around August 2020. This number later increased, with 39,700 attempts made in 2021. This figure includes 1700 in December, 8900 in November, 17,500 in October, 7700 in September and 3500 in August.

 EU pressure on various migrant origin countries, such as Syria and Iraq, has resulted in a decrease in attempted crossings. The number of direct flights to Belarus from such countries has also significantly dropped and some routes have even been cancelled. Despite this, January saw over 1100 attempts to illegally enter Poland from Belarus. As of February 9th, there were 106 additional attempts to enter the country. Overall, there have been a total of 1146 cases since the beginning of the year.

 Whilst Lithuania started to build migrant camps when it was not able to accommodate the increased number of migrants, Poland started building a wall along its border with Belarus. Poland has been accused of human rights violations not only by Belarusian propaganda but also by international and Polish human rights activists. Some have even claimed that “Poland is the only place in the EU where journalists cannot freely report.”

Today’s circumstances

The current situation truly resembles a stalemate. Even after the EU introduced a fifth package of sanctions against Belarus and worked with migrant origin countries, there are still people at the Belarusian-Polish border.

As aforementioned, Poland is facing criticism from both Belarusian and Russian propaganda and various national and international NGOs. Instead of addressing the problem like Lithuania through the building of refugee camps, the Polish government has opted to continue building a border wall.

The regime in Belarus continues to actively make use of all the mistakes made by the EU states on the global stage. These allow Minsk to justify its actions and encourage more hostility. Belarus now presents Poland as a significant other, enemy, and threat to its statehood, sovereignty and territorial integrity. With all of this happening, it is understandable why there is now a lack of focus regarding Belarus’s internal situation.

Hanna Vasilevich is Lecturer at Europa-Universität Flensburg and Chair of the Board at the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies, Prague. Hanna has been a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Law & Anthropology Department of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale. Her research interests include state ideology and propaganda, identity issues, conflict resolution, interethnic relations, national and religious minorities, diaspora and kin-state relations, linguistic diversity, and the issues of equality and non-discrimination with an emphasis on language and ethnicity.

Note: This article was published by New Eastern Europe as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.

Image: Protest rally in Warsaw in solidarity with migrants pushed back at Poland’s border with Belarus. Credit: Tomasz Molina (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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