IIT’S THE first sight of armed men in the village since Polish Communist leaders declared martial law 40 years ago. But the villagers of Nowy Dwor, 5 km from the border with Belarus, say they feel protected by the makeshift barracks that have been set up on the school’s sports field. Soldiers are there to patrol a border that rarely required close surveillance prior to the events of this summer. “When the migrants started to arrive,” says a retired health worker, “I was afraid to go get potatoes from my field for dinner”.
Fear at the prospect of a new influx of migrants also affects most European governments. But what is happening in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia is no ordinary migration crisis. The people who try to enter these countries are not victims of the neighboring dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, but its hosts. Lukashenko organized their arrival, most of them on direct flights from Iraq. Then, to embarrass his neighbors, he tried to pass them on. His guards were filmed leading them across the border and into the EU. In recent weeks, Lithuania and Poland have each intercepted around 3,000 migrants from Belarus.
Lukashenko’s neighbors reacted by sending in their armies, toughening asylum rules and walling up their borders. This is the last big step towards the militarization of the EUouter edge of, a trend that was barely thinkable a decade ago. Poland’s fence now includes three large rings of razor wire. Next to it is a row of newly drilled holes, ready for the installation of a sturdy 2.5 meter high fence. This strengthening of the Polish border was announced on August 23.
In Tolcze, another neighboring Polish village, a farmer traces the history of his country by retracing the evolution of the border. After 1945, when the border of the Soviet Union blew 200 km to the west, a series of sticks in the ground stood up twenty paces from his house, cutting his family off from his orchard. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a large fence was pulled down. But in 2004, when Poland joined the EU, brought up a smaller one, which prevented the cows from running away. The arrival of the razor wire suggests yet another chapter for Tolcze and perhaps for Europe as well.
Until now, surprise crosses of people have been rare. The idea of entering Soviet territory once made the Poles tremble. This old fear still persists. But the animals don’t care. A woman from Tolcze lifts the injured hind leg of her dog, Puszek (“Fluffy” in Polish), who has strayed on the razor’s edge. A woman from a nearby village says that every spring a herd of Belarusian bison roams Poland in search of food, delighting the locals. She fears that she will never see them again.
Locals often seem more concerned about the fate of animals than migrants. Two women chatting in Nowy Dwor’s main shop agree that the migrants do not look like real refugees because they are clean and well dressed. One described a photo of a friend of an Afghan migrant with “a nice shaved beard and a small mustache” who looked “straight out of a zhurnal (a fashion magazine) ”. Others say that the problem is not migrants in general but the risk of criminals among them.
Few countries elsewhere in Europe blame Poland and its Baltic neighbors for their hawkish reaction. The strongest opposition to the more brutal treatment of migrants comes from local activists, many of whom have set up camp in Usnarz Gorny, a hamlet of ten houses. Nearby, around thirty Afghans are stranded in no man’s land on the border with Belarus, blocked by Polish guards and unable to move in one direction or the other. Translators of Ocalenie (Rescue), a Polish NGO, shout surveys in Dari to migrants via a megaphone. Polish police run the engines of their vans to drown them.
Such divisions will delight Lukashenko, who is seeking revenge on Europe for its sanctions against Belarus. The war games scheduled this month with Russia in western Belarus will escalate the tension. But he would be wrong if he expected that EU to accept his invitation to negotiate a resolution to this migrant crisis. Another sentiment shared by European politicians and Polish villagers on the border with Belarus is contempt for Mr. Lukashenko, a rogue despot who steals elections. “He’s doing very badly,” says the retired Nowy Dwor health worker. “Everyone here says thank God, we were born on the Polish side. ” ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Stranded in no man’s land”