WARSAW—The satellite view of the Polish-Belarusian frontier shows a dense forest belt. What is otherwise a spectacularly beautiful borderland and a popular outing spot for respite and wildlife watching is now stage to yet another spectacle of demonizing and securitizing migration.
According to Polish authorities, some 4,500 mostly Iraqis and Syrians have tried to illegally cross the border from Belarus since the beginning of this month. Real numbers may be even higher. Fewer migrants, although still counted in the thousands, have crossed to Lithuania and Latvia. From the start of the year, Polish border guards have accepted close to 5,000 applications for asylum—more than twice as many as the year before. The standard procedure for most migrants is to get a tourist package for $3,000-$7,000, Belarusian visa included, and safely fly via Turkey or Syria to Minsk. They would then try to cross the border with Poland to get to Germany or further west in the EU.
In response to the spiraling number of migrants, Poland has now raised a fence and deployed some 12,000 troops to the border, even sending some migrants back to the Belarusian side after they had crossed. Of the thousands of migrants crowding the border—including elderly people and children—at least nine have died, most likely from hypothermia.
Top European politicians speak in one voice—from the president of the EU commission and head of Frontex to the governments of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia: It’s a hybrid attack on Europe by Belarus in retaliation for sanctions.
It certainly looks that way. Nothing in Belarus happens without the self-proclaimed autocrat leader’s consent, as well as that of his Russian patrons. Alexander Lukashenko has deliberately attracted migrants by providing the safest possible passage to EU borders. They were driven to the Polish border forest, given pincers, and instructed on how and where to cross.
Perhaps he wants the EU to make deals with him. Or perhaps he just knows that there is, in fact, little difference between how he himself and European leaders see migration—as a weapon and threat, not as people on the move. Naturally then, by securitizing migrants, we would fall into his trap—and become Lukashenkos ourselves.
Indeed, militaristic terminology and imagery abound: Weaponization, hybrid warfare, NATO, tanks, helicopters, drones. Mainstream media from left to right use aquatic terminology profusely—influx, flow, wave, flood—which connotes unstoppable danger. The aura of fear is such that people of Kuznica, a Polish border town, in panic have been taking kids from schools, stocking up on bread, and barricading doors.
Let us put things in perspective. Even with Lukashenko’s help, migratory movement on the Polish-Belarusian border is small. Until the end of October there were around 6,500 illegal border crossings to the EU via Eastern land borders, while more than 150,000 crossed through southern European borders in the same period. In comparison, U.S. border patrol registered more than 1.5 million encounters on the border with Mexico this fiscal year.
Regardless of the numbers, the exaggerated reaction of European politicians to the current crisis shows that a rational, fact-based debate about migration is now impossible. Politicians of all breeds use the situation for their petty interests, disregarding the larger picture. Vilifying migration and migrants today fertilizes the ground for future conflicts.
Facts absent from the debate are the following: Migration is a natural structural phenomenon. The global share of migrants since the introduction of statistics has been relatively stable at around 3 percent. Absolute numbers of migrants grow proportionally to the growth of population. Most migrants move between poorer countries, not from the global south to the global north. In the long term, walls prove inefficient or efficient only at diverting migration to other routes. Migrants do not pose any more danger than other social groups. Various research shows that they are less likely to commit crimes, for example. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development regularly produces reports on how migration strengthens host economies.
This is not to say that migration is good. Migration, like the internet or cars, is neither good nor bad. It can have various consequences depending on policies employed. There is a single reason for migration: inequalities. As long as these persist, people will migrate. All this information does not even touch on the legal and moral aspects of a particular group of migrants—refugees—who are entitled to international protection. Before we give in to migration hysteria in the West, it is useful to know that Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran together host more than 5 million Syrian and Afghan refugees. There are 156 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants in Lebanon, and only 25 in Sweden, a country with one of the most liberal asylum policies in Europe.
The responsibility of politicians is to prepare the European public for inevitable systemic changes in the future. Two of these—climate change and migration—are becoming increasingly correlated. It is no coincidence that Iraqis make one of the largest national groups migrating through Eastern European borders. Apart from the long war or corruption, they have recently suffered from one of the worst droughts in history. With limited access to food, water, and electricity, 12 million Iraqis and Syrians experience a sense of an ending. The Levant is warming up at twice the speed of the globe. When life becomes unbearable, people will move: 12 percent of Basra inhabitants are climate-induced migrants already.
Even tens of thousands of people—at some point numbers cease to matter, clogging imagination—cannot pose a threat to the strongest economies and freest societies on the globe. On the contrary, people on the move are the ones in danger. If it was not for Polish NGOs Ocalenie and Grupa Granica tirelessly helping migrants, many more would have died. The real long-term threat comes from shortsightedness of policies that fail to cope with displacement and the demonizing narrative that breeds incomprehension and fear.
The most popular and celebrated museum in Poland—Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews—opens with a gallery called “Forest”. Calm murmurs of trees welcome visitors who soon learn that Polin in Hebrew means “rest here.” In the European forest, no migrant can rest anymore. Worse still, we are all in that dark forest, without a basic kit to survive the harsh future that is inevitably coming.