Tensions are brewing on Poland’s border with Belarus: Lukaschenko is accused of “weaponising migrants”, Russian troops are amassing in the area, and even a group of UK soldiers have been sent to advise a fellow NATO member.
Belarus knows that people fleeing their home countries want to end up in the European Union. It also knows that it has had a soft border with Poland. Helping people to cross through this border, with discount flights, temporary hotel reservations and guidance, could therefore gain the dictator leverage. It could also go terribly wrong for everyone involved.
However, when I was reading up about the tensions, including the strip of land where NGOs and journalists are not allowed and all sorts of bad things might be happening, what struck me is that this is the same story of immigration, but played out on a different backdrop.
I have grown up with the media showing images of people, mainly from war-torn, famine-ridden, ecologically-stricken countries crossing the Mediterranean to find a better life. The European Union, until recently including the UK, are safe havens from political persecution and civil unrest. Furthermore, the smuggling industry has mushroomed around the problem because where there is demand, there is supply, and where supply, demand. It is not surprising why people want to do this, and conversely when bombarded with images and dystopian sound bites like ‘the weaponisation of migrants’ I can understand why the host citizens may be intimidated.
What has struck me, though, about the recent events in the East is the change of scenery. Migrants, as portrayed by the media, come from sandy places, move on the sea, and die on beaches. They are shown with or without life jackets. They are on boats or dinghies, or they are cramped together in refugee camps baking under the hot sun. They are on Moria in crowded makeshift camps, or suffering in Calais’ jungle. There is a certain media aesthetic to the presentation of ‘migrants’ that we have grown accustomed to seeing.
But now they are in Belarus, where the backdrop looks like Birnam Wood. They have flown in on airplanes from airports and are staying in hotels. They are dressed in down jackets or parker coats. They are standing at the border, so close to the Polish guards that the barbed wire sometimes blocks our view of them. And unless something is done, the Belarusian winter can be deathly cold.
This is one of the most significant mediatic shifts I have seen: this old crisis of immigration has reached new ground. Before the European stronghold was guarded by a sea; now it is the land border that is under threat.