The Belarusian-Polish Standoff Reveals a Systemic Crisis in Refugee Protection
Samantha Libraty 12 November 2021

While much of the world looks to Glasgow, a refugee provocation boiled up to outright diplomatic crisis on the Belarus-Poland border, revealing a harmful cycle of migrants used as political tools rather than assisting in bettering their livelihoods. Now an urgent humanitarian disaster seems to have caught the international community by surprise, while refugees were left off G20 and working group meetings earlier this year.

Thousands of migrants pushed towards the Belarusian-Polish border earlier this week seeking to enter Poland. Viral videos depict crowds rushing to cross the border, while Belarusian politicians were accused of using migrants as a “form of revenge” in a statement by Polish authorities. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the EU, NATO, and the United States condemned the Belarusian government in one voice, and in a reversal of prior statements by E.U. officials, President of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel, indicated the bloc would consider financing a wall at the border from the E.U. budget.

Belarusian President Lukashenko is accused of luring foreign migrants to the country, to then physically direct them to EU state borders. These refugees, seeking better lives and often fleeing persecution, are promised opportunities and an easy path to Europe.

The turn of events at the border highlights the dire need for a comprehensive, multilateral response to address refugee crises. But it also illustrates the problems. With COVID-19 raging and multiple challenges to the EU by governments like Hungary and Poland, the EU is hesitant to intervene. EU states have little tools and resources to respond to the crushing numbers of refugees trying to enter their countries.

The crisis at the Belarus-Poland border has evolved over the past many months. Critics note that Belarus is using foreign migrants as retaliation for recent sanctions. Poland, meanwhile, has also been criticized for passing legislation that allows border guards to physically push migrants back into Belarus, effectively trapping them in the forest. Instead of being supported toward improved situation, these refugees are being used as pawns for broader political tactics.

While the EU has an integrated border management strategy, the refugee issue reveals the unavoidable gap between the inclusive logic of universal human rights, and an individual member state’s claim to exclude undesirables.


Global unpreparedness

As tragic as the situation is in Eastern Europe, it is only one case study in a larger, global problem pertaining to refugees. Ignoring existing, systemic problems in the world’s refugee regime is a disservice to the 82.4 million migrants who are seeking help; feed far-right conspiracy theories running rampant throughout Europe and the world over; and reflect a vacuum of international leadership. Instead of pointing fingers to accuse one country instead of another, the international community should employ mandates and mechanisms to support ongoing crises.

Certainly, it’s time the multilateral system update the long outdated refugee conventions.

The only international mandate comes from the UN Refugee Convention adopted in 1951, with a subsequent Protocol adopted in 1967. These established the UNHCR, defining who a refugee is, and outlining the rights of individuals and nations in the asylum-seeking process. While serving as helpful guidelines for UNHCR, the conventions do not address modern-day challenges. Moreover, while the Convention is “legally binding,” there is no monitoring body to enforce compliance.

This outmoded mandate defines the refugee in an old, Western-centric world order. Institutions, politicians, and the public typically draw a line between refugees (who are persecuted by a state), and economic migrants (who are fleeing due to poverty or better economic opportunities). (A third and growing group is climate refugees.)

The failures of the current refugee system are highlighted by the three choices for migrants: encampment, urban destitution, or a perilous journey. None of these options were designed to address contemporary issues, and have not produced results. While refugee camps are the model for protection, most refugees opt for urban settlements, which means they do not benefit from UNHCR assistance. While resettlement as the ultimate goal for most refugees, it is only accessible to one percent of individuals. Lastly, those in dire need turn to dangerous and risky asylum-seeking journeys – many to Europe.

With no compliance mechanism and given the limited scope of the UNHCR mandate, refugees are left with a Convention that does little to protect them. An updated convention, which would include the infrastructure to support its protocols, is needed to address current and future migration crises. A new or assigned body for compliance would enable UNHCR and multilateral institutions to enforce nations’ promises to accept refugees. UNHCR and refugee NGOs require more staff and authority to create safe passages and maintained support across refuge needs.


The case for reform

In August, UNHCR implored Belarus and Poland to abide by legal asylum obligations but lacks any mechanism to enforce this request. If compliance and enforcements were in place, refugees at the border may not lack basic resources. Furthermore, if an updated convention includes for a more robust multilateral response and infrastructure, migrants would not turn to seek dangerous and false promises of safety in Europe, such as the Belarusian case.

The current refugee regime hurts more than helps, both with respect to the migrants themselves and to the states in which they seek refuge. An updated convention and comprehensive international mandate to address this refugee crisis will go a long way to prevent future incidents like those in Belarus-Poland.  The UN and the international community must take seriously these crises, stop responding when it reaches the brink, and rather proactively seek to guarantee protections, rights, and resources for refugees. We update conventions often, such as the Convention of the Law of the Sea. why not spend capital to update a half century-old convention that would promote peace and security among nations, serve refugees, and encourage greater collaboration among world leaders?


Cover Photo: Migrants in a camp on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region – November 11, 2021 (Leonid Shcheglov / BELTA / AFP).

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