Migrant crisis in Belarus-Poland: A conversation with Dr. Joel Toppen

Since early November, thousands of migrants have been camped in the Białowieża Forest at the border of Belarus and Poland, suffering in freezing weather with few resources. Most of the migrants came from Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan and remain on the patch of land, nicknamed “the jungle,” because neither country will grant them access. While many of the migrants have now been given housing in a Belarus warehouse, at least eleven migrants have died due to freezing conditions. Why is this crisis occurring? Dr. Joel Toppen, a political science professor at Hope College, explained the complexities of the situation and the context surrounding it.
The Politics
“The Belarusian president [Alexander] Lukashenko had an election last summer and claimed that he won 80% of the vote,” said Toppen. This was his sixth election, and it is generally believed to be rigged, with fraudulent results. As a result, multiple sanctions were placed on the dictatorial president, mainly by members of the European Union. According to the New York Post, Lukashenko seems to be attempting to create a refugee crisis to end these sanctions and gain favor with the EU. Over the past few months, Belarus loosened its visa requirements and increased flights by state-owned airline Belavia from the Middle East.
“The understanding is that Lukashenko basically invited these folks into Belarus with the understanding that they would then be moving west to Europe,” said Toppen. Thousands of migrants came thinking they would be able to cross the border into the EU, but were instead met with resistance and frigid conditions. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, Belarusian security forces are helping migrants cross into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, even passing out wire cutters and axes to cut through border fences. “The short version is Lukashenko is a jerk,” stated Toppen. “He’s sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictator, and he’s holding firm to that position.”
Poland also refuses to allow the migrants to cross its border. Toppen, who is teaching his 25th year at Hope, pointed out that “though Poland is part of the EU, it is also governed by a right-wing nationalist party that has risen to power largely through their anti-immigrant platform. We’re seeing anti-immigrant sentiment everywhere and it [has] become a way for right-wing populace and nationalist politicians and parties to gain power, a very ‘Poland first’ type of ideology.” Because of Poland’s membership in the E.U., the country represents a doorway to the E.U. Polish border guards continue to refuse entry, however, using water cannons and tear gas to avert migrants.
Migrants vs. Asylum-Seekers
The majority of migrants gathered at the borders of Belarus and Poland have travelled there from Iraq, Syria,and Afghanistan. While some have come fleeing from failed states and dangerous environments in their home countries, most of them are seeking economic opportunity. This is still a significant goal, but these small differences alter the resulting terminology and legal ramifications.
Dr. Toppen explained, “According to international law, if people come to a country fleeing from persecution or civil war, for example, people who have a well-founded fear of being harmed upon return to their country, that host country is required to grant them asylum. If you’re seeking to cross a border for opportunity, then you’re not protected by international asylum laws.” Since these migrants are, largely, not asylum-seekers, surrounding countries like Belarus and Poland have no legal obligation to allow them entry. Still, according to NPR, the migrants are coming from war-torn and dangerous places and searching for a better life.
Larger Context
While this migrant crisis is a tragic situation, Dr. Toppen also emphasized the greater historical and political context. About four thousand migrants are attempting to cross these borders, but even larger groups of migrants have characterized the ongoing immigration challenges to the E.U.’s borders. In 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrants gathered in Turkey to cross into Europe. “Germany was accommodating and willing to take in large numbers of immigrants, and Poland was resistant,” explained Toppen. “So there’s this struggle within the EU about the acceptance of immigrants.”
Toppen also pointed out that this crisis is part of a greater problem made up of multiple different global political situations coming together. These range from U.S. invasions in the Middle East to a worldwide anti-immigration sentiment created by other local and global conflicts. “There’s no incentive for a politician or a political party in the US, in Europe, Western Europe to accept refugees and people who are fleeing these very awful situations,” said Toppen, reminding us to recognize the disparities in local policy. “President Trump held strong anti-illegal immigration policies and also rode this political wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. While campaigning, Biden was critical of that, but has kept a lot of the Trump-era immigration policies, and so I think that’s a real reflection of the domestic political situation.”
How to Help?
What can we at Hope College do to help? Toppen admits that that is a difficult question to balance. “There’s not much of an appetite in the U.S. for trying to resolve the problems of the Middle East or of Afghanistan. There’s much more of a sense of trying to wipe our hands of it.” He recommends researching international aid organizations that can readily facilitate support for refugees.
Students, faculty and staff can also advocate for a global, intentional response to the crisis. Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council explained that “both sides of this abject power play should take responsibility for these migrants, who are vulnerable people. They are men, women and children that have now come in some kind of a political crossfire. The EU and Poland are obligated to hear the case of asylum-seekers. That’s international law. And Belarus and Russia have to stop this using them as pawns on some kind of a chessboard.”

Carole Chee ('24) is the editor for the Beyond section. A double major in English and Women's & Gender Studies, you can find her around campus in the Keppel House, behind the library's research help desk, or in the theatre props shop! She is passionate about uplifting each person's unique story and voice.

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