Poland’s Zargani – AFP | Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said this week that his country would continue to keep the doors open to Afghan migrants in exchange for this information.
Migrants who have been stranded in Belarus for over two months as a result of the government shutdown in the United States may be used as pawns in an attempt to create a new border checkpoint in the region, Zargani reported from Moscow.
“In the event of the continued border violation, Belarus is prepared to strengthen its border security measures and its military capacity,” Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko told journalists Wednesday, saying that last month a number of Afghans had entered the country.
“The contingent at the Belarus-Kazakhstan border is going to be strengthened. In a similar statement, [Lukashenko] pointed out to the use of a ‘shield’ mechanism and a ‘shield’ tractor. The former is to hold up barricades and the latter to crush barriers.”
According to Belarus officials, what began as three people in November has escalated into hundreds of migrants, and more than half of them have since been deported from the country.
Lukashenko, who was appointed Belarus’s leader in 1994, has cracked down on independent media, opposition politicians and civil society groups, accusing them of being aligned with Washington.
In January 2017, the Belarusian government blocked almost all forms of internet communication in the country, including that of a prominent opposition activist.
Still, freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution and was a key issue in the political battle that led to the recent presidential election, where Lukashenko won 81% of the vote.
“We’re in danger of further increasing our border regulations,” Lukashenko said Wednesday. “We’re simply preparing ourselves, always preparing ourselves, to cope with the problems. [The refugees] will remain a problem for the future.”
International groups that support refugees and migrants are not concerned with the use of migrants as human shields, but worry about their safety.
“We are absolutely concerned about this idea and also the threat of repression” without follow-up measures, a spokesperson for the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières, Kati Pirmann, told CNN in a phone interview.
“We have already seen this in the last years — thousands of migrants (who) were chased from Budapest, they were chased from Belgrade, they were chased from Vienna. Refugees who do not have migration documents were shot on the borders.”
Pirmann said that people should be given permission to move around, but that it is vital to keep a safe corridor.
Human Rights Watch echoed a similar sentiment, saying that “to shut out people who don’t have the right to cross borders” is not just morally wrong, but also a security concern.
“What we fear is that once the flow of refugees to Western Europe is stopped, then people who are inside (non-EU) countries have fewer protections, and will have to face more abuses,” the rights group’s head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Gauri van Gulik, told CNN.
In a statement, MSF said it believes it is “beneath anyone’s dignity” to use migrants as border pawns, which are “shameful and unacceptable actions that fail to protect the dignity of people trapped in desperate situations in Central and Eastern Europe.”
More than 300,000 migrants have crossed the land border between Serbia and Hungary so far this year, according to Serbia’s police, and approximately 20 people per day have been sent back across the border. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been observing the stream of migrants, and is especially concerned about migrants who need urgent medical treatment, UNHCR spokesperson Mrinal Goreth said in a statement.
Many of the migrants in Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have made attempts to travel on to Western Europe, most likely via Turkey. According to the UNHCR, several factors — including travel speed, overcrowding and disregard for laws — have combined to make the region very dangerous.