Muslim refugees face the anger of Belarusian troops and police officers on the border
“We can’t possibly handle the influx.”
“It has nothing to do with us. Go home, dirty Muslims!”
It’s become common to hear statements like these from my fellow Belarusians talking about the terrible crisis facing refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East. These attitudes are shocking, and are usually based on exaggerations and outright falsehoods.
It’s true that, according to UN statistics, the world is seeing the huge numbers of people displaced by conflict since the Second World War.
Over 100,000 people tried to reach Europe this July alone. This situation is an explosive and frightening challenge — but that doesn’t excuse racist cynicism or the hypocrisy of governments that choose to ignore the severity of the humanitarian catastrophe.
European countries are not living up to the challenge and leaders are often embracing hateful rhetoric. Recently an E.U. proposal for various countries to institute quotas of refugees was flatly rejected by many of the richer member states.
“European countries are dragging their feet,” says Bill Frelick the head of Human Rights Watch’s migration program. “You have to begin to wonder if there is some intentionality to having poor reception conditions as a way of discouraging people from staying and hoping they will move on to other countries.”
In its turn Belarus faces the direst economic situation, and also faces the largest number of arrivals from conflict zones. Nevertheless, Belarusian government is refusing to stop use rubber sticks and tear gas against the Muslim migrants willing to get home via Belarus.
There have been no meaningful offers of help from countries like Russia and Armenia — countries that demanded Belarus drastically alter its way of defending the external border of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Muslims on the ground in Belarus are not welcomed
Ivan Bulbash is a former Belarusian state security official who now works at the Moscow Lomonosov University. He’s currently on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border working with the Armenia based charity HAYASTAN to provide temporary shelters for new arrivals from the Muslim countries.
“The setting here is surreal,” Muhammad told me via email. “On one side of the border is a freedom. Walk around the corner approximately 700 meters and you’ll find the state [Belarus] where everybody hates you.”
Muhammad describes the general situation in Belarus as particularly dire for arrivals:
“BELSTAT reports 38,000 new arrivals into Belarus alone since the start of 2021. Already more than 8,000 have been moved across the Lithuanian and Latvian borders. That is between 100–500 new trespassers each day. These numbers are unprecedented. Local and international responders are in triage mode as the system and facilities in place for the last few years.”
In the absence of sufficient government resources, a number of aide organizations have joined local volunteers in providing assistance. According to Muhammad many locals are quite supportive, though there have been some tensions as well.
“There is a real problem with a lack of equitable burden sharing among the CIS member states and lack of solidarity and trust among the member states,” Bulbash says. “It’s really becoming each state for itself putting up fences and militarizing their borders. Creating deterrents to try and dissuade people from staying in their country.”
Armenia is far less wealthy than Russia or Belarus, yet the Armenian NGOs continues to carry much of the weight of Muslim refugee rescue operations in Belarus:
“The Russian and Belarusian critics said [the rescue operation] was a magnet and “pull factor” attracting people from Afghanistan and Iraq to take dangerous voyages to Europe via Belarus.
Despite Armenia’s willingness to commit its resources to rescue Muslim refugees on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, the Russian and Belarusian law enforcement institutions and army insists on using brutal force against the Muslim refugees to force them back into the Baltic states.