A Border Crisis
The situation at the Belarus-Poland border is unlike recent immigration crises.
The Morning Newsletter
A Border Crisis
The situation at the Belarus-Poland border is unlike recent immigration crises.
Migrants on the Belarus-Poland border.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times
A crowd of migrants trying to cross a border has come to seem appallingly familiar in recent years. We have seen masses of desperate people seek refuge in strange lands: Syrians escaping civil war, the Rohingya brutally driven from Myanmar, Afghans fleeing Taliban rule.
But the standoff at the border between Belarus and Poland, where thousands of migrants are camped in a freezing forest — and several have died — differs sharply. A melee erupted yesterday, the worst clash yet, as hundreds of migrants stampeded a checkpoint and Polish troops fired water cannons and tear gas to quell them. Today, I will explain how the standoff’s origins, relative scale and implications combine to set it apart.
A manufactured emergency
First, this appears to be an orchestrated crisis, created by Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’s autocratic ruler, to cause trouble for the European Union.
Belarus allows little in the way of independent news media or meaningful political opposition. Lukashenko’s claim last year to have won re-election with 80 percent of the vote was widely seen as a farce, and hundreds of thousands of people protested.
The authorities suppressed the demonstrations with force. In response, the E.U. imposed sanctions on Belarus, which is not a member of the union, and Lukashenko dearly wants them lifted.
In recent months he has allowed in thousands of visitors who want to reach the much freer, wealthier countries of Western and Northern Europe. That means first getting into one of the E.U. member countries that border Belarus — Poland, Lithuania or Latvia.
Credit…The New York Times
The number of people flowing through Belarus grew sharply in August, most of them Afghans. It surged in the past month with people from Iraq and Syria, many of them ethnic Kurds.
Lukashenko and his government deny deliberately using migrants to unsettle the E.U. — while repeatedly threatening to do just that. But the evidence is compelling, starting with the country’s liberal granting of visas to people with one-way airline tickets to Minsk, the Belarusian capital.
Some migrants have reported being taken to the E.U. borders by the Belarusian authorities, who have urged — or even forced — them to cross. They say these authorities gave them wire cutters to breach fences, helped tear down barriers and prevented them from returning to the cities.
Playing into European politics
An estimated 4,000 migrants are camped at the Polish border, and perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 on the Belarusian side. The numbers may not be enormous compared with the millions who fled Syria or the million forced out of Myanmar, but the politics of migration are so volatile in Europe that even a small group can set off tensions.
The right-wing governing party in Poland has long called non-European migrants a threat to Polish culture and sovereignty, and its response to the current group has been predictably heated. It describes the conditions as an attack by Belarus, and has deployed thousands of troops to keep migrants out.
In 2015-16, more than a million people, primarily Syrians, poured into Europe. The resulting backlash buoyed right-wing nationalists across the continent, and ever since, mainstream politicians have been loath to embrace immigration.
Six years ago, some countries, notably Germany, welcomed migrants, while others, including Poland, refused to accept more than a few, clashing with E.U. leaders. But there was no danger that the issue would devolve into armed conflict.
Now, no one is offering to take the migrants, even as they suffer through life-threatening conditions. The E.U. is united behind Poland, which is portraying itself as the first line of defense for the bloc, and Warsaw and Minsk are trading ominous threats.
Migrants, but not necessarily refugees
Many of the Middle Easterners in Belarus are economic migrants who do not appear to qualify as refugees, though that does not make the danger they face — at least 11 have died in the cold — any less real.
International accords define refugees as people with legitimate fears of violence or persecution, and give them a right to asylum. For many people, the repressive governments in Syria and Afghanistan still pose a severe threat, but the wars there have quieted. Iraq is relatively secure.
Like Latin Americans who try to illegally enter the United States through its Southern border, many people in Belarus and Poland left Iraq and Syria seeking economic opportunity. They would not qualify for asylum.
The Polish and Lithuanian authorities have reportedly abused migrants, forcing them back into Belarus. Now the migrants are trapped in a potentially lethal international clash.
“We became like a chicken in a cage in the hands of Belarusian and Polish police,” Bayar Awat, an Iraqi Kurd stuck at the border with his wife and infant daughter, said in a telephone interview.
“One of them won’t let us go back to Minsk and the other won’t let us in,” he continued. “Belarus is playing with us any way they want.”
At the border yesterday.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times
A shroud of secrecy
In contrast to many migrant crises, it has been all but impossible for outsiders to know what is really happening in this one.
Poland and Lithuania barred journalists and human rights groups from the borders, which include some of Europe’s wildest regions and few remaining primeval forests.
Belarus, in the last few days, has begun limiting reporters’ access.
The Polish authorities are engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with migrants along the roads and dirt tracks through the woods. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the region is strong; activists who try to help migrants have found their cars smashed up.
“It’s a very tense situation, and it’s so frustrating because there’s such a lack of information,” said Monika Pronczuk, a Times reporter who is just outside the three-mile-wide Polish border strip closed to journalists.
“We went into the forest with the activists and we got stopped by soldiers three times on a drive that should be 10 minutes,” she said. They encountered no migrants but found evidence of them: a boarding pass for a flight from Damascus, Syria, to Minsk; a drug prescription written in Arabic.
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From left, Julie Sahni, Najmieh Batmanglij, Marcella Hazan and Madeleine Kamman.Credit…From left: Jessica White for The New York Times; Matt McClain/The Washington Post; Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times; Paul Hosefros/The New York Times
They changed the way we eat
There was a time when Chinese cuisine was considered “too unclean for white Americans to consume,” the food writer Mayukh Sen writes in his new book, “Taste Makers.” In 1945, Chao Yang Buwei, a doctor in her native China, attempted to change that perception. She published America’s “first systematically thorough cookbook on Chinese cooking,” explaining techniques like stir-frying. But her talents were hindered by off-kilter English translations of her books, and she never became a household name.
Sen’s book excavates Chao’s lost history, and those of six other women who changed the American food palate, each from a different country. Along with Chao, the book covers Elena Zelayeta, Madeleine Kamman, Marcella Hazan, Julie Sahni, Najmieh Batmanglij and Norma Shirley.
The racist, xenophobic and classist injustices the book’s subjects experienced “remain agonizingly apparent within the food industry,” Hetty McKinnon writes in a review. “The roadblocks that prevented the women’s ascension then are still largely in place today.”
Still, the book shares its subjects’ achievements through thoughtful, individual stories, examining how they paved the way for generations of chefs and food writers to come. — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer
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Now Time to Play
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Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti, Ashley Wu and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at email@example.com.