Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Europe Tried to Seal Itself Off. It Didn’t Work.

In the vast primeval forest that lies between Poland and Belarus, European bison graze under ancient trees alongside refugees, weak from cold and hunger. The new arrivals — from countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria and Cameroon — have different stories, but a shared predicament. They all purchased flights to Minsk, Belarus, with the promise that they would be taken to the European Union, only to end up stranded in the woods.

Left to wander the forest in freezing conditions, the migrants are the victims of President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus. In retaliation for European Union sanctions against his regime, he is reportedly luring people to Minsk and then depositing them at the country’s border with Poland. But the problem goes beyond Belarus. The Polish government, presenting itself as the nation’s protector from invasion, has refused the migrants entry — and, in some cases, actively pushed them back into the woods.

Far from earning rebuke, Poland’s approach has the backing of the European Union. It is, after all, more or less what the E.U. has been doing for the past five years. To avoid a repeat of the migrant crisis of 2015-16, when over a million people sought refuge in Europe, the bloc has tried to seal off the continent from another influx of people.

But these efforts, often draconian and brutal, have failed. In the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and as unrest continues across the world, more people will head for Europe. The next migrant crisis has arrived.

With southern routes choked off, the bloc’s eastern border has become a major point of entry. Since August, there have been thousands of attempts to cross the Polish border outside official checkpoints. It’s a perilous undertaking: For almost two months, a group of 32 people from Afghanistan has been trapped near the Polish border village of Usnarz Gorny. They receive meager rations, lack fresh water and, according to aid workers, are losing strength and struggling to move.

Poland’s response has been severe. The government ignored a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which is separate from the European Union, to provide food, clothing and medical care. And by declaring a state of emergency, it barred journalists and aid workers from coming within three kilometers of the border zone. Not content with a media blackout, it’s also, like neighboring Lithuania, erecting a fence along the border.

In adopting this stance, the Polish government is following its own example. In 2015, at the height of the crisis, the leader of Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, claimed that Muslim refugees carried parasites. After riding popular fear to electoral success, the party made good on its anti-migrant agenda and refused to accept quotas of refugees assigned by the European Union. It was joined by the Czech Republic and Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, began building a wall on Hungary’s border with Serbia and Croatia.

Polish soldiers at the border zone near Krynki.

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