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Leader comment: Stand-off on the Polish-Belarus border: what should be done

19 November 2021

THE lesson of the Jericho road seems to have been temporarily forgotten by the Eastern Orthodox Belarusians and the Roman Catholic Poles. In Christ’s parable, both the priest and the Levite avoid the injured man, preferring to think about things such as religion and purity, perhaps even God. Faced with the Middle Eastern asylum-seekers at the Belarus-Poland border, both governments are thinking about anything other than the asylum-seekers themselves, increasing numbers of whom are injured, all of whom are hungry, without water, and in danger of death through hypothermia.

Belarus seems willing to use the asylum-seekers as moral cannon-fodder, putting pressure on its nearest EU neighbour in protest at sanctions imposed on the country after the dubious and brutal re-election of Alexander Lukashenko. It has been encouraging Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, and Syrians to travel to Minsk in what appears to be a government-endorsed confidence trick, busing them to the border in a move to embarrass Poland. Many have been robbed of their possessions on the way. The fate of the people involved, now thought to be about 5000, is clearly not a concern to Mr Lukashenko.

The Polish government, for its part, is thinking not of these people but of the ones who will follow them if word gets out that, yes, despite delays and protests, Poland is susceptible to pressure and will allow the border to be opened. The banning of journalists and NGOs from the border region is a sinister development, suggesting that the Polish authorities neither want the migrants helped nor their treatment to be monitored. Other EU governments are, by and large, behaving true to form: urging the Poles to be compassionate while supporting a firm border. They have no counterparts in the Jericho story, but if they had, it would be as inn-keepers encouraging the Samaritan to minister to the injured man while hastily placing “No Vacancies” notices in their windows.

As for a solution, there is no humanitarian alternative: the Polish border must be opened and the distress of the existing asylum-seekers relieved. The same approach will have to be applied to any others who have been lured to Belarus and are in Minsk awaiting transport to the border. Once the migrants have been cared for, ideally with EU funds and — why not? — help from the UK, they can be processed in the usual way. Those with a genuine claim for asylum can be given leave to remain in an EU country; those without can be repatriated to the Middle East, thus sending a message about the futility of the Belarusian offer. In the mean time, Mr Lukashenko’s government might be persuaded by the newly imposed sanctions to abandon its mischievous plan. All this will take time, but the numbers involved are relatively small,and it is, quite simply, the right thing to do.

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