117. What is Happening at the Poland-Belarus Border?: Migrant Crisis Explained!! (English Vocabulary Lesson)

Right now, there are thousands of migrants from Middle Eastern countries stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland in Eastern Europe. How were migrants able to travel so far away from their homelands in order to enter the EU? Why is Belarus helping the migrants travel across Europe? Is there a political explanation behind recent events? Let’s talk about all this on today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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(If you can’t see the podcast player CLICK HERE to listen!!)

Vocabulary List

Influx (n) – the fact of a large number of people or things arriving at the same time

Turkey is expecting an influx of over a thousand refugees in the next few months

On the verge (phrase) – if you are on the verge of something or come to the verge of something, you are very close to experiencing it 

The company is on the verge of collapse if it can’t find a new investor

To orchestrate (v) 0 to arrange something carefully, and sometimes unfairly, so as to achieve a wanted result

The political party orchestrated a series of events to improve their candidates reputations

To fix (v) – to do something dishonest to make certain that a competition, race, or election is won by a particular person

The referee was arrested on suspicion of fixing the match

To crush (v) – to defeat someone completely

The president used the army to crush the rebellion

Thuggish (adj) – acting in a violent way, or looking violent

Thuggish behaviour is not tolerated in this country

Dissident (n) – a person who publicly disagrees with and criticizes their government 

That cafe is famous for hosting many political dissidents from around the world

Stranded (adj) – unable to leave somewhere because of a problem such as not having any transport or money

I lost my wallet and was stranded in the middle of the city  

In 2015, Europe was struck by a migrant crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people from mainly the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Central Asia were fleeing conflict and economic hardship in their home countries and searching for hope in parts of Western Europe. This influx of migrants caused a political crisis within Europe, and between countries with different ideas on how to deal with the new people. Now, six years later, Europe is on the verge of another migrant crisis: but this one is a little different!

There are currently thousands of migrants stuck on the border between Poland and Belarus in Eastern Europe. Since the summer, the number of migrants crossing into the European Union from the East has been steadily increasing. The top 5 countries of origin for these migrants are Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran. Now… this might be a little surprising to hear. For those of you not from Europe, or those of you who don’t know your geography very well, the route to Europe from these countries does not go through Belarus. Take a look at a map: for migrants to travel from the Middle East to Belarus they have to go through, or fly over numerous countries and seas. So, how did these migrants get to Belarus? What are they doing there? And why? 

According to the European Union officials, the whole migrant crisis has been orchestrated by one man: the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a few months, or you’ve gone back and listened to some earlier episode, you may have heard the name Lukashenko before. Belarus is known as the last dictatorship in Europe. Last year the Eastern European country held an election, the result of which Mr Lukashenko likely fixed. After thousands of Belarusians protested against his government, he responded brutally, using violence and the police to crush his opposition. In response to the violence and corruption in Belarus, the European Union issued sanctions against the country. 

Mr Lukashenko was not happy about this! In his attempts to get revenge against the EU and also stay in power in Belarus, his government’s actions have been getting even more extreme and thuggish. The episode I recorded about Belarus a few months ago focused on the county hijacking a plane flying within the EU in order to arrest a journalist on board. Definitely go back and give it a listen! In August a Belarusian dissident was found dead. At the Olympic games an Athlete was forced to flee from her team after criticising Belarus’s Olympic Committee. 

For the past few months, the Lukashenko government has been trialling a new method of troubling the EU and causing problems for rival countries. There are thousands of people living in the Middle East who would love to live and work in Europe. Lukashenko declared that he would no longer follow European rules to stop illegal immigration. Instead, Belarus’s new tactic is to fly these migrants from their homelands to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. In Minsk the migrants are met by armed guards, who then transport the Middle Eastern migrants to Belarus’s EU borders. Once at the border, the Belarusian guards, standing with weapons and military equipment, surround the migrants and keep them in the area close to the border. They are left with no choice but to try and cross the border to the EU. 

The first border they targeted was with Lithuania, and more recently with Latvia and Poland. Each of these countries has annoyed Belarus by allowing Lukashenko’s political rivals to live and work there. According to the Polish government, there were around 17,000 illegal border crossings in October alone. There have been 40 flights a week leaving Middle Eastern regional hubs like Istanbul, Damascus, and Dubai, as well as direct flights from Iraqi cities: more than twice the number of flights compared to a few years ago. 

The EU has tried to stop the flow of migrants from Belarus to the EU. Iraqi Airways has already been convinced to cancel all flights between Iraq and Belarus, while the Turkish government has now banned citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen from flying between Turkey and Belarus on all airlines. Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland have put up temporary fences on the border and increased the amount of border security. Poland, in particular, has been accused of returning people crossing the border back to Belarus: which may actually be illegal under international law! The consequence is thousands of migrants stranded at the borders between Belarus and the EU. These people, promised a life in the EU by Belarusian policies, are now unable to enter EU countries or live freely in Belarus. They have been forced to set up tents and campsites, and are at risk of death due to the cold winter temperatures. 

Is Russia involved? While it is unlikely Russia is directly involved in importing immigrants, Russia is without a doubt Belarus’s biggest ally and supporter. They have helped Lukashenko’s government with loans and political support for years. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said the migrants are a result of Western wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Westerns supported uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. They believe it is not the responsibility of Lukashenko, and, in fact, the EU should be giving Belarus more support and money to stop the problems. 

What is going to happen next? Remember, the reason Belarus is trying to cause a crisis is retaliation against EU sanctions – Lukashenko probably hoped that the EU would negotiate and reduce some sanctions in return for Belarus stopping migrant flights. However, the opposite is perhaps likely. The EU is giving extra support to Belarus’s neighbours, and will probably increase sanctions over the coming months. Moreover, political experts believe that Lukashenko will continue to escalate the situation – he has nothing to lose and no longer really cares about his international reputation. And perhaps the most serious situation is for the migrants stuck in Belarus. Between 5000 and 20,000 migrants and refugees have run out of money, and are growing desperate as the winter approaches. What happens to these people?

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to introduce the current crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus. Unlike previous influxes of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, this time Belarus and the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko is orchestrating events from Minsk! With tensions increasing between the EU, Belarus, and other affected countries, the future could see increased sanctions and perhaps even conflict. And, we can’t forget the thousands of people now stranded in freezing cold Eastern Europe – with no money, no housing, and nowhere to go!

What do you think? Do you think Belarus is responsible for the crisis? If not Belarus, who is responsible? What should the EU do in this situation? 

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