Picture credit: Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Poland’s border crisis belongs to the rest of Europe too

A soldier’s tragic death has exacerbated tensions on the border with Belarus

Tragedy struck Poland this week as a young soldier — named only as Mateusz — died after being stabbed by a migrant near the border fences between Poland and Belarus. Reportedly, the migrant had attached a blade to a long stick, and stabbed the soldier through the fence.

Disturbing footage from the aftermath of the attack appears to show Polish soldiers being showered with sticks as they attempt to save their wounded comrade. Earlier, a border guard had been injured by a bottle.

Migrants have been camped along the border between Belarus and Poland for several years. Migrants are attempting to enter Europe across the Mediterranean as well, of course, and through Hungary, but in Belarus they have received assistance from the state.

In May 2021, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko promised to flood Europe with migrants and drugs if sanctions were imposed on Belarus. That year, Belarus began to offer Iraqis visas and assistance in reaching the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Migrants have claimed that they were told that entering Europe via Belarus was legal. The Lithuanian broadcaster LRT spoke to some of them:

They recall a van waiting to pick them up from Minsk airport with the driver, presumably a Belarusian, taking them to a hotel where they spent between one and four days. Then another van would come to take them to the Lithuanian border.

Migrants were then stranded, often in freezing temperatures, and with limited food and shelter, and the integrity of Polish and Lithuanian borders were tested time and again. Poland has alleged that the Belarusians provided the migrants with equipment with which to cut fencing. 

Attempted crossings could be violent. In October 2021, for example, two Polish border guards were injured by sticks and stones. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia started building border walls. The EU refused to assist in financing — a strikingly purblind decision when most of the migrants would not have stopped in Poland and the Baltic States but travelled westwards. Controversially, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia also declared a state of emergency. Journalists and NGO workers were not allowed near the border.

This “exclusion zone” was lifted when the crisis eased, but has been reintroduced in Poland by Prime Minister Donald Tusk since the attacks on soldiers. Tusk has also announced plans to further fortify the border, “due to the pressure of illegal immigration and ongoing hybrid warfare”. This has tested the prime minister’s liberal credentials. Agnieszka Holland, the film director whose pro-migrant film Green Border was released to critical acclaim last year, has argued that “muscle flexing” is what Lukashenko and his ally Vladimir Putin want. What nation could tolerate violent attacks on its border — and its soldiers — though, is up for question.

Anger has been sparked elsewhere, though, since three Polish soldiers were detained for firing warning shots as a group of migrants advanced. Such has been the outrage within the military that the defence minister, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, issued a statement saying that the detention was “unacceptable”. “The actions of the Military Police towards the detainees will be fully explained,” Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz claimed, “I will always stand on the side of the honour of soldiers.”

This is, again, a matter for all of Europe, because it is not just the integrity of the Polish border that is being defended but the integrity of borders across the continent. Last year, I wrote from Hungary:

Ultimately, we can disagree on what scale and what sources of immigration are appropriate. But all nations should value the ability to decide for themselves. Hungary and others on the frontiers of Europe are doing the dirty work of protecting the right of Western European nations to have the ability to define their own borders. 

This is an especially grave task when young soldiers and border guards are being endangered. Of course, we should not caricature the migrants, most of whom understandably want to find a safer and more prosperous existence than that which they endured at home. But some of them are exceptionally dangerous — a plain fact illuminated by the various terrorist attacks that have been carried out in Europe. Mateusz’s death is further tragic evidence of this.

Whatever the moral and political debates that can be had across Europe around migration, Poles and others are defending our ability to have these arguments at all — in the face not just of pressure from smuggling gangs but from hostile state actors. For this reason, Europe at large, and not just Poland, owes this fallen soldier a debt of thanks.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover