A photographic essay on Europe's disparate approach to families fleeing crisis
“Putin. Bomb. Syria,” the young osteopaths shook their heads as they explained why they fled. Evidence of their recent crossing of the Polish border with Belarus littered the forest around them: river waders hurriedly shed at the base of a nearby tree, wet socks hung on a leafy branch, empty plastic bottles reflecting the midday sun. Originally, the group was six, but a frantic escape from Polish border guards split them up and left them wet. The two doctors spent the night huddled together shivering under a bush. They said they could not sleep, “Drones, drones. Buzzzzzz.” In the morning, they discovered they were without water. The batteries of their phones, their only lifelines to the world, were blinking red. They messaged for help to a number shared among refugees in Belarus. A volunteer from a decentralized network of humanitarian activists, NGOs, and local residents answered their early morning plea.
Like the young osteopaths in the Polish forest, Irina Polezhaieva was fleeing Putin’s bombs when she abandoned her home in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. It was the end of April 2022, a month before the Syrian refugees arrived in Belarus. After a week of hiding in the basement of their apartment building, Irina and her husband decided it was best she take their six-year-old son to safety. Crying, Irina left her husband, mother, and grandmother; the threat of a final farewell weighed heavily on the family. With two roller suitcases and her son in toe, Irina set off for Western Europe. At the border, the pair waited for hours in a long line of women, children, and seniors. After a week in a makeshift hostel, a grassroots dormitory for refugees in Krakow, Poland, Irina resigned herself to laying roots somewhere outside Ukraine. “This isn’t going to end overnight; . . . my son is in first grade and he needs safety.” Volunteers from a Dutch community organization signed up residents of the hostel for a free bus ride to Holland. “We’re going to Holland,” Irina said, and scribbled their names on the list.
Europe is currently facing two simultaneous and interwoven refugee crises on its eastern front. In one, tens of thousands of people fleeing Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Cameroon have sought refuge in Europe since Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, opened new flight paths from conflict zones to Minsk and Moscow in the spring of 2021. In the other, just 200 kilometers to the south, more than 5 million Ukrainians have flocked to the European Union since Russia’s invasion began on February 24, 2022.
After a corrupted election, widespread protests, and documented human rights abuses by Belarusan security forces, there was growing international pressure on Lukashenko to cede power. Western threats to historical Russian hegemony in Belarus fell in line with the Kremlin’s narrative of NATO expansion in Ukraine. On May 26, 2021, Lukashenko announced, “We used to catch migrants in droves here—now, forget it, you will be catching them yourselves." Refugees arriving in Minsk were granted visas upon entry, driven to the border, and instructed how to cross. Exploiting the political divisiveness of asylum in Brussels, Lukashenko and Putin sought to destabilize Europe with a hybrid war. As Putin amassed troops along Belarus’s border with Ukraine, Lukashenko manufactured a refugee crisis along Belarus’s borders with Europe.
In July 2021, there was a spike in illegal crossings from Belarus to Lithuania. In violation of international human rights law, the Lithuanian parliament passed legislation legalizing the pushback of refugees to Belarus. On September 2, 2021, Poland declared a state of emergency creating an exclusion zone, a militarized swath 10-15 kilometers wide running the length of the country’s border with Belarus. On November 9, 2021, Lithuania announced its own exclusion zone. Journalists were strictly banned from this zone, and refugees’ constitutional rights were suspended. Only the authorities and permitted residents could enter. Refugees caught crossing became weapons in Putin’s and Lukashenko’s hybrid war, illegally pushed back into Belarus. Now unwelcome deportees, Belarusan border guards forced refugees back to Poland. A tragic game of asylum ping-pong became the norm.
“What’s the difference between a Ukrainian refugee baby and a Syrian refugee baby?” Ewa threw up her hands. By day, Ewa is as a loyal public servant working in a local office. By night, she is a member of Poland’s underground railroad risking her safety and freedom to illegally assist refugees lost in the nearby forests. In March 2022, Polish politicians celebrated Ewa’s friends for rescuing Ukrainians in Kharkiv, Ukraine. A month later, when transporting refugees out of the Polish exclusion zone, Polish police arrested them for “human trafficking.” Eight days after Russian troops crossed into Ukraine from Belarus, Ukrainian refugees were granted visa-free travel within the European Union. In the following weeks, Brussels approved billions of euros in aid to member states welcoming refugees from Ukraine. Ewa believes the explanation for Europe’s disparate responses is simple, “It is just racism. Racism, nothing else.”
The manipulation of refugees for geopolitical gain is not a novel phenomenon. In 2015, the EU accused Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of using Syrian refugees to pressure Brussels for diplomatic concessions. However, along Europe’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine, migration is being weaponized. “Today we see that that attack was part of a large, planned operation, part of a hybrid attack, part of the operational plan developed in the Kremlin and Minsk,” said Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a February 2022 visit to Poland’s exclusion zone.
While Putin and Lukashenko used refugees fleeing war as bartering chips, Polish president Andrezj Duda exploited the crises for his own end. Duda was ostracized from Brussels after attacks on the Polish judicial system and free press. Poland’s frontline position presented an opportunity to mend frayed relations with the international community. The 2015 refugee crisis haunted the collective memory of leaders across Europe. Some criticized Duda for his heavy-handed tactics in the exclusion zone. But few volunteered to risk their political careers on refugees from the Middle East and Africa. At home, Duda exploited the hybrid war to counter waning political support. Having won the presidency as the anti-immigration candidate, the exclusion zone and border wall were popular with his base and reinvigorated support for the Law and Justice Party in parliament.
Duda’s rhetoric pivoted with the influx of refugees from Ukraine. The Polish nationalist used international solidarity with the suffering of Ukrainians to recast himself as an advocate for asylum. The solidarity of ordinary Poles was claimed by Duda and paraded by the government as evidence of Poland’s celebration of human rights. At home, the continued state of emergency and exclusion zone were justified as necessary measures needed to thwart a looming Russian and Belarusan invasion.
On social media, Kremlin bots were quick to highlight the disparity in Europe’s response, citing it as further evidence of the hypocrisy festering at the core of Western democracy. It was easier to paint NATO as legacy imperialism when its member states turned their backs on brown refugees from NATO wars, while simultaneously welcoming white refugees fleeing Russian bombs. Lost in the geopolitical maneuvering was the human suffering that had an impact on all refugees, regardless of the conflict they were fleeing.
Many pundits and journalists argue that the European Union has grown more unified in the face of Russian threats. Yet democratic values like human rights, asylum, and the rule of law gradually lose meaning if their selective application is forged in prejudice. Europe’s ability to effectively mobilize members states and welcome the largest human displacement since World War II undermines previous arguments against granting asylum based on capacity and available resources.
On the drive back to my hotel, I am stopped by Polish police. One cop peers through my backseat window, “Why are you here? Journalist?” I nod my response. “There are no refugees here. Only illegal migrants. Men. Terrorists sent by Lukashenko. You should go to the border with Ukraine.” After checking my passport, the other cop instructs me to turn around. I must leave the exclusion zone. Back in my living room in the United States, a Slate notification pops up on the screen of my laptop, “How Putin Drove Finland to Join NATO.” Instinctively, I reflect on one of my last conversations with Andrezj, another Polish humanitarian activist working in the “Exclusion Zone.” “Maybe Finland is next? Its border with Russia is longer than Poland and Lithuania’s border with Belarus. Combined.” While Finnish authorities prepare their military for potential Russian aggression, I wonder if Finnish civil society is preparing itself for refugees reimagined as weapons, which seems an inevitable consequence of this hybrid war.
Wil Sands is a documentary photographer and journalist based in Richmond, Virginia. Sands' work focuses on social movements and political uprisings. He is the co-founder of the Fractures Collective and his work has been published The Washington Post, Mother Jones, and Harper's Magazine, among others. Sands received support from ArtWorks Projects for this feature.