Migration crisis: from EU capitals to borderland forests, a winter of discontent looms

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One of the underlying themes of movies about the Second World War is the role that forests played in the dynamics of the conflict.

For residents of the majestic Bialowieza Forest on the border between Poland and Belarus, an old shiver of vulnerability has chilled the bones in recent weeks. The feeling is that bigger forces are at work in the idyllic area, shifting the risks for locals and outsiders alike.

At this point, there are no bombs or bullets. It is people that are the ammunition. Migrants on the move are trying, as individuals or families, to build a new life in Europe, but the immediate fate of these newcomers is dire. In the meantime, cold winter looms and they are facing harsh predicaments. It is the same in the Bosnian forests around the city of Bihac, where there are an estimated 4,000-odd migrants, many again from the Middle East, who are stranded in makeshift tents on the hillside.

Move further west and the woods stretching across the border between France and Belgium, near the French coastal town of Calais, are providing cover if not shelter for a small army. The people here, many from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, are awaiting the chance to go across the English Channel to the UK. To the frustration of all concerned, thousands are building up. Calm seas mean that 1,200 made an attempt to cross on Thursday alone.

Poland increased security at its border with Belarus, on the EU’s eastern frontier, after a large group of people appeared to congregate on the Belarusian side of a crossing point, officials said on Monday. AP

Europe’s crisis stretches across its frontiers. It is a humanitarian travesty that will now play out across the winter. The locals in Poland have mobilised to find clothing and other supplies for the people who are stuck in vast landscape of fir trees. So, too, have organisations such as Care4Calais, which organises food, shelter and hygiene drops for people gathering in France seeking the means to enter the UK.

Unfortunately, as the miserable winter plays out, the political frictions over the crisis are being steadily ratcheted higher.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the phone last week to Russian President Vladimir Putin imploring him to use his influence to stop the flagrant use of pressure politics by the Belarus government, an ally of Moscow, to funnel the migrants at the European frontier.

In her last days in office, Mrs Merkel is presenting a very different face in this migrant situation to the one in 2015. Praised worldwide for her “we can do this” instruction to allow one million Iraqi and Syrian refugees complete the journey to Germany, she had then had to contain a backlash at home.

As one German newspaper now reports, her response this time is “straight out of Hungary”. In other words, she is following the playbook of the right-wing government in Budapest that has raised fences around its borders and driven any incomers back. German newspapers are reporting a “Fortress Europe” asylum policy is no longer unthinkable.

The dynamic between Minsk, Moscow and the European states is now at the top of the diplomatic agenda. Russia and Belarus sent paratroopers to partake in military exercises in the area. Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte of Lithuania, another frontline being state targeted by Minsk, on Friday called for the EU to build a border fence all the way along its Belarus frontier. The UK, meanwhile, has deployed troops to assist the Polish forces on the marches.

Recognising the humanitarian crisis facing its citizens, Baghdad has indicated that it is ready to put on a humanitarian flight back home some of its citizens who were given visas to go to Belarus.

The Polish government believes these people are being assisted in making the trip through the forests by Belarusian agents. The EU is gearing up for a legal battle to prevent passenger flights from countries such as Iraq that have seen a sudden upsurge in people gaining Belarus visas. In retaliation, Minsk has said it will stop all transshipments of oil and gas to Europe from Russia.

From the Baltic states to the Balkans, the idea of frictions between neighbours is something that is deeply concerning.

Around 1,000 people reached the UK in a single day after risking their lives in small boats in the English Channel, a new record for the current crisis. All photos: PA

Migrants are also playing a role in the growing tensions between the UK and Europe. Britain’s Home Office on Friday accused France of going slow on efforts to restrain people from leaving its shores on desperate boat journeys over the busy English Channel. The migration bottleneck at Calais was constantly in the headlines when the UK was an EU member state, but there was an overall framework for the country to work with the French. With the deep fracture of Brexit, the issue is now becoming a wedge between the two old frenemy nations. That this issue comes at a time when the volume of incomers soars is only something of a spiral.

Against the backdrop of climate change and Cop26, migration is one of the key issues of our time. What plays out in the coming months in the forests of Europe is just one more demonstration of how wrong it is that people are suffering and dying as they move between countries in this manner.

From a humanitarian standpoint, the situation is intolerable. Overarching interests are being drawn into the maelstrom, while states are being pulled into tension and conflict. Instability is burgeoning in way that is dangerous both for Europe and its neighbours.

For all concerned a horrible winter lies ahead.

Damien McElroy is a foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia

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