Omer Onhon

Human Suffering Weaponized Once Again

Human sufferings in one part of the world cause chain reaction of events beyond the borders. Among many other things, they lead to political crises between countries and even carry the risk of direct conflict.

When in 2020, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected, opponents claimed fraud and took to the streets. Thousands of demonstrators were hurt and arrested. Then there was the diverted plane, whereby a Belarus dissident journalist was detained.

The EU and US reacted by imposing sanctions on Belarus.

Lukashenko responded. One step which he took was “to ease travel to Belarus for tourists from some Middle Eastern and Asian countries” which happened to be the countries where most “going West migrants” originate from.

When hundreds of “tourists” appeared along Belarus’s borders with Lithuania and Latvia in August 2021, the two EU members with populations of 2.7 and 1.9 million were shaken.

Thousands of “tourists”, among them many woman and children, are now on the Belarus-Poland frontier trying to push their way into EU lands illegally. Kuznica-Bruzgi border crossing is the hotspot but they are also in many other spots along the borderline. The pain and suffering is immense.

European Union officials described these developments as part of an "inhuman, gangster-style approach" of Lukashenko. German Foreign Minister Maas said that the European Union would not give in and “would sanction all those who participate in the targeted smuggling of migrants."

Russia stood by Belarus. It announced sending two bomber planes to patrol the Belarus airspace. In addition, the two countries conducted joint maneuvers in western Belarus near the Polish border.

The European Union quickly turned to countries where these “tourists” were coming from, as well as countries whose airlines were used to travel to Belarus. Other than the national airlines of Belarus, Belavia, other countries’ carriers such as Turkish Airlines, Iraqi Airways and Etihad have regular flights to Minsk. The European Union made official demarches and asked these countries to take measures.

In effect, airlines are profit making entities and they carry passengers as long as they have right travel documents and visas, abide by airline rules and are not on an internationally recognized wanted list. Travel documents are provided by home countries and visas are issued by official authorities of the country to be visited. So long as conditions to travel are met, people can fly. What they do where they go, is their business.

In any case, Turkey which has been at the forefront of the refugee issue in recent years and tangled in disputes evolving around it, responded positively to the European Union appeals.

The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs came up with a statement rejecting all claims to portray Turkey as part of a problem that it is not a party to, and emphasized Turkey’s readiness to give all necessary support.

Within this framework, on 12 November, the Turkish Civil Aviation announced that “due to the problem of illegal border crossings between the European Union and Belarus, it has been decided that the citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen who want to travel to Belarus from Turkish airports will not be allowed to buy tickets and boarding until further notice”.

The refugee crisis in the Aegean in 2015 and Turkey-Greece borders in 2020 were examples of contention, whereas, this time what we witnessed was a cooperative approach on both sides.

It will be recalled that according to United Nations data, Turkey is the country hosting the highest number of “refugees” in the world. Turkey has long complained about being left alone as well as the need for effective international cooperation to deal with refugee crisis.

On the other hand, Greece has come under a lot of criticism for its harsh tactics and push backs against refugees. Even highest level European Union officials have criticized Greece on that account. Last week when Prime Minister Mitsotakis was in the Netherlands for an official visit, at the joint press conference with his host, a Dutch journalist questioned Greece’s conduct on this issue. The Greek Prime Minister was furious.

Back to European Union’s appeal for help, Iraq also responded positively and suspended flights from Baghdad to Belarus.

These measures are temporary reliefs. They do not solve the problem. There are many other ways and routes to reach Belarus.

What people are faced with is a tragedy. But what makes them go through these sufferings, why do they risk their lives?

One refugee from Syria said he sees no future in his home country. This is a summary situation report and can be expanded throughout.

According to the UN Secretary General, “nine in ten Syrians live in poverty, 60 percent of the population is at risk of going hungry, 2.5 million children are out of school, half a million children are chronically malnourished, early or forced marriage, rape and sexual abuse are prevalent”.

On the other hand, one’s life is under constant risk. A striking example is what happened to a family in Idlib a couple of days ago near the town of Maaret Misren. Russian and Assad regime planes bombed a farm area and five members of the same family were killed. Three of them were children. This family had fled the Aleppo countryside eight months ago and was trying to hang onto life by working as agricultural laborers.

Nobody knows why they were targeted. Maybe they were close to a place with a military value target. Or maybe they were victims of a random bombing, as it is so often the case. This incident happened in an area where Turkey and Russia brokered a peace agreement in March 2020. According to the White Helmets group, since last June, there have been hundreds of air attacks by Russia/regime. They said, after these attacks, they dug up at least 155 bodies, more than half of them being children and women.

People who flee their countries may suffer great pains on their journey, they may be faced with discrimination and abuse at their destination if they ever reach it, their lives may be threatened and they may even fall victim occasionally. But even then, the situation in their home countries must be far far worse as they accept to take all these risks.

This leads to the conclusion that problems are not in this country or that country, but at the source. The real and sustainable solution is also at the source. So long as problems are not solved back home at the source, anything that is done will not go beyond trying to manage the day, not even save it.