'They wanted me to fight, and I knew I had to leave, or die.' My translator, a former English teacher from Syria, was explaining how, after the army knocked on his door one day, he had fled the country and moved more than 2,000 miles to Liverpool. This was 2018, the bloody civil war was raging.
Everyone we met in the north west – an old couple, a young family, single men – had said the same thing. As soon as it was safe, they just wanted to go home. Now, three years on, thousands of their countrymen are in a far more precarious situation, sleeping rough in tents and makeshift shelters on the Belarusian border, as temperatures plummet to below freezing at night.
Earlier this week, Polish police officers and soldiers deployed flash-bang grenades, riot shields and fired water cannons at the crowds as they tried to breach the barbed wire fence. The groups, which include women and children, are part of a far larger battle being fought between Belarus and the EU.
Brussels accuses the Eastern European nation of laying on flights from war-torn places like Syria and Iraq, encouraging desperate people to try their luck with a new route to the continent. Some were undoubtedly displaced by conflict, but many will have just jumped at the opportunity to start a new life. Once in the country, they stock up on tinned goods, buy SIM cards and tents, and jump in taxis or buses to the border.
However that, for many, is where the journey has ended. Neighbouring Poland and Lithuania have announced the construction of vast frontier walls, fortified and kitted out with surveillance equipment, in an effort to control a sharp spike in illegal crossings. Warsaw has even now called in British engineers to help reinforce the barricades.
Videos from the area appear to show Belarusian troops forcing would-be migrants to assault the barbed wire fences, handing out bolt cutters and allegedly deploying plain clothes officers to help dismantle the defences. Squads of riot police have prevented the groups from reaching border points where Poland claims it is ready to accept asylum applications, forcing them back towards the fences.
The worsening crisis, EU leaders say, is part of a 'hybrid war' being waged by Belarus’ long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko in retribution for sanctions imposed on his country. Brussels unveiled a package of measures against his government and national industries in the wake of last summer’s presidential elections, which it says was clearly rigged in his favour. Since the election, security forces – or ‘siloviki’ – have embarked on a brutal crackdown on the opposition, arresting activists and violently breaking up the protests that saw tens of thousands take to the streets to demand a fresh vote.
Lukashenko, for his part, has said the country is now unable to finance its border force because of the sanctions. One idea, mooted by Russia and quickly branded as extortion, was that the bloc could consider a repeat of what it did when large numbers of refugees were making their way up from Turkey: paying the country to make them stay put.
After 2015, when more than a million people turned up in Europe to request asylum, Brussels agreed a deal to provide billions of euros to Ankara after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly threatened that he could open the gates to countries like Greece and Bulgaria. In exchange for the cash, Turkey would host the (mostly Syrian) refugees, building houses and providing education and welfare programs.
Pitched as a humane option that would keep member states happy, activists slammed it as a way to make asylum seekers someone else’s problem, leaving them to an uncertain fate. More extreme measures, such as Hungary’s decision to build a lengthy border wall on its southern flank to keep out migrants, were widely panned within the EU as xenophobic. In a belligerent press conference, the bloc’s leading light, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that despite the challenges of taking in hundreds of thousands of people from war-torn nations, 'we can do this'.
It appears she was wrong. The policy, which many people in Germany now oppose, has been quietly dropped, with the EU hardening its heart towards refugees. While once its leaders slammed Hungary’s Viktor Orban for building barricades, it is now quietly accepting moves to turn back groups at its border.
Lukashenko’s 'weaponisation' of migrants, as Brussels sees it, appears to be working precisely because Europe sees them as a threat. While in reality, resettling a few thousand people across the continent would be no great challenge, anti-immigration sentiment is creeping up in almost every corner of the continent, and some in Brussels still draws clear links between the 2015 migrant crisis and the UK’s vote to leave the EU just a year later.
In France, president Emmanuel Macron is preparing to face off against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in an election just months away. Immigration has been a consistently hot-button issue. And changing attitudes to migration are shaping politics in other major EU nations like Italy, Spain and Greece. The pendulum has swung back the other way, and the countries of Europe now stand resolutely behind hard borders and controls on migration. Those sleeping in the chilly forests on the border with Poland could hardly have picked a worse time to try their luck. Some may not get a chance to go home.