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Migration crisis at Polish border deepens Brussels-Minsk dispute

Thousands of people are being held there in inhumane conditions. Meanwhile, Warsaw does not rule out an "armed escalation"
Cientos de migrantes acampan en el lado bielorruso de la frontera con Polonia, cerca de Kuznica Bialostocka, Polonia, en esta fotografía difundida por el Ministerio de Defensa polaco, el 10 de noviembre de 2021

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   Hundreds of migrants camp on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland, near Kuznica Bialostocka, Poland, in this photo released by the Polish Defence Ministry, 10 November 2021.

The border between Poland and Belarus is witnessing a new migration crisis on European territory. Thousands of people have been held for several days near Kuznica (Poland) as temperatures drop and tensions between Warsaw and Minsk rise, potentially triggering an "armed escalation", as Poland has warned. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the situation could worsen in the coming days and that his country was "preparing for further incidents".

"Sealing the Polish border is in our national interest. The stability and security of the entire European Union is at stake today. We will not be intimidated, and we will defend peace in Europe with our partners," Morawiecki said. The Polish government has also blamed Russia for the migration crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko about the current situation. Putin is the main ally of Belarus, a country isolated by the international community. The Belarusian government, meanwhile, has accused Poland of deploying at least 10,000 soldiers on the border and warns that the country is ready to respond to "any provocation".

AFP/LEONID SHCHEGLOV
AFP/LEONID SHCHEGLOV - An image taken on 9 November 2021 shows Polish security personnel behind a barbed wire fence at the Belarusian-Polish border, where thousands of migrants seeking to enter EU member state Poland gathered.
Thousands trapped in no man's land: "They do not let us enter anywhere" 

In the midst of these accusations and threats are between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants, according to Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller. Most of these people, who are currently stranded at the border, come from African and Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq. The migrants have set up makeshift camps with tents in order to protect themselves from the cold temperatures. According to the Polish authorities, at least seven people have died of hypothermia this autumn.

"Nobody lets us enter anywhere, not Belarus or Poland. There is no way to escape," Shwan Kurd, a 33-year-old Iraqi, told the BBC. Migrants have told the British broadcaster how Belarusian security forces took away their phones and pushed them towards the border fence. "Poland won't let us in. Every night they fly helicopters. They don't let us sleep. We are very hungry, there is no food or water here", Kurd stresses. The Iraqi reminds the BBC that among the migrants there are small children, old people, and families.

crisis migratoria polonia bielorrusia
AFP/WOJTEK RADWANSKI - A man with a child in his arms as members of the Kurdish family from Dohuk (Iraq) wait for the border guard patrol, near Narewka (Poland), next to the border between Poland and Belarus, 9 November 2021.

The Polish government spokesman said that there are another 10,000 people in Belarus ready to try to cross the border. In view of this situation and adding also that several migrants broke through the barbed wire to reach Poland, Warsaw has opted to deploy the army in the area and declare a state of emergency. Between soldiers, military police, border guards and volunteers, "more than 12,000 people are on duty at the border", announced Mariusz Blaszczak, the Polish Defence Minister.

The Polish border "is sacred"

It is worth noting the high number of volunteers who have moved into the area to assist the national security forces. For Polish society, the defence of its national territory and borders is fundamental, an idea that has been reinforced over the years. In the words of Prime Minister Morawiecki: "The border of the Republic of Poland is not just a line on a map. It is sacred: the blood of Poles has been shed for generations to protect it! 

AFP PHOTO / POLISH DEFENCE MINISTRY
AFP PHOTO / POLISH DEFENCE MINISTRY - Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (C) and Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak (R) meet with border guards and troops at Poland's border with Belarus near Kuznica on 9 November 2021.

In order to protect the border, some of the migrants have been beaten by Polish security forces, who have used tear gas. The authorities have also set up a checkpoint a few kilometres from the fence and are preventing journalists and NGO volunteers from entering. Jakub Sieczko, a worker with Medics on the Border, told the media that doctors need special permits to enter the area. "We don't have access to the forbidden zone, we can't deliver the aid boxes ourselves," says another Polish Red Cross paramedic, according to the British newspaper The Guardian.

The Catholic Church in Poland, an institution with great weight in the country, has appealed for the refugees to receive humanitarian aid. "Regardless of the circumstances of the migrants' arrival, they need our spiritual and material support," said Stanislaw Gadecki, archbishop and head of the Polish Bishops' Conference. Several Catholic groups have launched various initiatives aimed at supporting people stranded at the border. They have also called for a social change in the perception of migrants and refugees, and a change in the attitude of the staff at the border. 

crisis migratoria polonia bielorrusia
PHOTO/REUTERS - Hundreds of migrants camp on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland

However, the Belarusian authorities are not showing a friendlier face either. Videos have been posted on social media showing Belarusian military beating migrants and even shooting in the air to disperse them. "In view of the alarming situation on the border, both sides must comply with their obligations under international law," the UN migration and refugee agencies said in a joint statement.

"Hybrid attack" 

Moreover, according to the European Union, it has been Belarus that has provoked this serious situation. Minsk has reportedly been bringing in people from various Middle Eastern and African countries with the false promise of easy access to the EU. After arriving in Belarus, these migrants are pushed to the border and forced to cross illegally, creating a migration crisis on EU territory. 

AP/YVES HERMAN
AP/YVES HERMAN - President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen

"The Lukashenko regime runs a very, very inhumane, unacceptable and illegal operation, because these potential travellers are approached through seemingly official channels, Belarusian consulates, embassies, travel agencies and other intermediaries issuing visas," explains the European Commission.

The Iraqi authorities have also spoken out about the critical situation of their nationals. Baghdad has ordered the closure of the Belarusian consulates in the capital and in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Polish Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski thanked his Iraqi counterpart Nazir al-Kairallah for the decision and stressed "readiness to continue cooperating to resolve the migration crisis". 

crisis migratoria polonia bielorrusia
AFP/AFP - Map showing border crossing points between Belarus and the three EU countries Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Poland has also found support among its European partners. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has proposed extending sanctions to the airlines of the third countries involved. Belarus has long been the target of sanctions by Brussels for electoral fraud and repression of the political opposition. Finally, following the example of other countries such as Turkey, Minsk has responded to these sanctions by opening its borders with the EU.

The European Council has also decided to restrict the entry of Belarusian officials travelling to Europe. "The decision demonstrates once again our joint commitment to continue to counter this hybrid attack," said Ales Hojs, president of the EU's Justice and Home Affairs Council. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also referred to the event as a "hybrid attack". "The use of migrants is unacceptable," Stoltenberg tweeted.

Aleksandr Lukashenko
AP/NIKOLAI PETROV - Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko

Meanwhile, Josep Borrell, the EU's head of diplomacy, has called for the creation of a special force to react quickly to hybrid attacks such as the one launched by Minsk. "Europe is in danger and Europeans are not always aware of it," Borrell said, according to El País.

Support for Poland has also come from the other side of the Atlantic. The United States has "strongly condemned the Lukashenko regime's political exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people". 

crisis migratoria polonia bielorrusia
AFP/WOJTEK RADWANSKI - Paramedics prepare to transport an elderly woman and a member of a Kurdish family as the border guard patrol prepares to take the family to the town of Narewka, Poland, near the border between Poland and Belarus, 9 November 2021.

Lithuania is another country affected by the Minsk decisions. Vilnius has declared a state of emergency for a month. In this situation, border guards can use "proportional physical violence" to prevent migrants from entering the national territory. The Lithuanian authorities have also banned travel to the border, unless allowed by border guards.

"The state of emergency is necessary to use extraordinary measures to eliminate the serious threat to society posed by the mass influx of foreigners," the Lithuanian government said, according to Reuters.

crisis migratoria polonia bielorrusia
AFP/LEONID SHCHEGLOV - Border between Poland and Belarus, where armed troops from both countries are deployed amid escalating tensions.
Turkey takes advantage of chaotic situation and follows in Belarus's footsteps 

Amid the chaos in eastern Europe, Greek port police have released a video showing two Turkish coast guard vessels "trying to steer" a rubber dinghy with migrants on board into Greek waters. "Turkey, once again, is acting like a pirate state in the Aegean, violating its obligations to the European Union," said Yiannis Plakiotakis, the Greek navy minister. Turkish authorities, in agreement with Athens, directed the migrants to Lesbos, a Greek island known for the refugee centres it hosts. However, this is not the first time Ankara has used refugees as pawns. On several occasions, the Turkish authorities have decided to open the borders with the EU in response to decisions taken from Brussels.