Poland has warned of a possible armed escalation on its border with Belarus as thousands of migrants attempt to cross the frontier into the European Union.
The Polish government accuses Belarus of directing migrants toward the border as part of a campaign of ‘hybrid warfare.’ It’s estimated that thousands of migrants are camped along the border close to the Polish village of Kuźnica. Several tried to break through the razor wire fence using shovels and bolt cutters Tuesday. Border guards responded with pepper spray and tear gas.
Polish authorities said they had detained dozens of migrants. “In the last 24 hours, we had 309 illegal attempts to cross the border. The Border Guard issued 85 orders for a person to leave the territory of Poland. Seventeen foreigners were detained and will undergo an administrative procedure,” Polish Border Guard spokesperson Katarzyna Zdanowicz told reporters Tuesday.
It’s not clear if the detained migrants have applied for asylum in Poland, which is their right under international law.
The migrants are from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa – mostly young men, but also some women and children. In footage broadcast on Belarusian state television that cannot be independently verified by VOA, one migrant said they did not want to stay in Poland. “No go to Poland. We are go to Germany. Germany is life. No Poland,” he said. Germany is a common destination for many migrants entering Europe.
Poland and the European Union accuse Minsk of weaponizing migrants by inviting them to enter Belarus and shepherding them to the border, sometimes by force. Visiting the border area Tuesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki praised the work of the 12,000 troops the government has deployed to defend the border.
“We know that this is a fully planned operation, which aims to disrupt the sovereignty of our country. That’s absolutely clear to us. We know for sure that there is a search for weak spots happening (on the border),” Morawiecki said.
“(Belarusian President Aleksander) Lukashenko’s regime uses civilians as weapons of a hybrid war. What we can see today are new methods, and you are a key bastion there to defend against these new methods,” the prime minister added.
Poland closed the main border crossing with Belarus Tuesday, the primary route for road traffic between northern Europe and Russia.
Belarus denies directing migrants toward the border. President Aleksander Lukashenko accused Poland of “taking up arms. It's obvious that it is some sort of a drill or intimidation. Of course, we will face it without any anxiety,” he told state television.
Russia has voiced its support for ally Belarus and blamed EU migration policies for the situation at the border. At a press conference Tuesday after talks with Vatican officials, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on Europe to provide financial assistance to Belarus.
“EU countries need to have consistent standards when the question of admitting or refusing refugees comes up. Why, when refugees were coming through Turkey, did the EU allocate funds to enable them to stay in Turkey? Why is it impossible to help the Belarusians in this way?”
The European Union says Belarus is retaliating for sanctions the bloc imposed in the wake of the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests following the disputed 2020 election, which Western observers say was rigged.
“The president (of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen) demanded very clearly… that Belarus stops the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes, which is putting people's lives at risk,” Dana Spinant, a spokesperson for the European Commission said Tuesday. “Our aim is to bring home clearly the message to the authorities of the countries where the migrants come from that this is a dangerous trap, that people are being lured by the regime in Minsk and they're brought to Belarus and pushed towards the EU borders at their own risk and they're facing a really dangerous situation there.”
Ned Price, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, echoed those concerns. “The United States strongly condemns the Lukashenko regime's political exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people and the regime's callous and inhumane facilitation of irregular migration flows across its borders,” Price told reporters.
Poland has enforced a state of emergency in the border region, blocking access to refugee support groups and journalists. Several migrants have already died at the border, while thousands are stranded in freezing temperatures with little food or water.
Belarus is forcing Europe into a moral crisis, says Polish analyst Piotr Buras of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“As Europeans, as human beings, we cannot ignore the tragedy of those people who got stuck between on the one hand the Belarusian border guards, who do not allow them even to go back to Minsk or to their home countries even if they want to – the Belarusian border guards push those people towards the Polish border and threaten them and use force against them – and on the other side, on the Polish side, there are Polish border guards who do not let them in.”
“Lukashenko is interested in having dead bodies on the Polish-Belarusian border because, from his perspective, that would compromise European values,” Buras told VOA.
Humanitarian organizations say the actions of the Polish troops in forcing back legitimate asylum seekers breaks European and international law. Poland says its actions are legal.
In a joint statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) called for an immediate de-escalation. “In view of the alarming situation at the border, both sides must uphold their obligations under international law and guarantee the safety, dignity, and protection of the rights of people stranded at the border,” the statement read.
Despite strained relations with Warsaw, the European Union said Tuesday Poland has its full support. The bloc said it is preparing new sanctions against the Belarusian government.
Europe should also use diplomacy to cut off the migration at its source, says analyst Piotr Buras. “Lukashenko is bringing migrants by plane from a number of countries. These countries – many of them – are dependent also on good relations with the European Union and it is absolutely unacceptable that they tolerate this kind of behavior,” Buras told VOA.
Lithuania, which alongside Latvia has also seen an influx of migrants in recent months, has begun deploying more troops along its border with Belarus.