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Explainer: Why tensions are flaring between Poland and Belarus over migrant crossings

The situation has escalated rapidly since last weekend.

Updated Nov 10th 2021, 2:07 PM

grodno-region-belarus-november-10-2021-migrants-are-seen-at-a-tent-camp-on-the-belarusian-polish-border-according-to-the-polish-border-guard-several-thousand-migrants-have-been-approaching-the Migrants are seen at a tent camp on the Belarusian-Polish border Source: Alamy Stock Photo

TENSIONS BETWEEN BELARUS and Poland have been heating up in recent months as thousands of people have been trying to cross the border from the former to the latter — an EU member state.  

The situation has escalated rapidly since last weekend. 

It began (more or less) with Belarus’ disputed 2020 presidential elections, in which Poland openly supported the opposition. Then in May, Belarus incurred EU sanctions following the alleged ‘state-sponsored hijacking’ of a Ryanair plane carrying a Belarusian opposition journalist.

Soon after, the country opened its borders with the EU, saying it would simplify the tourist visa process for people travelling from Iraq and Syria, among other places.

World leaders have accused Belarus of using migrants as human ammunition in “hybrid warfare”; an accusation that has also been extended to Poland, in an increasingly tense situation involving a number of deaths, the military, and media restriction.

So what’s happening now, and how did it come to this? 

What’s happening on the border? 

Thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa have been stranded in dense forest along the border between Poland and Belarus for weeks. 

There have been reports that Polish border guards are not allowing people to cross over the border from Belarus into Poland. But when they try to re-enter Belarus, they are also not allowed back in by Belarusian border guards.

To date, least 10 migrants have died so far in the region, including seven on the Polish side of the border, according to the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

Unusually high numbers of migrants have been entering Poland, and other countries like Lithuania and Latvia along its border with Belarus in recent months.

That’s owing to thousands being lured to Belarus by tourist visas, and the prospect of easily crossing over these borders into the EU.

Belarus is not a member of the European Union, and the bloc has accused the country of intentionally trying to destabilise it. 

On Monday, Polish authorities said hundreds of migrants in Belarus were heading to the Polish border aiming to force their way into the EU member.

Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesman for Poland special services tweeted:

“New information shows that the group is under the strict control of armed Belarusians. They are the ones who decide the direction the group takes.”

The videos, which were also published on Twitter by the Nexta Belarusian opposition media outlet, show groups of hundreds of people in winter clothing, carrying backpacks and walking along a road.

According to a geolocation check by AFP’s fact-checking service, one of the videos was taken near buildings in Bruzgi, Belarus, some 1.2 kilometres (miles) from the Poland’s Kuznica border crossing. The signs along the road were in Belarusian.

Belarusian border guards confirmed in a statement that “a large group of refugees … is moving along the highway towards the border with Poland.”

Today, Poland said it had seen a surge in attempts to breach its order and had pushed back hundreds of migrants to Belarus. 

grodno-region-belarus-10th-nov-2021-migrants-in-a-tent-camp-on-the-belarusian-polish-border-according-to-the-polish-border-guard-as-of-november-8-there-are-from-2-to-4-thousand-migrants-staying Migrants in a tent camp on the Belarusian-Polish border Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Why are people trying to cross over?

Many who are trying to cross into Poland from Belarus are seeking to escape dangerous conditions in their home countries.

A group of 32 refugees from Afghanistan, who fled the country before it fell to the Taliban, have been staying in a makeshift camp between Poland and Belarus since August.

Another group of Yazidi refugees who left Iraq, where they were facing persecution on religious grounds, have been hiding in the woods along the border to avoid the guards from either country. 

Though many of those who are trying to enter the EU member state along this border are asylum-seekers, they are reportedly being refused asylum by Polish authorities — which violates international human rights conventions.

How is Poland addressing the situation?

In September, the Polish government declared a 30-day state of emergency along 3km of the border — the first time it’s done so since Communism fell in the country. On October first that was extended for another 60 days. 

That means that within the zone, public gatherings and recording or taking pictures of any border structures or personnel are banned. Only residents are allowed to be there, and all must have their identification documents on them at all times. 

The measures also mean NGOs and journalists have very restricted access to the zone and those trying to cross the border there or who are stuck there. 

Poland has also deployed thousands of soldiers to the area to enforce the measures, which it says are to protect its citizens. 

NGO The Notes from Poland Foundation has called the situation a humanitarian crisis, documenting the situation in the area over recent months. 

Two weeks ago, Polish politicians approved a $402 million wall on the border, to stem the flow of migrants — in place of the existing barbed wire. The plan was signed and approved by Polish President Andrzej Duda last week.

grodno-region-belarus-november-10-2021-polish-servicemen-guard-the-belarusian-polish-border-according-to-the-polish-border-guard-several-thousand-migrants-have-been-approaching-the-polish-borde Polish servicemen guard the Belarusian-Polish border Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Why are people saying Belarus is ‘encouraging’ people to cross to Poland?

Leaders in Poland and other EU countries have accused the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, backed by Moscow, of weaponising the people as a form of “hybrid warfare”. 

The country wants to destabilise the bloc in retaliation for sanctions implemented against the country by the EU after Belarusian authorities grounded a Ryanair plane carrying an opposition journalist, Roman Pratasevic, in May.  

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said yesterday that the unprecedented wave of migrants trying to illegally enter Poland from Belarus threatened the security of the entire European Union.

“Sealing the Polish border is our national interest. But today the stability and security of the entire EU is at stake,” Morawiecki said on Twitter.

Polish police said today they had detained over 50 migrants who crossed into Poland from Belarus over the last 24 hours, and were still looking for others, as Warsaw signalled a spike in crossings.

“The situation is not calm,” Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told Polish Radio today, adding that smaller groups of migrants were now attempting to breach the border of the EU and NATO member.

“While two days ago we had one large group concentrated near Kuznica Bialostocka and there was … an attempt to force the border, now we are dealing with smaller groups, although numerous, which are simultaneously attacking the Polish border in several places.”

The defence ministry also alleged that Belarusian officials were using intimidation to force migrants to breach the border. Poland’s defence ministry also tweeted two short videos today capturing a shot allegedly fired on the Belarusian side of the border by an armed man in uniform.

The videos show a group of migrants standing near border security on the Belarusian side of the border. Among them are children.

What has Belarus been saying?

In response to Poland deploying increasing numbers of military personnel and equipment on the border Lukashenko said: “We will react brutally, regardless of any criticism from them.”

He added that, in response, Belarus would deploy more of its own troops to the zone, as well as Russian forces. 

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Belarus warned Poland yesterday against orchestrating “provocations” along their shared border and denied Warsaw’s claims it was behind the unprecedented wave of migrants attempting to cross into the EU country.

The foreign ministry said in a statement: 

“We would like to warn the Polish side in advance against any provocations directed against the Republic of Belarus to justify illegal use of force against disadvantaged, unarmed people, among whom there are many children and women.”

The defence ministry meanwhile denied Polish allegations that Minsk was coordinating the wave of migrants, calling the accusations “unfounded and unsubstantiated”.

The defence ministry yesterday claimed Poland was “not committed to securing a constructive solution to this issue and is intentionally bringing the current conflict situation to a political level”.

Today, Belarus’s foreign minister accused the EU of “provoking” a migrant stand-off on its border and said Minsk was seeking a “joint response” to the crisis with Russia.

“The migrant crisis was provoked by the EU itself and its states that border Belarus,” foreign minister Vladimir Makei said on a visit to Moscow.

He added that Belarus was hoping for “mutual support” from neighbouring Russia, “including a joint response regarding unfriendly actions against our country”.

How has the rest of the world reacted? 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday called on Member States to impose new sanctions against Belarus, which she blamed for the influx of migrants at the Polish border.

The use “of migrants for political purposes is unacceptable”, she said in a statement, adding that the EU would also look at how to sanction “third-country airlines” that bring migrants to Belarus.

“We will not hesitate to adopt sanctions if necessary against companies and countries that play into the hands of smugglers,” EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell warned in mid-October.

“The migrants are provided with visas, plane tickets and an aircraft is ready to transport them to Minsk from where they are taken to the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland,” he said.

Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas will visit “the main countries of origin and transit in the coming days to ensure that they act to prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities,” the statement said.

Yesterday, Germany urged the European Union to “take action” and help stem the flow of migrants illegally crossing the border into Poland. 

“Poland or Germany can’t handle this alone,” caretaker Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told the Bild daily, urging the EU to “stand together”.

“We must help the Polish government secure their external border. This would actually be the task of the European Commission. I’m now appealing to them to take action,” he said.

As the latest grim chapter of Europe’s migrant crisis continued to unfold in recent days, Washington and Brussels also called on Minsk to stop what they described as an orchestrated influx.

On Monday, NATO also hit out at Minsk, accusing the government there of using the migrants as political pawns.

EU chief Charles Michel is due to hold talks on the crisis on the EU’s eastern frontier with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Warsaw later today.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet today branded the migrant crisis on the border as “intolerable” and said the asylum seekers should not spend another night stranded.

“I am appalled that large numbers of migrants and refugees continue to be left in a desperate situation in near-freezing temperatures at the Belarus-Poland border,” Bachelet said in a statement.

“I urge the states involved to take immediate steps to de-escalate and resolve this intolerable situation in line with their obligations under international human rights law and refugee law.”

With additional reporting by AFP and Press Association.

About the author:

Zuzia Whelan and Hayley Halpin

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