Live Updates: Crisis on Europe’s Eastern Flank Deepens as Tension Escalates at Polish Border
Western officials accuse the leader of Belarus of sending migrants to E.U. borders as retaliation for sanctions. E.U. officials expressed support for Poland. Lithuania, which also borders Belarus, declared a state of emergency.
Members of a Kurdish family from Iraq waited for border guard patrol in a forest on the Polish side of the border with Belarus on Tuesday.Credit…Wojtek Radwanski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
As the crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus deepened on Wednesday, European leaders pledged solidarity with the Polish government despite longstanding disputes that have left relations between Brussels and Warsaw in tatters.
The standoff at the hastily constructed razor-wire fences on Poland’s eastern border has been building as Western officials accused the leader of Belarus of allowing asylum seekers to fly into his nation and head toward its borders with European Union countries. But tensions escalated in recent days as the number of migrants moving from Minsk to the Polish border has grown from dozens to thousands.
The European Council President, Charles Michel, stood with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to condemn what both leaders said was an orchestrated attempt to use human beings as weapons.
“Poland is facing a serious crisis that we take seriously, and it should enjoy the solidarity and unity of the whole European Union,” Mr. Michel said at a news conference in Warsaw. “It is a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack.”
Western officials say that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus is allowing asylum seekers from the Middle East to fly in and then funneling them westward toward Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all European Union countries.
They say Mr. Lukashenko is retaliating against sanctions imposed by the European Union after his disputed 2020 election victory. Top E.U. diplomats are expected to propose new sanctions against Belarus on Monday.
Mr. Michel said that in order to resolve the crisis, the bloc was looking into a “serious diplomatic initiative” addressing the countries of origin of the migrants, as well as transit countries.
Mr. Michel also mentioned the possibility of sanctioning airlines involved in transporting people to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
In a reversal of prior statements by E.U. officials, Mr. Michel also said the bloc would consider the possibility of financing a wall at the border.
But Poland, which has dispatched some 17,000 troops to stand guard, has gone further, accusing Moscow of directing the effort.
“Lukashenko is the executor of the latest assault, but this assault has a sponsor who is to be found in Moscow, and this sponsor is President Putin,” Mr. Morawiecki said during an emergency debate in the Polish parliament on Tuesday.
Maria V. Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, called Poland’s allegations that Russia was behind the crisis falsehoods “beyond all possible bounds and norms.”
Thousands have been stranded on the border as the harsh winter sets in, and there was no sign that the tension was easing on Wednesday. Eight people have died at the border so far, according to the Polish authorities.
Yet estimating the number of migrants at the borders remains difficult because the Polish authorities have restricted access to the area. Human rights groups say that when migrants have successfully crossed the border, the Polish authorities have pushed them back into Belarus. Poland recently enacted a law allowing such pushbacks, but rights advocates say they violate international law.
Poland’s defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, said that there were signs that the migrants were splitting up to try to test the border at multiple points.
Mr. Blaszczak said that rather than “one large group,” there were now “smaller, albeit numerous groups attacking the Polish border in parallel.”
“It was not a calm night, indeed there were many attempts to break through the Polish border,” Mr. Blaszczak told Polskie Radio on Wednesday morning. But he said that all those who crossed had now been detained, according to reports from the army and border guard.
Hundreds of Migrants Gather at Belarus-Poland Border
Hundreds of people, largely from the Middle East, camped at the Belarus-Poland border in frigid weather seeking to enter Poland. Western officials say Belarus is trying to orchestrate a refugee crisis at its borders with the European Union.
Announcement: “Crossing the border is legal only at border crossings. Attention, attention.” “We don’t have water, don’t have food. How many times are we waiting? I don’t know. We don’t know.” “As you see, everybody almost dying of the cold, hunger and everything.”
Hundreds of people, largely from the Middle East, camped at the Belarus-Poland border in frigid weather seeking to enter Poland. Western officials say Belarus is trying to orchestrate a refugee crisis at its borders with the European Union.CreditCredit…Polish Defence Ministry, via Reuters
European Union officials said they were analyzing air traffic to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, as potential evidence that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus was effectively orchestrating a flow of migrants toward E.U. countries.
The timetable for the Minsk airport, effective Oct. 31, shows at least 47 scheduled flights per week from Middle Eastern locations, compared with no more than 23 flights per week on its previous schedule. The additional flights include a new daily route from Damascus on an Airbus A320 operated by the Syrian airline Cham Wings.
Travel agencies in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where many of the migrants come from, have been offering packages that include visas to Belarus and airfare either through Turkey or the United Arab Emirates for about $3,000.
Peter Stano, a spokesman for the E.U.’s executive arm, said officials were monitoring flights from around two dozen countries that were ferrying migrants into Minsk — including Morocco, Syria, South Africa, Somalia, India, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Libya and Yemen. The European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, said the E.U. was stepping up “outreach with partner countries” to prevent migrants from coming to Belarus in the first place.
“Our urgent priority is to turn off the supply coming into Minsk airport,” she said in a tweet.
Travel agents in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq say they have contracts with agencies that charge about $1,300 per visa from Belarus diplomatic missions in the U.A.E. and Turkey.
“We have more business now from people leaving for emigration than for vacations,” said Sana Jamal, a travel agent in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah.
BRUSSELS — The migration crisis of 2015, when millions of people surged into Europe, nearly tore apart the European Union. Many members offered asylum to the refugees; others, like Poland and Hungary, wanted no part of it.
Six years later, amid a standoff over migrants at the border of Poland and Belarus, E.U. officials insist that member states are united when it comes to defending the bloc’s external borders and that uncontrolled immigration is over.
What is different, they say, is that this confrontation is entirely manufactured by the Belarusian ruler, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, as a response to sanctions imposed on his country by the Europeans. They say it is not a true migration crisis, but an act of aggression by Mr. Lukashenko.
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, on Wednesday called Mr. Lukashenko’s tactics a “cynical power play” and said that blackmail must not be allowed to succeed.
The support for Poland is especially striking while the European Union is locked in a major confrontation with the right-wing Polish government about the supremacy of European law over Polish law and about restrictions on the independence of the judiciary. In that confrontation, Brussels is withholding from Warsaw billions of dollars of funds intended to help economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet in an indication of how seriously Brussels takes the standoff with Belarus, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, visited Warsaw on Wednesday to meet with the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to offer solidarity — and even, perhaps, some border funds.
“Poland, which is facing a serious crisis, should enjoy solidarity and unity of the whole European Union,” Mr. Michel said.
But the Europeans do not want to be seen as ignoring children, women and men, however manipulated they have been, in freezing conditions, without decent food, shelter or sanitary facilities, stuck between troops and barbed wire. Several have died.
In response, Brussels is contemplating another round of sanctions aimed at Belarusian officials and airlines that are ferrying the migrants from the Middle East to Minsk. But few believe that new sanctions will move Mr. Lukashenko any more than previous ones have done.
“This is a very serious crisis for the European Union, not just for Poland,” said Piotr Buras, a Warsaw-based fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a crisis of security, which could get much worse if Polish and Belarusian guards start shooting, and it’s a very serious humanitarian crisis, because Europe can’t accept people starving and freezing on the border.”
MOSCOW — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday, urging him to push Russia’s close ally Belarus to stop its “inhuman and unacceptable” actions at the Polish border, her spokesman said.
Mr. Putin told Ms. Merkel, the Kremlin indicated, that there was nothing he could do.
“The Russian president suggested that the problems that have arisen be discussed directly by representatives of European Union countries with Minsk,” the capital of Belarus, a Kremlin statement describing Ms. Merkel’s phone call said.
The public posturing by Berlin and Moscow over Ms. Merkel’s phone call to Mr. Putin highlighted how Russia continues to staunchly back Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the Belarusian strongman who violently put down an uprising against him last year.
By urging the West to talk directly to Mr. Lukashenko over the migration crisis that European officials say was created by Mr. Lukashenko to put pressure on Europe, the Kremlin was increasing its ally’s leverage in the crisis.
“Belarus has repeatedly, at the present stage at the borders, proposed holding consultations, negotiating, resolving these issues on the basis of international law,” Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said in a news conference in Moscow alongside his Belarusian counterpart.
In another show of unity, two nuclear-capable Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers flew along Belarus’s borders with Poland and Lithuania on Wednesday. Belarus’s defense ministry said the allied air patrol of the country’s western borders would now be a regular occurrence given “the emerging situation in the air as well as on the ground.”
But Belarusian officials continued to insist they were not at fault in the crisis. The country’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, castigated Poland for deploying thousands of soldiers “against crying women and children and not allowing them into Europe.”
“This is a violation of all norms,” Mr. Makei said alongside Mr. Lavrov. “The accusations that Belarus is allegedly organizing these flows are totally groundless.”
Alarmed by the conflict over migrants coming from neighboring Belarus, Lithuania imposed a state of emergency on Wednesday covering its border zone and detention centers holding thousands of migrants.
The emergency measures, which allow military forces to be mobilized and suspend privacy and many other legal rights, were approved on Tuesday by the Lithuanian Parliament and went into effect at midnight.
The main flow of Middle Eastern migrants hoping to pass through Belarus and into the European Union has been toward Poland, which has posted thousands of troops at its border with Belarus. But in recent days, Lithuania — also an E.U. member — has also seen a new surge in illegal crossings.
Polish and E.U. officials say Belarus’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, is orchestrating the human tide, calling it a retaliatory attack against the bloc. Poland and Lithuania have given shelter to some of Mr. Lukashenko’s most vocal opponents, and the E.U. has imposed sanctions against Belarus that he wants lifted.
Relations between Europe and Belarus soured sharply last year after Mr. Lukashenko claimed an unlikely landslide victory in an election widely viewed as rigged and unleashed a brutal crackdown on his critics.
The emergency measures reinforced a mood of crisis along the European Union’s — and also NATO’s — eastern border with Belarus, a close political and military ally of Russia.
This summer, after more than 100 migrants made their way across the border from Belarus into Lithuania, the Lithuanian government stepped up efforts to slow the flow of people it said were being used as “hybrid weapons” against the European Union.
The authorities built a fence and lawmakers in Lithuania — which is a member of the European Union — passed a law fast-tracking asylum procedures to process and return migrants faster, and legalizing the detention of migrants for up to six months without a court order.
But the state of emergency that took effect Wednesday is the most sweeping edict of its kind since the nation declared its independence in 1990.
Under the new law, migrants in Lithuania are not allowed to communicate in writing or by telephone with anyone, except to contact the country’s authorities. Only residents and property owners are allowed within about three miles of the border, and the movement of vehicles in that zone is restricted.
“A state of emergency is an instrument that has never been used in our independent state’s practice,” Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said this week, highlighting the urgency of the situation. She said the decision to extend the measures will be reviewed in one month.
The original story was published on Oct. 6, 2021.
ALONG THE EASTERN POLAND BORDER — The father had walked in circles in the rain-drenched Polish forest, cradling his sick daughter, delirious after three days with barely any food or water as temperatures dipped toward freezing. He was soaked, shivering and facing a terrible choice.
His daughter, 2, has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. He had wrapped her in a thin coat to protect her from the cold, and she needed urgent medical attention. The father, an Iraqi Kurd who gave his name as Karwan, had guided his family across the border from Belarus but was now in a forested area patrolled by Polish soldiers and border guards.
The choice for the father was pitiless: seeking medical help would mean a return to Belarus and the end of his family’s desperate journey to Europe.
“I can call for an ambulance for you, but border guards will come with it,” Piotr Bystrianin, a Polish activist who arrived to help, told the family, who said they wanted to request asylum in Poland. He had found them after hours of searching in the dark, alerted to their whereabouts by a locator pin sent by cellphone.
Karwan’s family had stumbled into a geopolitical fight between Belarus and Poland that has escalated into a man-made humanitarian disaster for Europe. At least five people who crossed illegally into Poland have died in recent weeks, some of hypothermia and exhaustion, according to Polish officials, and three nearly drowned in a Polish swamp.
“Many more will die as weather conditions get worse,” Mr. Bystrianin said. “Our government treats these people worse than criminals, who get taken to prison, as if they are not human beings, just rubbish to be thrown away. What is the plan — to get people killed?”