An extraordinary standoff is taking place on the border between Poland and Belarus, after Belarusian authorities escorted hundreds of migrants up to it, in a dramatic escalation of what European countries have called a campaign by Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, to use migrants as “weapons.”
Videos published by Belarusian media and Poland’s defense ministry on Monday showed a long column of people, mostly from the Middle East, being marched by Belarusian guards in camouflage along a highway that leads up the Polish border region of Podlaskie.
The line, estimated to be made up of more than 1,000 people, was blocked by Polish border guards standing behind barbed wire fences. Videos posted later showed chaotic clashes, with some migrants trying to break down fences, while dozens of Polish police barred their path and Belarusian guards stood behind blocking their retreat. There were reports Polish border police used tear gas to push back the crowd, and in some videos, the sounds of gunshots could be heard.
As night fell, video from a helicopter released by Poland’s interior ministry showed dozens of tents set up near the border close to the village of Kuznica.
Poland’s government on Monday vowed not to let the migrants cross and accused Lukashenko of seeking a confrontation and calling it a “hybrid attack.”
“There are large groups of migrants in the area of our border, which are fully controlled by the Belarusian security services and army,” Poland’s government said in a statement Monday. “By creating an artificial migration route and cynically exploiting migrants, Lukashenka is trying to destabilize Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and to force the European Union to lift the sanctions imposed on the Minsk regime.”
The standoff escalates a crisis that has been worsening for months. Lukashenko is accused of luring in thousands of migrants since late spring and pushing them over the border into Poland and Lithuania as retaliation for the European Union’s support for Belarus’ pro-democracy movement that came close to toppling him with mass protests last year.
Poland and Lithuania have taken tough steps to block people from crossing, but Belarus refuses to allow them to return; the result has been that hundreds of people, including families with young children, have become trapped in the forests along the border, stranded without food or shelter for weeks. Temperatures are close to freezing and at least eight people have already died since September.
When ABC News reporters visited the border last month, they encountered three Yemeni asylum seekers who had been trapped in the forest for two weeks, pushed back and forth between Polish and Belarusian border guards.
One of the men, Rami Olaqi, told ABC News that Belarusian guards had robbed and beaten them before shoving them back toward Poland.
“They don’t care,” he said. “It will be better for them if we die, you know?”
It’s just a way “for the Belarusian state to intimidate Europe. And using the refugees as a bullet in their war,” Olaqi said.
Polish border guards have been pushing people back across the border, even when they have sought asylum, people who have tried to cross and local activists have said. Most experts consider such pushbacks illegal under international law.
Poland’s government spokesman. Piotr Muller. on Monday said Poland estimates there are around 3,000-4,000 migrants currently near the border, and that there are up to 10,000 in Belarus right now hoping to cross into Poland.
Lithuania’s Interior ministry on Monday said it had asked the government to consider declaring a state of emergency at the border in view of the situation with Poland.
The flows of migrants began when Belarus eased visa restrictions for dozens of countries, including many in the Middle East. Once in the country, migrants told ABC News Belarusian border guards often lead them to crossing points and cut holes in border fences to let them through.
Lukashenko himself in public speeches has repeatedly threatened to let more migrants through. Belarus’ authorities Monday accused Poland of being to blame for the crisis and claimed Belarus was prioritizing the migrants’ safety.
“The Belarusian side is taking the necessary measures to ensure the smooth functioning of the channels of international communication, as well as the safety of people moving along the highway,” Belarus’ State Border Committee wrote in a statement on its Facebook page.
There were calls on Monday for the European Union to respond. Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, on Monday said the European Union should approve further sanctions against Lukashenko’s government.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) also issued a statement saying it is concerned by the escalation at the border and it “stands ready to further assist our allies and maintain safety and security in the region.”
“The Lukashenka regime’s use of migrants as a hybrid tactic is unacceptable,” the alliance of which Poland and Lithunia are members said.