Why is a migrant crisis unfolding at the Poland-Belarus border?

Europe accuses Minsk of encouraging illegal migration as fears rise of armed conflict

Kieran Guilbert
Tuesday 09 November 2021 19:54
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<p>Migrants cut a tree for their camp near the Belarus-Polish border</p>

Migrants cut a tree for their camp near the Belarus-Polish border

Thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa are trying to cross the border from Belarus into Poland as fears of armed conflict grow amid rising hostility between the European Union and Minsk.

Camped in sub-zero temperatures and surrounded by armed guards, water cannons and barbed wire, clashes between migrants seeking entry to the EU and Polish border guards are expected to escalate in the coming days.

The worsening situation has caused alarm across Europe, with the EU accusing Belarus of encouraging illegal migration in revenge for previous sanctions on Minsk over human rights abuses.

Here is what you need to know about the unfolding migrant crisis:

What’s the situation at the border?

Migrants have been camping on the Belarusian border with Poland, where clashes have broken out as people attempt to get past razor wire fences and Polish border guards to enter the European Union. Poland’s army has mobilised in recent days, with 12,000 troops and anti-terror squads sent to border areas.

The Polish government said as many as 4,000 migrants were estimated to have gathered at the eastern border in camps near Kuznica, while the EU said about 2,000 migrants were trying to enter Poland from Belarus. Many of those currently at the border are Iraqi Kurds.

Poland’s Border Guard said it had registered 309 attempts to cross the border illegally on Monday and 17 people, mainly Iraqis, had been detained. At least seven migrants have been found dead on the Polish side of the border to date, with reports of more deaths in Belarus.

Aid groups have accused Poland’s ruling nationalists of violating the international right to asylum by pushing the migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Poland says its actions are legal.

What’s the background to the crisis?

EU countries trace the roots of the migrant crisis to Belarus’s contested presidential election in 2020 in which President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a sixth successive term, triggering mass street protests that were violently quelled by security forces.

Belarus was then hit by sanctions, and further punishment ensued following the arrest of a dissident journalist on board a Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Minsk.

The migrants began arriving in May, when Lukashenko declared he could no longer control migrant flows to Europe.

Europe has accused Lukashenko’s government of encouraging migrants to cross the border through Poland and also Lithuania in a form of hybrid warfare in revenge for the sanctions. Lukashenko’s government denies manufacturing the crisis and has blamed Europe and the United States.

Why are migrants going to Belarus?

Many people arriving in Belarus have come from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria where they face conflict, persecution and a lack of opportunities.

While many countries worldwide have tightened their borders since Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis, Belarus is now a viable option for those seeking a better life abroad.

Rather than embarking on dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean, migrants can fly to Belarus, head to the border and cross by foot into Poland, and enter the EU. Local reports suggest Minsk is facilitating this by readily providing Belarusian visas to migrants and helping transport them to the border. Belarusian state tourism firms are understood to have played a prominent role promoting Minsk in the Middle East as a stepping-stone migrant destination before Europe.

What’s the political fallout?

Polish President Andrzej Duda told a news conference in Warsaw on Tuesday that the “Belarusian regime is attacking the Polish border, the EU, in an unparalleled manner”.

Minsk has accused Warsaw of violating agreements by moving thousands of troops to the border.

Russia – which backs Lukashenko’s government - praised what it called the “responsible” work of Belarusian security personnel at the border and said it was in close contact with Minsk over the crisis. The Kremlin suggested that the EU could provide financial assistance to Belarus in order to encourage it to stop migrants from crossing into the bloc.

Poland’s northern neighbour and fellow EU member Lithuania on Tuesday announced an incoming state of emergency. Poland imposed such a state in September and extended it by 60 days in October.

What might happen next?

The European Commission said on Tuesday Belarus was taking a "gangster-style" approach to the issue by illegally offering migrants easy entrance into the EU via its territory, and said more sanctions against Minsk were on the way.

Poland warned that the migrant crisis could end in a military confrontation.

Warsaw expected an "escalation... of an armed nature," Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller said.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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