Belarus migrant crisis threatens 'security of entire EU', Poland says

Belarus migrant crisis threatens ‘security of the entire EU’ Poland warns: Germany accuses Lukashenko and Putin of trying to ‘destabilise the West’ as troops use strobe lights to stop refugees sleeping in border camp

  • Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said today that security of the EU is under threat from Belarus
  • He vowed to keep turning migrants back and accused Belarus dictator Lukashenko of using them as a weapon
  • German interior minister Horst Seehofer backed Mr Morawiecki, accusing Lukashenko of using ‘nasty tactics’ 
  • Seehofer said the crisis has been manufactured to ‘destabilise the EU’ and vowed not to give in to threats
  • Belarus, with the backing of Moscow, denies the claims – saying the people are legitimate asylum seekers 

The security of the entire EU is under threat from the migrant crisis on Poland’s eastern border, the country’s prime minister has said, a day after thousands of would-be refugees tried to storm across from neighbouring Belarus.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on the EU to support Poland’s efforts to keep the migrants back as a tense stand-off developed today between Polish guards on one side and mostly-Kurdish exiles on the other.

Thousands of people including pregnant women and young families were left camped in woods separating the two countries overnight as temperatures plunged to -2C, with videos appearing to show Polish border guards using strobe lights to keep people from falling asleep.  

Poland accuses Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko of waging ‘hybrid warfare’ using the migrants as a weapon – luring people into his country using false promises of passage into Europe before forcing them to the border, where they are then trapped in no-man’s land with both the Polish and Belarus refusing to admit them. 

Western leaders say the move is revenge against the EU for supporting pro-democracy protests in Belarus and for sanctioning Lukashenko’s regime after he hijacked a Ryanair flight in its airspace to arrest a journalist. Belarus – with the backing of Moscow – refutes the claims, saying the people are legitimate asylum seekers. 

Mr Morawiecki said today that Poland will continue to turn the migrants away as armed troops were deployed to the border, adding that ‘the stability and security of the entire EU is at stake’.

‘This hybrid attack of Lukashenko’s regime is aimed at all of us. We will not be intimidated and will defend peace in Europe with our partners from NATO and EU,’ he tweeted.

Meanwhile Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, threw his weight behind Mr Morawiecki and accused Lukashenko of orchestrating the crisis to ‘destabilise the EU and especially Germany’ – which is where many of the migrants are trying to reach. 

‘It is a very nasty tactic,’ he told German newspaper Bild. ‘A political tactic that must be stopped.’ 

Mr Seehofer praised the actions of Polish border guards, saying they have acted ‘absolutely correctly’ in using tear gas and shields to force the migrants back after videos showed men using axes to cut down trees and use them as battering rams to get through a border fence. Other videos appeared to show stones being thrown.  

Videos from the Polish side overnight showed the migrants encamped just feet from the barbed wire.

Camp fires were seen at a site close to the Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing which Poland closed on Tuesday. 

‘Despite the absence of aggressive actions on the part of the refugees, instead of attempting to understand the situation the Polish side deployed aerial units to provide psychological pressure. Apart from that, tear gas was used against the people seeking shelter,’ said the the State Border Committee of Belarus referring to events on Monday.

‘In response to the unjustified use of special gear some of the refugees resorted to more decisive actions and started destroying the Polish fence.’

The country’s official news agency estimated there were around 3,000 at the border, many of them Kurds.

‘They use gas against us. Look what is happening,’ said an elderly man, according to the autocratic state’s official news agency Belta.

Another man was quoted saying: ‘Many of us have brought families.

‘I have six kids. All of them are little. There is no food, milk, or diapers for them. We have no firewood to warm us up, no tents to shelter us from rain and they don’t let us into Europe.’

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen demanded that Belarus ‘must stop putting people’s lives at risk.’

She accused Lukashenko of using migrants ‘ for political purposes’ and vowed the move would not see Brussels cave in.

‘I have spoken to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė and Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš to express the EU’s solidarity and discuss with them the measures the EU can take to support them in their efforts to deal with this crisis.

‘I am calling on Member States to finally approve the extended sanctions regime on the Belarusian authorities responsible for this hybrid attack.:

German interior minister demanded stronger action amid concerns that the would-be asylum seekers aim to head to Germany if they gain access to the EU.


Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer urged the EU to ‘stand together’ and help Poland to secure their border with Belarus

‘We must help the Polish government secure their external border,’ said the minister.

‘This would actually be the task of the European Commission. I’m now appealing to them to take action.’

Poland has sent 12,000 soldiers to stop hundreds of would-be asylum seekers entering its territory.

‘Interior ministry forces and soldiers managed to stop the first mass attempt to breach the border,’ said the country’s defence ministry.

‘Migrants have set up a camp in the Kuznica region. They are constantly guarded by Belarusian services.’

Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller estimated 3,000 to 4,000 migrants were massing near the border.

‘We expect that there may be an escalation of this type of action on the Polish border in the near future, which will be of an armed nature,’ he warned.

‘Nato stands ready to further assist our allies and maintain safety and security in the region,’ said a spokesman for the Alliance. 

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Monday called on member states to impose new sanctions against Belarus and said the use ‘of migrants for political purposes is unacceptable’. She added that the EU would also look at how to sanction ‘third-country airlines’ that bring migrants to Belarus.  

Warsaw called Monday’s action ‘an invasion’ and declared it was sending 12,000 troops to reinforce 10,000 already stationed along the frontier.  

A migrant was seen hacking at the barbed wire barrier with a spade while a Polish guard sprayed him with pepper spray

Small children are held up by desperate migrants along with frontier faced down by Polish forces

A surge of ‘illegal immigrants’ preparing to cross the border from dictatorship Belarus into NATO-EU state Poland has sparked fears of a major crisis in the region (pictured: immigrants making their way along the highway to Poland)

A helicopter flies low overhead as thousands of migrants mass on the Polish border with Belarus on Monday

One of the migrants takes a pair of pliers to the barbed wire fence at the Polish border with Belarus on Monday

These extraordinary scenes are the most serious yet in a dispute that has seen the West accuse Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko of ‘weaponising’ immigration and engaging in a ‘hybrid war’


Polish forces are seen standing guard at the border to block the passage of migrants from Belarus

Videos today show an enormous procession of migrants near the Bruzgi-Kuznitsa frontier checkpoint, on a highway that links Belarus to Poland. Migrants have been gathered in the forests close to the checkpoint for weeks (countries in blue are part of the EU – Lithuania and Latvia have also reported a major influx of migrants in recent months from Belarus)

EU Chief calls for new sanctions on Belarus 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on the bloc’s 27 nations to approve extended sanctions on the Belarusian authorities ‘responsible for this hybrid attack.’  

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.  

She said two top EU officials – EU Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas and EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell – will travel to the main countries of origin for the migrants to ‘ensure that they act to prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities.’ 

‘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.

The EU said it hoped that Poland would finally accept help from Frontex, the bloc’s border agency, a step Poland’s ruling nationalists have so far refused to do. Frontex would not comment on the border situation.   

Stanislav Zaryn, Minister-Coordinator of the Polish Intelligence Service,  accused Belarusian President Lukashenko of acting to destabilize Poland and other EU countries to pressure the bloc into dropping its sanctions on Minsk. 

Those sanctions were put into place after Belarus cracked down brutally on democracy protests.

 

The U.S. State Department also called for Belarus to stop ‘orchestrating’ an influx of migrants at the Polish border, blaming strongman Lukashenko for the ‘coercion of vulnerable people.’   

Poland’s ambassador to the UN Krzysztof Szczerski said: ‘Due to the situation on the eastern border of Poland, I am in contact with the ambassadors of the USA, Great Britain, France, Ireland and Estonia to the United Nations in New York – members of the Security Council.’

The pledge comes as deputy head of Poland’s Interior Ministry said: ‘At the moment, a regular battle is taking place near Kuźnice.

‘The Border Guard, the Police and the Polish Army are defending our border against the attack of migrants inspired and prepared by Lukashenko.’

Poland said it had withstood the first attempts on Monday by the migrants to force their way across the border, but that thousands more were on their way. 

‘We expect that in the coming hours attacks on our border will be renewed by groups of several hundred people,’ Pawel Soloch, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, told reporters. 

The Polish Border Guard announced that as of 0600 GMT on Tuesday the crossing at Kuznica, near the site where migrants tried to force their way through, would be closed.

‘We have three border crossings with Belarus,’ Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik told private broadcaster Polsat News. ‘The closure of one of them can… be treated as a kind of economic sanction.’

Poland’s Secret Service minister Stanislaw Zaryn said: ‘Migrants, and subsequent transports arrive in Belarus from Arab countries. – Polish borders are attacked in an organized manner, we will strengthen forces,’ he said.

The former President of the European Community has now called upon NATO to help with the mounting crisis on Poland’s border with Belarus.

Donald Tusk said Poland should consider triggering Article 4 of the Nato treaty, under which all member states are obliged to meet to examine issues of mutual concern including threats to territorial integrity, political independence or security.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Tusk who is the leader of Poland’s main opposition party Platforma Obywatelska said he was ‘very concerned about what is happening today and what will probably happen in the hours to come on our eastern border.’

He added: ‘Our relations with our eastern neighbour are about to deteriorate even further.

‘What is most important is perhaps to consider whether we should trigger Nato’s Article 4 if our border is under direct threat from physical pressure with Belarusian involvement, and I mean Belarusian state services.’

Charities say the migrants face gruelling conditions while trying to cross the border from Belarus, enduring freezing weather and a lack of food, water and medical attention.  

Poland said seven migrants had been found dead on its side of the border, with reports of more deaths in Belarus.

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

There are more than a thousand people in the group of refugees near the border with Poland, including many women and children, reported RIA Novosti after speaking with Belarusian border guards.

The border guards said that migrants ‘do not pose a threat yet,’ but their statements came amid reports that Lukashenko was sending heavily armed riot police towards the border.

‘At the moment, a large group of refugees with belongings are moving along the road to the border with Poland,’ said the Belarusian border committee in a statement.

A grotesque game of human ping-pong: IAN BIRRELL reveals how Belarus has flown in thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa – then sent them into Poland en route to a new life in the West… But the Poles don’t want them

By IAN BIRRELL IN BIALOWIEZA FOREST, POLAND FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY 

We met deep inside Europe’s last remaining primeval forest, where bison and wolves roam beneath ancient towering oaks. ‘I am an IT professional and I had a good life,’ Hussan told me. ‘But now I am standing in the woods with bare feet and dirty hands.’

Hussan, 41, lived happily in the Syrian city of Homs before it was shattered by bombs, bullets and feuding militia, forcing him to flee to Turkey.

Tears flowed down his face when I asked about his family, then he spoke in English of his dream to find sanctuary in Britain. Instead, he finds himself in Bialowieza Forest, a fearful refugee hiding from Polish security forces seeking to send him back over the nearby border to Belarus.

For this is the latest front line in Europe’s migration crisis. Hussan is just one of many bedraggled pawns in a cruel global power game being played by Belarus’s sinister dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has ‘weaponised’ migration by luring people from the Middle East and Africa to his country, then despatching them to next-door EU nations.

This policy is designed to stoke divisions and destabilise the EU in retaliation for sanctions imposed after the autocrat sparked world outcry by forcing a Ryanair passenger jet carrying an opposition activist to divert to the Belarusian capital Minsk, where he was seized and then paraded on television.

Pictured: Hussan, 41, from Syria and his pregnant wife Sarah, who spent 28 days in the Bialowieza forest

Politicians across Europe accuse Lukashenko of launching a ‘hybrid war’ backed by Moscow. ‘Refugees and asylum-seekers are being brought to the border with the aim of intimidating Brussels and Poland,’ said Marcin Swiecicki, an MP and former mayor of Warsaw. ‘The situation is a tragedy.’

True. But Lukashenko’s cynical tactics seem to be working, with EU countries spending millions of euros on border walls, bickering about how best to respond and the far-Right seeking to exploit the human misery for its own ends.

Taxi drivers in the Polish city of Bialystok, close to the border, told me of seeing even cars with UK licence plates arriving to pick up arrivals from Belarus. ‘We see so many migrants and traffickers,’ said one, called Pawel. ‘You can see English, French and German plates on cars coming to collect people.’

In Germany, where police say up to 1,000 people are arriving every day, armed vigilante patrols of Right-wing extremists have been found operating at the frontier.

A record 200 crossings into Lithuania were attempted on one day recently. Others have begun trying to reach Europe via Ukraine.

Two months ago I reported in The Mail on Sunday about the surge into Lithuania, but focus has shifted to Poland. Officials logged 16,800 efforts at illegal entry last month – four times more each day than for the whole of last year. Hussan was in a group of 20 people from Iraq, Egypt and Syria whom I found sitting around small fires, craving food and dry clothes while drinking water from a small stream.

Pictured:  Ali Abd Alwareth, 24, from Lebanon sits in the woods outside the Emergency State zone at the Polish-Belarusian border and waits for arrival of Border Guard patrol, October 22, 2021

He said he had been pushed back and forth over the frontier four times in a fortnight in a grotesque game of human ping-pong being played by Polish and Belarus guards. Others said they were bounced over the border 20 times. There are reports of beatings, injured migrants ejected from Polish hospitals and families trapped in a militarised no-man’s land on the Belarus side. At least ten people have died and many more lives are at risk as winter temperatures plummet.

‘I’m so tired and it’s so cold that I am shaking,’ said Hussan. ‘We are scared at night because of the wild animals so we hide our heads under our clothes.’

He spent all his £1,000 savings to get here. ‘Life is a disaster. We’ve gone from our home in Syria to being trapped between two borders because no one wants us in their country. But we are human too.’

Hussan left his wife and four children in Turkey. But his group included an Iraqi man with his nine-year-old son.

Elsewhere in the forest, I met a woman called Sarah who is five months pregnant. The 26-year-old claimed to have spent 28 days in the forest with her husband Hassan, after flying to Belarus. Officials then took them to the country’s border with Lithuania. They were caught after crossing the frontier, then taken across to the Polish border on the other side of the country. They had been pushed back nine times, she said, despite asking each time for asylum.

This sudden influx of migrants is stirring tensions in Poland, a divided country currently run by an ultra-conservative government at loggerheads with Brussels on gay rights, pollution and the supremacy of EU law. There is even talk that the country might follow Britain and leave the union.

‘We put the security of our fatherland above everything,’ said Poland’s defence minister, Mariusz Blaszczak.

The defence ministry said that on Wednesday, Belarusian soldiers threatened to open fire on Polish forces who found a group of 250 migrants and refugees at the border. Nato says it is concerned about the ‘escalating’ situation.

Poland is one of ten countries that asked Brussels to pay for ‘barriers’ to block migrants – a request denied by EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, who says Brussels should not fund ‘barbed wire and walls’. In defiance, Poland is spending £300 million on a wall along the 260-mile border with Belarus. Critics say it will be a costly failure, taking years to construct in forests and swamps. Lithuania has also started building an 11ft-high steel fence topped with razor wire on its frontier.

The Polish government has declared a state of emergency, sent 10,000 troops to assist frontier guards and banned outsiders from coming within 3km (1.9 miles) of the border.

An Iraqi migrant child (pictured centre)  stands as he and others are surrounded by border guards and police officers after they crossed the Belarusian-Polish border during the ongoing migrant crisis, in Hajnowka

In a war of words against Lukashenko, whose international pariah status has pushed him into the embrace of Vladimir Putin, ministers claim Belarus is giving migrants ‘strange pills’ and the heroin substitute methadone to help them survive the border crossings.

After arriving in the border area, I received a text message saying: ‘The Polish border is sealed. BLR [Belarus] authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk! Don’t take any pills from Belarusian soldiers.’ My car was stopped several times at checkpoints in the region.

Piotr Mazuruk, a border police commander, said: ‘These migrants are like stones. The Belarusians throw them over the border to us. And we throw them back again.’ A plea from Catholic church leaders to let medical volunteers enter the emergency area was rejected by ministers last week. Activists and opposition figures argue that such decisions, and forcing people back over the border, flout international treaties – and so plays into Lukashenko’s hands.

Karolina Czerwinska, project co-ordinator for the Polish Migration Forum, told me about a refugee who was treated for a broken leg in a Polish hospital and then applied for asylum. But she said that 24 hours later, the Polish authorities had sent him back to Belarus.

I accompanied volunteers from Grupa Granica who take food, drink and clothing to groups who send details of their location in the forests to family and friends as they play cat-and-mouse with the border forces hunting them down. One volunteer told me that many people crossing from Belarus thought they could happily stroll across borders through Poland to Germany, thus arriving utterly unprepared to be stuck in a freezing forest.

Pictured: Polish soldiers build a fence on the border between Poland and Belarus near the village of Nomiki

She had found a Syrian family with elderly grandparents and children as young as three. ‘It was so sad. They had no idea they were in a forest hundreds of miles from the German border. They thought it would be so easy.’

Poland claims it is respecting international obligations to migrants as it tries to stem the flow of people. Under EU rules, people should apply for asylum in the first safe country they enter. But many of the migrants, hoping to head further west, do not want asylum in Poland. A former minister in the Polish government said: ‘The pushback is not 100 per cent legal but it has become common practice on many European borders such as Greece and Italy.’

He said Poland was being targeted by Belarus in revenge for its strong support of the democratic anti-Lukashenko movement in Belarus, but was powerless to stop the regime without wider diplomatic support.

Although Belarus has promised to suspend flights from Iraq that are used by migrants, the winter schedule for Minsk airport shows 55 flights a week from the Middle East, including the launch of daily flights from Damascus, the Syrian capital. 

Some refugees have told of being taken directly to Belarus’s borders after arriving in Minsk. But one local journalist describes the city centre as being ‘Little Baghdad’ as there are so many migrants, while a human-rights worker told me the capital’s hotels are packed with Middle Eastern visitors. 

Most want to go to Germany, where Angela Merkel agreed in 2015 to allow one million refugees and migrants to come and stay. 

Although the numbers making the journey are far smaller than six years ago, the Berlin government rapidly moved thousands of police to the Polish border to intensify checks. 

The police union, however, is warning of another ‘collapse’ if tougher action is not taken.

Horst Seehofer, the interior minister, backs Poland’s plan to build a border wall, but other politicians have condemned the responses that could results in people freezing to death in forests.

‘This is a disgrace for Europe,’ said Gerhart Baum, a former interior minister. ‘We have a moral obligation towards these people that we are not abiding by.’

Gaith, 20, is a Syrian who has just applied for asylum in Germany. He told me he paid $7,000 (£5,200) in Lebanon for a fake passport but it was rumbled when he tried to enter Turkey. So his smuggler flew him to Minsk to ensure that he could enter Europe.

‘I was stuck in the forest for 11 days – it was like a game of ping-pong. The Polish police send you back to Belarus, then the Belarus police send you back to Poland. It happened to me about 20 times. The Poles were friendly, giving us food and water, but the Belarusians beat people and let their dogs bite you. I was scared since the forest was cold and dark. There were so many people from all over the world – from Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon.’

Pictured: In this aerial view trucks and cars cross a bridge over the Oder River between Germany (L) and Poland as a railway bridge stands farther behind on November 05, 2021 near Swiecko, Poland (stock image)

Eventually, Belarusian officials took them to a spot on the border where there were no Polish frontier police, and five of his 16-strong group made it through, They were met by taxis hired by his people-traffickers and taken to Berlin.

The explosive nature of this crisis became clear two weeks ago when it emerged that more than 50 far-Right German vigilantes armed with batons, machetes, pepper sprays and a bayonet were stopped by police on anti-migrant patrols.

They had responded to a call from Third Way, a small extremist group which broke away from the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party. That group told me it was sending ‘sympathisers’ on border patrols to find illegal entrants.

Sascha Rossmueller, chairman of the party in Bavaria, said their unarmed patrols kept within laws that allow people to ‘physically hold’ anyone suspected of a crime.

‘The crucial aspect is not that we will prevent mass migration but it allows us to attract attention,’ he admitted.

There have also been protests outside centres for asylum-seekers near the border.

‘This is evil genius but we all play Lukashenko’s game,’ says Greta von der Decken, legal adviser for a refugee group working in Eisenhüttenstadt, a town by the Polish border. ‘I am sad because Lukashenko is winning.’

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