What is going on?
Hundreds, some say 2,000, of migrants, mostly Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Africans, marched in a convoy from Minsk yesterday to the Belarus-Poland border. Among them are women, children and entire families. The migrants were accompanied by the Belarusian security forces who sent them to the Kuznica border crossing.
As soon as the group got there, the crowd was led into a forest near the border crossing by the Belarusian police. Hundreds of migrants tried to break through the fence, with the Belarusian police behind and their dogs and the border in front of them. Stone-thrown Polish border guards also responded with tear gas. A helicopter was also used as a deterrent. Finally, the borders held, and the emigrants set up camp. Aid organizations report dire conditions due to rain, freezing cold and deprivation.
Where do immigrants come from?
The European Union has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for several months of allowing migrants from the Middle East and Africa to travel to his country, promising them to travel easily to Europe from there. Once in Minsk, the migrants are sent on foot towards the European Union with the aim of destabilizing Poland and Germany. In addition, the Belarusian police services will not shy away from the heavy hand.
According to Europe, Minsk is doing this in retaliation for the sanctions imposed by Brussels due to the suppression of the opposition in Belarus. Some migrants also arrive via Moscow. Observers reported that Lukashenko enjoys the full support of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his attempt to destabilize Western countries. The Ministry of Defense of Belarus called the allegations today “baseless and unjustified” and accused Poland of stirring up tensions.
Many immigrants do not end up wanting to stay in Poland, but they do travel to Germany. The country received nearly 5,000 asylum applications from migrants who came through Belarus in October alone. Berlin responded by conducting additional border checks and sending additional police officers. Also yesterday, hundreds of migrants chanted “Germany” to make it clear to Polish border guards that Poland is not their final destination.
What is Poland’s reaction?
The Polish government says 12,000 police and border forces are standing by to guard the border with Belarus, where a state of emergency has been declared. Last night, pieces of barbed wire and a fence were repaired while heavily armed officers guarded.
The government fears that the situation will continue to spiral out of control today and in the coming days. The migrant pool at the border is still expected to grow to 4,000 people. Poland is afraid to add another 10,000 people. A spokeswoman for the Polish border guards confirmed that the border traffic of goods and people at the Koznica border crossing has been closed since seven in the morning. Travelers have to go to the border crossings at Terespol and Bobrowniki.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieck warned that the migrant crisis “threatens the security and stability of the entire European Union”. “Closing the Polish border is in our national interest. Today the stability and security of the entire European Union is at stake. This attack by the Lukashenko regime is against all of us. We will not be afraid and we will defend peace in Europe with our EU and NATO partners,” he wrote on Twitter.
How will the rest of Europe react?
Germany has already called on the European Union to take measures to help contain the flow of migrants. “Neither Poland nor Germany can handle this alone,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told Bild magazine. He called the European Union to form a bloc. “We must help the Polish government to secure its external borders. This must be the task of the European Union. I now call on it to take action.”
Seehofer says he still supports Poland’s decision to build a wall on the border with Belarus. “We should not criticize the country’s protection of the EU’s external borders,” he said. “Not with weapons, of course, but by other means.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on European Union member states on Monday to give the green light for new sanctions against Belarus. Von der Leyen spoke of “a cynical exploitation of immigrants”. At the European Summit on October 22, Heads of State and Government discussed the situation. At the time, a request by 12 member states – including Poland, Latvia and Lithuania – to fund the construction of physical barriers to stem irregular migration, such as fences and barbed wire, with EU money, was not accepted.
Lithuania, which borders Poland and Belarus, wants to declare a state of emergency in the border region for a month. The government submitted a resolution to this effect to Parliament. The state of emergency will be applied from midnight on the border with Belarus and five kilometers inland, as well as in the reception centers for migrants in Kibartay, Medinkai, Paprad, Rukla and Vilnius. Riots broke out there yesterday.
What does Belgium say?
According to Minister of State for Asylum and Migration Sami Mahdi (CD&V), Lukashenko is playing a “criminal game”. Al-Mahdi calls the immigrants “pawns on the chessboard and they are starving now in the forests of Belarus.”
Al-Mahdi expresses his support for Poland and says the EU will respond by further strengthening its external borders. “We must immediately stop such shameful practices.”
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