UN rights chief urges ‘de-escalation’ of Poland-Belarus crisis

Michelle Bachelet calls on Warsaw and Minsk to resolve ‘intolerable situation’ at shared frontier, where hundreds of people are stranded in freezing conditions.

Human rights groups have criticised Poland and Belarus for their treatment of migrants and refugees stranded at the countries' shared border, who face subzero temperatures and a lack of food and medical attention [Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout via Reuters]

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called on Belarus and Poland to de-escalate the “intolerable” migrant crisis on their shared border and said those stranded at the frontier should not spend another night without shelter in freezing temperatures.

Bachelet’s remarks on Wednesday came after Warsaw said it had moved thousands more troops to the border after hundreds of people tried overnight to cross from Belarus into Poland.

Minsk accused Polish security forces of illegally pushing asylum seekers back into Belarus.

Hundreds of people are currently camped along the border, a fraction of the estimated 4,000 migrants and refugees gathered in areas near the frontier, including nearby forests.

“I urge the states involved to take immediate steps to de-escalate and resolve this intolerable situation in line with their obligations under international human rights law and refugee law,” Bachelet said in a statement.

“These hundreds of men, women and children must not be forced to spend another night in freezing weather without adequate shelter, food, water and medical care,” she said. “Under international law, no one should ever be prevented from seeking protection, and individual consideration must be given to their protection needs.”

Bachelet called for access for aid workers, lawyers and journalists to those stranded.

She said that actions by both Warsaw and Minsk “including through the increased deployment of troops – and accompanying inflammatory rhetoric” had increased the vulnerability and risks faced by the migrants.

‘Manifestation of state terrorism’

Poland and other European Union member states accuse Belarus of encouraging migrants and refugees to try to cross the shared border in revenge for Western sanctions on Minsk imposed in the wake of a disputed August 2020 election that handed longtime President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office.

The bloc’s 27 ambassadors are set to agree on Wednesday that the growing numbers of people flying to Belarus to reach the EU border amount to “hybrid warfare” by Lukashenko – a legal basis for new penalties reportedly set to target dozens of Belarusian individuals and entities.

European Council President Charles Michel said the bloc must act with “solidarity” over the border crisis while visiting Warsaw on Wednesday.

“We are facing a hybrid, brutal, violent and unworthy attack, and we can only reply to this with firmness and unity, in accordance with our core values,” he told reporters at a joint press conference with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who described the unfolding situation as a “manifestation of state terrorism”.

Later on Wednesday, during a news conference with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Belarus of weaponising migration and called Minsk’s conduct “profoundly objectionable”.

“As long as the regime is refusing to respect its international obligations and commitments, as long as it’s undermining peace and security in Europe through its actions, and as long as it continues to repress and abuse people who are seeking to live in freedom, then we will continue to pressure Lukashenko and the regime,” Blinken said.

Minsk, which is backed by Russia, denies engineering the migrant crisis and instead blames European powers and the United States for the plight of those stranded.

Moscow has charged the EU with responsibility for the situation and denounced Western plans for further sanctions on Belarus, a country it regards as a strategic buffer against NATO, as unacceptable.

Russia has dispatched two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace in a show of support for its ally.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies