Poland-Belarus border crisis deepens

Thousands of people are stranded in freezing conditions along the frontier amid a standoff between Warsaw and Minsk.

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 [Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/Handout via Reuters]

The months-long migrant crisis that has played out along Poland’s border with Belarus is rapidly deepening as more people make desperate attempts to cross the frontier.

Warsaw and its allies are ramping up efforts to prevent people from entering the European Union member state as a war of words with Minsk intensifies.

Thousands of migrants and refugees were stranded along the frontier in freezing conditions on Thursday, with concerns growing over their wellbeing following a spate of deaths and reports of food and water shortages.

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

Minsk denies those charges – but has previously implied its complicity – and has turned to ally and creditor Russia for support in recent days.

This live blog is now closed. These were the updates on Thursday November 11:

UN to Belarus, Poland: Migrants are not pawns

Speaking at the United Nations in New York, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General has said that “migrants should not be used as pawns.”

“We were very clear in expressing the Secretary General’s concern about the lack of respect for these men, women and children. Refugees and migrants should never be used as pawns in any way,” Dujarric said.

“Every state has a responsibility to take care of refugees or migrants that are on their territory. We are thankful for the access that we’ve been given right now to the people in Belarus. But obviously this is part of a broader political issue which needs to be dealt with on the political level as opposed to the sights that we’ve been seeing that are incredibly moving and sad.”

Hundreds of desperate migrants are trapped in freezing temperatures on the border and the presence of troops from both sides has raised fears of a confrontation [Leonid Shcheglov/BELTA/AFP]

Demonstration held in Warsaw

Protesters in Warsaw have held an anti-fascist demonstration against the government’s treatment of migrants, journalist Marcin Terlik has said.

Signs were seen with the slogan: “Poland: A safe home for everyone,” Terlik wrote on Twitter.

EU creating a humanitarian crisis: Sea Watch

The non-governmental group Sea Watch International has said it is “shocked and angry” about the situation.

“Once again the EU is sealing off, creating a humanitarian crisis and unnecessary suffering. A 14-year-old is reported to have frozen to death at the border last night. It was avoidable,” it said on Twitter.

“Instead of building more walls and sending more soldiers to the border region, what is needed now is free access for aides, medical care, a humanitarian corridor for the refugees, their reception in Europe, and safe escape routes,” Sea Watch said.

Lukashenko ‘bluffing’ on EU gas threat: Belarus opposition leader

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has said Lukashenko would not follow through on threats to cut off gas supplies to Europe over an escalating conflict with the EU.

“It would be more harmful for him, for Belarus, than for the European Union and I can suppose it’s bluffing,” Tikhanovskaya told AFP news agency, urging European countries to hold firm and not communicate directly with the “illegitimate” leader.

Lukashenko has raised the possibility he could shut down the transit of natural gas to Europe via Belarus in retaliation against any fresh EU sanctions imposed over the ongoing crisis.

Migrants stand in line to a drinking water tank at a camp on the Belarusian-Polish border [Ramil Nasibulin/BELTA/ AFP]

MSF ‘very concerned’ for stranded migrants

Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) has said that they are “very concerned” about people stranded on the border and in the “dense neighbouring forest”.

“People told an MSF team that they were beaten with the butt of guns, kicked, electric shocked in the neck and stripped of their belongings which were stolen or destroyed by Polish and Lithuanian border guards,” MSF said on Twitter.

“There is a humanitarian crisis before our eyes: the extremely cold temperatures are added to the stories of the violence we are hearing.”

Belarus is mounting ‘hybrid attack’ on EU, Merkel tells Putin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Belarus was deploying defenceless people in a “hybrid attack”.

“The Chancellor stressed that the situation was caused by the Belarusian regime, which was using defenceless people in a hybrid attack on the European Union,” spokesperson Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

Putin tells Merkel EU should ‘restore contacts’ with Belarus

Russian President Vladimir Putin has told the EU to start talking to Belarus.

In his second phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in as many days, Putin “spoke in favour of restoring contacts between EU states and Belarus in order to resolve this problem,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

The Kremlin said the two discussed the situation and agreed on “the importance of a rapid resolution” of the crisis “in accordance with international humanitarian standards”.

Warsaw’s SMS warning: ‘Go back to Minsk’

Migrants and refugees attempting to cross into Poland are being greeted with brusque warnings, sent via text message, that the border with Belarus is closed.

“The Polish border is sealed. BLR authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk!” the SMS reads, referring to Belarus.

Read more here.

Russia denies Aeroflot involvement in crisis

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has denied that state-controlled airline Aeroflot has had any involvement in transporting migrants and refugees to Belarus.

Lavrov’s statement on Thursday was reinforced by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov who claimed, “Russia has nothing to do with the situation.”

Moscow, a longtime ally of Lukashenko, sent two nuclear-strategic bomber planes to overfly Belarus for the second day in a row on Thursday amid the crisis.

NGO chief warns ‘European values under threat’

The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has heavily criticised Europe’s “inability” to handle the unfolding crisis.

“A few thousand people at Europe’s Polish border, many of whom have fled some of the worst crises in the world, is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people displaced to countries that are much poorer elsewhere,” Jan Egeland, NRC’s secretary-general, said in a statement on Thursday.

“European values are dangerously under threat when people are allowed to die from hypothermia at its external border,” he added.

Egeland also denounced Minsk for “using migrants and refugees to achieve political ends”.

“Vulnerable people are not chess pawns to be used in a geopolitical struggle,” he said. “But this does not in any way free Europe from its responsibility to ensure that people turning up on its borders are allowed to seek asylum and are treated humanely.”

EU considers sanctions on Minsk airport

The EU is considering imposing sanctions on Belarus’s main airport in a bid to make it more difficult for airlines to bring in migrants and refugees, two diplomats familiar with the matter have told Reuters news agency.

The 27-member bloc was already finalising a new, fifth round of sanctions on top Belarus officials and state-owned airline Belavia that could be approved next week, one diplomat told the news agency on Thursday.

But Brussels was also weighing a further, sixth package of measures, which could include orders to stop EU firms supplying Minsk National Airport, two other diplomats said.

Germany’s Scholz slams ‘power play with people’

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has accused Lukashenko of using migrants and refugees as part of a deliberate bid to put pressure on the EU.

“Lukashenko is making an inhumane power play with people,” said Scholz, who is set to become the country’s next chancellor.

He added that Germany must lend its support to EU member states affected by the crisis and ensure that the migrants and refugees trapped between the Polish-Belarusian border receive humanitarian aid.

Ukraine to deploy troops to border with Belarus

Ukraine’s government has said it will deploy 8,500 additional soldiers and police officers to guard its border with Belarus in a bid to prevent crossings at the frontier.

The new forces include 3,000 border guard servicemen, 3,500 servicemen of the National Guard and 2,000 police officers, Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy said on Thursday.

“Aviation [from] the interior ministry will also be on duty, in particular 15 helicopters, which will ensure mobility and, if necessary, will transfer our forces to the border,” he said.

While not an EU member, Ukraine is wary of becoming another front in the unfolding migrant crisis.

EU member states warn of military confrontation

Several countries bordering Belarus have expressed concern that the current crisis could soon spiral into a full-blown military confrontation.

EU member states Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia warned in a statement on Thursday that Belarus had deliberately escalated its “hybrid attack”, which they said posed serious threats to European security, referring to charges that Minsk is using migrants and refugees as a weapon.

“This increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents that could also spill over into the military domain,” a joint statement by the three countries’ defence ministers said.

Lukashenko floats idea of halting gas supply to Europe

Lukashenko has raised the possibility he could shut down the transit of natural gas to Europe via Belarus in retaliation against any fresh EU sanctions imposed over the ongoing crisis.

“We are heating Europe, they are still threatening us that they will close the border. And if we shut off natural gas there?” the Belarusian leader said in comments published on Thursday by state news agency BelTA.

Europe’s gas market, where prices have hit record highs in recent weeks, would be highly sensitive to any interruption to the flow of gas through the Yamal pipeline that transits from Russia, via Belarus, en route to Poland and Germany.

Locals battle to avert humanitarian disaster

NGOs and concerned local residents have stepped in to try and assist migrants and refugees stranded in the border region.

Read more about their life-saving efforts, and the geopolitical factors underpinning the crisis, here.

Growing fears for child refugees

Al Jazeera has spoken to migrants and aid workers on growing fears for child refugees stranded amid the chaos.

At least one child has died in recent weeks, while many others are suffering from hunger and hypothermia. Read more here.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies