Clashes erupt at Belarus-Poland border as refugee crisis worsens

Polish forces used tear gas and water cannon on refugees who allegedly threw stones at border guards.

Since the crisis unfolded in August, Polish guards have reportedly been pushing back people who managed to cross into Polish territory [Leonid Shcheglov/BELTA via AFP]

Sokolka, Poland – Clashes erupted between stranded refugees and Polish border guards at the Polish-Belarusian border early on Tuesday.

According to Poland’s Ministry of National Defence (MOD), refugees at the Kuznica border crossing trying to cross into Poland reportedly threw stones at Polish guards, who responded by using water cannon and tear gas.

The MOD said: “The migrants attacked our soldiers and guards with stones and are trying to force the fence to get to the Polish territory.

“Our forces used tear gas to thwart the aggression of migrants.”

Marta Szymanderska from Fundacja Ocalenie, part of Grupa Granica, a coalition of NGOs that are responding to the humanitarian crisis at the border, told Al Jazeera: “The use of force [by Poland] is completely unjustifiable because there are legal procedures which should be used from the very beginning. The actions of the Polish forces are not only illegal but also inhuman.”

It was unclear if there were any injuries among refugees, while at least one policeman was wounded.

The Polish Border Guard said: “Illegal migrants have been gathering at the border crossing in Kuźnica, at the Belarusian side. New groups, which so far have been squatting at the border, are joining them. An attempt to forcefully cross the border is being prepared. Everything is taking place under the supervision of Belarusian forces.”

Earlier on Tuesday, more Polish police and security forces arrived at the border to prevent what Polish authorities claimed was an attempt by refugees to illegally cross into Polish – and European Union – territory.

Video footage posted on social media showed people near the border running away after being sprayed with water cannon.

The situation appeared calmer by the afternoon.

Thousands of refugees are trapped in a no-man’s land between the Polish and Belarusian borders as a result of an East-West geopolitical crisis involving Warsaw and its allies, and Minsk and Moscow.

According to international law, people seeking asylum have the right to claim it at official border crossings.

However, Polish border guards have been denying that right to many who have attempted to cross the border.

Since the crisis unfolded in August, Polish guards have reportedly been pushing back people who managed to cross into Polish territory from Belarus.

Many refugees are spending weeks in the woodlands at the border, trying to leave the border zone and seek asylum.

Polish authorities passed a law that effectively legalises pushbacks, although the practice remains dubious under international law.

Moreover, the border area has been marked as a state of emergency which means that it is inaccessible to media and NGOs, meaning they can neither gather information nor provide migrants with humanitarian assistance.

The international community holds Belarus responsible for the crisis.

Earlier this year, Minsk lifted the visa requirement for citizens of a number of Middle Eastern and African states and opened numerous tourist agencies offering an easy and cheap way to get to Europe.

Critics of Belarus say the move might be an act of revenge against Poland, which supported last year’s protests against longtime ruler President Alexander Lukashenko.

Activists on the ground in Poland, who are providing refugees with food, water, and sleeping bags, are alarmed by the developments.

Source: Al Jazeera