Polish minister warns Belarus border crisis could last months

Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak cautions situation may not be ‘resolved quickly’ after clashes erupted on Tuesday.

Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers seeking to enter the European Union are currently stranded in freezing conditions near Belarus's border with member state Poland [Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout via Reuters]

Poland has warned that the migration crisis along its border with Belarus could continue for months as the situation continues to deteriorate on the European Union’s eastern frontier.

Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said on Wednesday that it was necessary “to prepare for the fact that the situation … will not be resolved quickly”, with thousands of asylum seekers and refugees seeking to enter the EU currently stranded in freezing conditions between the two countries.

“We have to be prepared for months; I hope not years,” Blaszczak told Poland’s Radio Jedynka.

His remarks came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko held another phone call on Wednesday, their second of the week, over the crisis, Belarus’ BELTA state news agency reported.

The pair “agreed that the problem as a whole will be brought up to the level of Belarus and the EU”, BELTA reported, citing Lukashenko’s press service, adding that officials from Minsk and Brussels “will immediately start negotiations”.

Attempted crossings

Blaszczak said attempts to cross the border, which have been met resistance from thousands of Polish security forces amassed in the region and barbed-wire topped fencing along the dividing line, continued overnight.

The Polish border guard service said there were 161 crossing attempts on Tuesday, including “two forceful attempts”.

Nine Polish service members were injured during clashes on the border on Tuesday, in which security forces used water cannon and tear gas against small groups of asylum seekers and refugees seen throwing stones across the barbed-wire fencing.

BELTA reported on Tuesday that border guards had started moving some people to a reception centre away from the frontier.

Yet thousands still remained at the border.

Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from the Polish side, said the situation in the area was “calm” on Wednesday.

“But for many people at the border, the situation is still desperate, the temperature is still dropping and many have sold their belongings and used their savings to try and get to Europe,” he said.

Expanded sanctions

Tuesday’s developments came a day after the EU said it was expanding sanctions against Belarus.

The bloc has said President Alexander Lukashenko’s government masterminded the crisis in revenge for earlier sanctions over a disputed August 2020 election which gave him a sixth term and sparked mass anti-government protests.

Minsk has slammed that accusation as absurd and said the EU must lift sanctions if it wants the crisis resolved.

The EU has called on Russia, a major ally and creditor of Lukashenko, to push the Belarusian leader to end what Western leaders have labelled “hybrid warfare” tactics.

Moscow has denied a direct role but has offered to act as an intermediary. It has staged military exercises jointly with Belarus near the border, while calling on the West to resolve differences with Minsk.

Europe has shunned Lukashenko since last year’s election, but Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone with him on Monday for the first time since the border crisis erupted to demand relief for asylum seekers and refugees.

Aid groups have said at least 11 people have died on both sides of the border since the crisis began earlier this year.

Council of Europe human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic warned on Tuesday that the situation is “extremely dangerous”.

“We need to find a way to de-escalate, to make sure the focus is really to stop the suffering,” she told reporters while visiting the Polish side of the border.

Alongside Poland, eastern EU members Latvia and Lithuania have refused to take in asylum seekers and refugees aiming to enter the bloc via Belarus, leaving people reluctant to turn back effectively trapped in forested borderlands.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies