EU accuses Belarus of ‘gangster’ approach to migrant crisis

Warsaw has warned of an imminent ‘armed escalation’ after Polish forces blocked attempted crossings amid near-freezing temperatures.

Human rights groups have criticised Poland and Belarus for their treatment of migrants and refugees, who face subzero temperatures and a lack of food and medical attention [Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/AFP]

The European Commission has accused the Belarusian government of tricking migrants and refugees with false promises of easy access to the European Union in what it called a “gangster-style” approach to a long-running migrant crisis.

Hundreds of migrants and refugees remained camped out in near-freezing temperatures in Belarus on Tuesday after Polish security forces blocked people from attempting to cross the border.

Poland has for months accused Belarus of trying to cause a major confrontation by encouraging migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa to cross into Central Europe and the wider European Union in revenge for Western sanctions on longtime President Alexander Lukashenko’s government.

On Monday, the situation escalated as hundreds of people headed towards the Polish border near Kuznica village. Some tried to breach a barbed-wire fence using spades and other tools.

Poland deployed additional soldiers, border guards and police, preventing refugees and migrants from forcing their way across the frontier.

Polish President Andrzej Duda on Tuesday accused Lukashenko’s government of “attacking” the border and the EU “in an unparalleled manner”.

“We currently have a camp of migrants who are blocked from the Belarusian side. There are about 1,000 people there, mostly young men. These are aggressive actions that we must repel, fulfilling our obligations as a member of the European Union,” he told reporters in Warsaw.

Poland’s government has deployed additional soldiers, border guards and police to the country’s border with Belarus [Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout via Reuters]

Later on Tuesday, a European Commission spokesperson said: “This is part of the inhuman and really gangster-style approach of the Lukashenko regime that he is lying to people, he is misusing people … and bringing them to Belarus under the false promise of having easy entry into the EU.”

Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from the border, said “thousands” were camping in makeshift tents next to a barbed-wire fence.

“Humanitarian groups say they’re lacking food and medicine,” he added.

Minsk-Moscow discussions

For its part, Minsk said it was concerned by the Polish troop presence in the region, following a call between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Moscow is an ally and creditor of Belarus, which is increasingly isolated after a brutal crackdown on dissent last year following a disputed election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term.

Lukashenko’s press office said he discussed Poland’s “harsh actions … towards peaceful people” with Putin.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that the EU could provide funds to Belarus to encourage it to stop people crossing into the bloc.

He referenced a 2016 EU-Turkey deal, which saw Ankara agree to take back undocumented refugees who crossed the Aegean to enter Greece.

Lavrov said the EU could do the same with Belarus.

The EU and other Western powers imposed sanctions on Belarus in the wake of the crackdown that followed last year’s disputed election. The Reuters news agency on Tuesday cited three diplomats as saying the EU was close to imposing more sanctions on Minsk.

Worsening conditions

In total, an estimated 4,000 migrants and refugees have gathered near the border and in nearby forests.

Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer who is in contact with some of the stranded migrants and refugees, said the situation was “only getting worse”.

“The conditions in the forests between Poland and Belarus are very harsh, it’s an environment where there is very little access to food and water and no access to warm shelter,” Gorczynska told Al Jazeera from Warsaw.

“These are people who are deprived of basic humanitarian assistance,” she said. “Belarus is responsible for providing these people assistance, and for first of all not using them as political tools to exert pressure on the EU, but also on the other side, Poland … is also obliged to provide these people assistance.”

Warsaw anticipates ‘armed escalation’

Footage published by authorities on Tuesday showed security forces warning those camped out that crossing into Poland is only permitted at official crossing points.

The nearest shared border crossing, in Kuznica, was closed.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, accompanied by Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, went to the border on Tuesday to meet border guards and other security officials.

Warsaw has warned the crisis, which Minsk denies engineering, may be about to worsen.

Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller told reporters on Monday that officials expected an “escalation … of an armed nature” in the near future.

Fellow EU member states Lithuania and Latvia have also raised the alarm, with Vilnius moving additional troops to its border with Belarus to prepare for a possible surge in attempted crossings.

Human rights groups have criticised both Poland and Belarus for their treatment of migrants and refugees, who face subzero temperatures and a lack of food and medical attention.

At least seven people have died in the region since August, when the border crisis erupted, according to Polish officials. There have also been reports of more deaths on the Belarusian side of the frontier.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies