Polish contractors have begun work on a new 353 million euro ($407m) wall along the Belarus border aimed at deterring refugee crossings following a crisis in the area last year.
The 5.5-metre-high wall will run along 186km (115 miles) of the border – almost half the total length – and is to be completed in June.
The construction has raised human rights concerns over how refugees will be able to seek asylum as well as environmental worries about the effect on wildlife along the mostly forested border.
“Our intention is for the damage to be as small as possible,” border guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska told Poland’s PAP news agency on Tuesday.
“Tree felling will be limited to the minimum required. The wall itself will be built along the border road,” she said, adding that contractors will only make use of existing roads.
Thousands of refugees and migrants – mostly from the Middle East – crossed or attempted to cross the border from Belarus into Poland last year.
The West blamed the influx on the Belarusian government, saying it had encouraged would-be asylum seekers to fly to Belarus with the promise of an “easy journey” on foot into the European Union.
Poland branded the crisis a “hybrid” attack from Belarus and its main ally Russia, referring to a type of warfare using non-military tactics.
Belarus has denied this and has accused Poland of inhumane treatment of the refugees.
It has since repatriated thousands of people to Iraq – the main country of origin.
At the height of the crisis last year, Poland sent thousands of troops and police officers to the border to reinforce border guard patrols.
It also built a razor-wire fence along much of the border, closed off the border area to media and human rights groups, and approved a new law allowing asylum-seekers to be forced back into Belarus.
While the number of crossings has fallen sharply since then, some still attempt the increasingly perilous crossing despite the freezing conditions.
The border guard service on Tuesday said on Twitter that there had been 17 crossings in the past 24 hours.
A group of 14 people – 11 Iranians, two Lebanese and one Syrian – “cut the razor-wire fence and crossed into Poland”, border guards said.
They were detained, the border guards said, along with a separate group of three people from Ghana who crossed over at a different point of the border.