Belarusian authorities have escorted as many as 500 people, most of whom are from the Middle East, to the Polish border in an escalation of a deadly crisis that has already left people desperate to reach the EU trapped between borders and at least seven dead due to exposure.
Videos published by Belarusian media on Monday showed armed Belarusian border guards in combat fatigues escorting the column of people, which included families with children, along a highway from the border town of Bruzgi and towards a forest that runs alongside Poland’s Podlaskie region.
Poland and other EU countries have accused Belarus of trying to provoke a new refugee crisis in Europe in revenge for their criticism of Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on opposition and European sanctions after the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in May, in effect opening up a new migration route to the bloc.
One Iraqi Kurdish woman told the Guardian that she was brought to Belarus by a travel agency that would provide them flights to Minsk and then a transfer to the EU’s external border.
Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Piotr Wawrzyk, told Polish public radio on Monday that Belarus was trying to cause a “major incident, preferably with shots fired and casualties” and the defence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, said that 12,000 soldiers were “prepared to defend the Polish border”.
Migrants attempting to cross from Belarus into the EU across the Polish border have become trapped between the two since October, when Polish police were authorised to summarily expel migrants and ignore asylum applications. Belarusian border guards refuse to allow them to turn back, meaning that people from countries including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are left in the inhospitable forests as temperatures drop below freezing.
Crystal van Leeuwen, a medical emergency manager with Médecins Sans Frontières, told the Guardian last week that NGOs must urgently gain access to the secure zone for migrants’ claims and international protection to be respected.
Poland has reported more than 23,000 illegal border crossings this year, with nearly half coming in the month of October. Many of the migrants are attempting to flee to Germany, which said it had received more than 6,100 refugees via Poland from Belarus since the beginning of the year.
Yet those efforts rarely looked so organised as the mass column organised on Belarus’s M6 highway on Monday, which critics saw as a dramatic attempt by Lukashenko to increase pressure on neighbouring Poland. Tensions soared between the two countries with the sharp rise in border crossings in October. In one case, Polish officials accused Belarusian troops of firing across the border.
Belarus has denied it has any hand in directing the flow of migrants. “The indifference and inhumane attitude of the Polish authorities has prompted the refugees to take such a step of despair,” the Belarusian border guard said in a statement on Monday.
Russian state media Sputnik Belarus reported that a large number of the people had crossed out of Belarus and were now in the forests between the two countries, although that report could not be confirmed.