Minsk accused of abandoning migrants at frontier in attempt to put pressure on EU
Four people stranded on the border between Poland and Belarus have died in recent days, officials have said, amid continuing allegations that Minsk is abandoning migrants at its frontier in an attempt to put pressure on the EU.
Polish authorities said three people, including an Iraqi man, were found dead, from hypothermia and exhaustion, on the Polish side of the border on Saturday, and the body of a woman was seen on the Belarus side on Sunday.
Eight more severely weakened people were found marooned in marshy terrain along other parts of the frontier, Polish border guards said, seven of whom have since been admitted to hospital where they were being treated for exhaustion.
The Polish human rights NGO Ocalenie, which is in telephone contact with about 30 Afghans, including a 15-year-old child, on the border at Usnarz Górny, said the group had now been stuck for more than 40 days in “dramatic” conditions.
“This is the situation we’ve been warning about,” said Piotr Bystrianin, of the Ocalenie Foundation. “We warned that if authorities and border guards do not stop breaking the law and pushing people back to the forests, if they do not start accepting applications for international protection, a tragedy would happen.”
Another of the NGO’s staff, Kalina Czwarnóg, said: “Confused, weak and exhausted people are being left in the forests, with no hope for help or a chance of being heard. We’re worried … an already tragic situation would only get worse”.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration this month called the migrants’ situation “extremely harsh … with limited access to drinking water and food, medical assistance, sanitation facilities and shelter”.
EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have faced mounting pressure on their borders with Belarus that they have called a “hybrid attack” on the bloc in retaliation for sanctions imposed on the regime of the authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
Poland and Lithuania have declared a state of emergency on stretches of their borders, with Poland barring access to journalists and NGOs, and are building razor-wire fences. Warsaw this week said it was dispatching an additional 500 troops to the frontier.
“We are dealing with a well-organised action directed from Minsk and Moscow,” the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said, adding that up to 7,000 migrants and asylum seekers had been spotted on the border since early August.
Morawiecki said Poland would “defend its border with full determination”. Migrants were paying up to $2,500 in Belarus for “the illusion” of a transfer to Germany, but then were being abandoned by Belarusian soldiers in forests or bogs on the border.
Morawiecki said “nobody believed” Lukashenko was acting alone, arguing that the Belarusian leader and his Russian allies were working with “great determination” to transport tens of thousands from the Middle East and Africa.
Polish national security spokesperson Stanisław Żaryn said Warsaw was dealing with “an attempt to use an artificial migration route to destabilise first the Belarusian-Lithuanian, Belarusian-Latvian and now mainly Belarusian-Polish border.”.
“Our findings show that Lukashenko has brought in at least 10,000 migrants to Belarus … and is now looking for new directions from which they can be transported to the EU,” he said, predicting that the crisis could continue for months. Lukashenko threatened to flood the EU with “migrants and drugs” in May.
The sweeping sanctions imposed on Belarus by the EU, US and UK were in response to the Lukashenko government’s forced landing of a Ryanair flight and arrest of an opposition journalist, as well as a crackdown on opponents after last year’s disputed elections, widely seen as rigged.
The Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said this week that Minsk was using the migrants and asylum seekers in “revenge against Lithuania, Latvia and Poland for supporting independent democratic forces in Belarus”, calling the behaviour of Lukashenko’s regime “irresponsible and inhuman”.
The European commissioner for migration, Ylva Johansson, has called for an investigation into the deaths and urged Polish authorities to allow staff from the EU border agency Frontex to access the zone where migrants are stuck. While Lithuania has requested assistance from the EU agency, Poland has eschewed outside help and banned NGOs and media from the zone.
“It is important to protect our border from aggression by the Lukashenko regime,” Johansson said, noting that the external border was a shared EU border. “To best do this we should fully utilise shared resources and we should do this in a transparent way. This helps to ensure that we uphold shared values and obligations.”
She added: “I am very saddened by the loss of lives at the Polish Belarus border. Saving lives must be a priority. It’s necessary to investigate what has happened and to prevent more deaths.”
EU officials have not received any information from Polish authorities on how many people are stuck in no man’s land at the border.
Two UN agencies – the IOM and the UN refugee agency – have also called for immediate access to the site to provide lifesaving medical help, food, water and shelter.
In a statement issued in response to the four deaths, they voiced growing concern about reports of people being forced back at borders. “While states have the sovereign right to manage their borders, this is not incompatible with the respect for human rights including the right to seek asylum. Pushbacks endanger lives and are illegal under international law,” they said.