Poland has no doubt who’s orchestrating a bitter humanitarian crisis on the border: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Since the summer, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has brought thousands of Middle Eastern migrants into his country and pressed them to attempt to cross the Polish border into the EU. The crisis escalated on Monday when a group of some 1,500 migrants ripped down fences and cut barbed wire near the village of Kuźnica, in northeastern Poland.
The men failed to smash their way through, but are likely to try again. Indeed, columns of migrants have been marched to the border by Belarusian soldiers with no possibility to go back. That raises the specter of a humanitarian emergency, with the migrants caught in a wooded no man’s land as temperatures dip beneath zero by night. While many of the migrants are young men, there are also elderly people among them, as well as women and children. Warsaw has dispatched 12,000 troops to police the border.
The Polish government has identified the culprit behind this brinkmanship with human lives as the Kremlin, its eternal nemesis. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was quick to name Putin as the puppet master behind what Warsaw is viewing as a form of hybrid warfare.
“This is the latest attack of Lukashenko, who is an executor, but has an enabler, and this enabler is in Moscow, this enabler is President Putin, which shows a determination to carry out a scenario of rebuilding the Russian empire, the scenario that we, all Poles, have to forcefully oppose,” Morawiecki said in parliament on Tuesday.
For Poland’s security forces, the priority is to repel what it sees as an attack and to seal the border. The government is even planning to replace razor wire fences with a concrete wall. The authorities have also declared a state of emergency in the border region, barring journalists, humanitarian workers and medics.
Crucially, Poland has broad support for holding the line on the border. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer was quoted in the Bild daily calling for EU solidarity with Warsaw and also pointed the finger at Moscow. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also argued that the “Belarusian authorities must understand that pressuring the European Union in this way through a cynical instrumentalization of migrants will not help them succeed in their purposes.”
European Council President Charles Michel is due to meet Morawiecki in Warsaw on Wednesday.
Only adding fuel to the fire of speculation that Moscow is pulling the strings in a blackmail bid, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that the EU should pay off Minsk to keep migrants out, just as it paid off Turkey in 2016. “Why cannot they help Belarus like this? Belarus also needs money to ensure normal conditions for the refugees Lithuania and Poland are reluctant to let in,” he was quoted as saying at a news conference by the Tass news agency.
People treated like ping-pong balls
While the Polish army is holding fast on the border, the country’s opposition and international humanitarian organizations are urging Warsaw to help those migrants who do make it to Poland and who ask for international protection.
“There’s no doubt this is a deep [humanitarian] crisis,” said Hanna Machińska, Poland’s deputy ombudsman, who monitors violations of human rights in the country.
According to official data, 10 people have died while crossing the border. But locals who operate in the closed region say that the number could be significantly higher.
“A situation becomes a humanitarian crisis when no one does anything on either side to find the solution,” said Christine Goyer, a representative of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Poland. “Countries on both sides need to find a solution so people don’t end up staying where they are,” she added.
The Polish government has sent two humanitarian convoys to Belarus — but they weren’t let in. Some of the migrants who needed immediate medical assistance were admitted to local hospitals.
But civic groups and human rights activists working close to the border say the situation is becoming increasingly perilous in this forested, swampy district as winter draws in.
Urszula Glensk, a professor at Wrocław University who came to the region to volunteer, said that migrants found in the forest outside the emergency zone are usually soaked to the skin, hungry and thirsty, often with hypothermia, and unprepared for low temperatures.
She said migrants were being forcefully pushed by the Belarusians into the woods on the Polish side, and then are often caught and sent back to Belarus. “They’re treated like ping-pong balls,” she said. “I don’t count on the Polish government to solve this problem in any humanitarian way.”
“It’s evident that the Polish government is contributing to the suffering of the hundreds of people on the border with Belarus,” she added.
Some reports have suggested that migrants are beaten up by the Belarusian guards, while others say that Polish guards threw a pregnant woman over the fence, and that she miscarried as a result. A deputy spokesperson for Poland’s border guard said she would investigate this incident and stressed that the authorities usually helped pregnant women.
“It is unacceptable that the lives of children and their families are being used as a bargaining chip in a regional conflict,” said Save the Children, an NGO.
Goyer at the UNHCR said that the agency was trying to ensure everyone has the right to seek international protection.
“Poland is in the situation where they have a duty to protect their border … What’s really important is really to find a way for those who need international protection to make their case heard and if they’re attempting to seek asylum that they’re able to do so,” she added.
The Border Group — a group of NGOs acting in the border area — called on the Polish government to create a humanitarian corridor and allow the media, civic groups and medics to the closed zone.
“The provocations of the Lukashenko regime have so far not been met with an adequate response from Poland — a response of a democratic country respecting human rights,” the group said. “Instead of illegal deportations, violence and ignoring the humanitarian crisis, we demand protection of life and health, opposition to torture, and protection and respect for the rights of migrants.”
Poland goes it alone
It’s unclear what international organizations can do. Poland is handling this crisis its way.
Brussels is using diplomatic tools to avoid any future inflow of migrants. Von der Leyen said late Monday that Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas would be dispatched over the coming days to the main countries of origin and transit “to ensure that they act to prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities.”
The bloc will also explore how to sanction third-country airlines involved in human trafficking, according to the Commission chief.
On the humanitarian front, von der Leyen pledged to “explore with the U.N. and its specialized agencies how to prevent a humanitarian crisis from unfolding and to ensure that migrants can be safely returned to their country of origin, with the support of their national authorities.”
Another tool at the Commission’s disposal to address a possible humanitarian crisis is the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, but assistance through the mechanism would require Warsaw to formally ask for help. A spokesperson for the Commission told reporters on Tuesday that “no such request has been made from the side of the Polish authorities” but that “we stand ready.”
On the ground, the EU can also offer support to Poland through agencies such as Frontex and Europol, if requested.
But Warsaw has repeatedly refused to engage any foreign observers. On Tuesday, Morawiecki said that Frontex wouldn’t be “a real help,” as it only has less than 1,000 troops.
Goyer said that the U.N. had tried to access the border zone, but wasn’t admitted.
Machińska struck a pessimistic note. “We don’t know how this situation will develop. There’s a fear that it’s only going to get worse.”
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