The Belarusian authorities on Monday escorted some 500 people, most of them from the Middle East, to the border with Poland, during the escalation of a migration crisis that has already left at least seven dead from exposure to low temperatures.
Videos released by Belarusian media on Monday show armed Belarusian border guards escorting the column of people, including families with children, from the border town of Bruzgi to a forest bordering the Polish region of Podlaskie.
Poland and other EU countries have accused Belarus of trying to provoke a new refugee crisis in Europe in response to their criticism of Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on the opposition and European sanctions following the crash landing of a Ryanair flight in May, opening a new migration route to the block.
An Iraqi Kurdish woman tells The Guardian that she was taken to Belarus by a travel agency that provided them with flights to Minsk and then a transfer to the EU’s external border.
Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Piotr Wawrzyk, declared on Polish public radio on Monday that Belarus was trying to provoke a “major incident, preferably with gunshots and casualties” and Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak has said that Poland already it had 12,000 soldiers “ready to defend the border.”
Migrants trying to enter the EU from Belarus across the Polish border have been trapped between the two countries since October, when Polish police were authorized to summarily expel migrants and ignore asylum claims. Belarusian border guards refuse to allow them to turn around, meaning that people from countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are staying in the forests as temperatures drop below zero.
Crystal van Leeuwen, head of medical emergencies at Doctors Without Borders, said last week that humanitarian organizations must urgently access the security zone so that the requests of migrants and their international protection are respected.
Poland has registered more than 23,000 irregular border crossings this year, almost half of which occurred in October. Many of the migrants are trying to flee to Germany, which claimed to have received more than 6,100 refugees through Poland from Belarus since the beginning of the year.
Yet those efforts rarely seemed as organized as the organized column on Belarus’ M6 motorway on Monday, seen by critics as a dramatic attempt by Lukashenko to increase pressure on neighboring Poland. Tensions between the two countries soared with the sharp increase in border crossings in October. Polish officials accused Belarusian troops of shooting across the border.
Belarus has denied that it has anything to do with the increased flow of migrants. “The indifference and inhumane attitude of the Polish authorities have led the refugees to take this step of despair,” the Belarusian border guard said in a statement on Monday.
The Russian media Sputnik Belarus has published that a large number of people had left Belarus and were now trapped in the forests located between the two countries, although this information could not be confirmed.
The other neighboring countries of Belarus, Latvia and Lithuania, have also declared a state of emergency in recent months due to the increase in irregular migration from Belarus.
Translated by Emili Serra.