Belarusian authorities have escorted an estimated 1,000 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 eight dead due to exposure.
Videos published by Belarusian media on Monday showed armed Belarusian border guards in combat fatigues guiding the column of people, which included families with children, along a highway from the border town of Bruzgi towards a forest that runs alongside Poland’s Podlaskie region as European countries accused the state of using the migrants in a “hybrid attack”.
Video reports later showed a standoff at the border, where Polish border guards reportedly used teargas to push back people as some in the crowd tried to cut through barbed wire or knock down border fencing to cross the border. Polish helicopters hovered over the scene as some of the migrants chanted, “Germany!”, their desired destination, according to video posted to social media.
By evening, hundreds had set up tents and lit campfires in a forested border area, suggesting clashes could repeat themselves in coming days as Polish officials have vowed to prevent people from crossing into the country from Belarus.
Gunshots can be heard in one video posted to social media. It is not clear whether anyone was injured as a result. In the footage, a voice off-camera says that Belarusian border guards had opened fire, possibly in the air. Belarusian officials confirmed that gunshots were audible but claimed they had come from the Polish side of the border.
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 provided them with flights to Minsk and then a transfer to the EU’s external border. People can be charged €15,000-€20,000 (£12,800-£17,100) when they reach Belarus.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU should now extend its sanctions on the Belarusian regime. She said: “Belarus must stop putting people’s lives at risk. The instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes by Belarus is unacceptable.”
Von der Leyen also pledged greater support for Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to deal with the crisis and said the EU would explore “how to sanction, including through blacklisting, third-country airlines that are active in human trafficking”.
The crisis along the European Union’s eastern border has been simmering for months but escalated in the last 24 hours. 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 12,000 soldiers were “prepared to defend the Polish border”. Piotr Mueller, the Polish government spokesperson, said there were 3,000 to 4,000 people next to the Polish border.
Those attempting to cross from Belarus into the EU have become trapped between the two since October, when Polish police were authorised to summarily expel migrants and ignore asylum applications. Belarusian border guards have refused to allow them to turn back, meaning that people from countries including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been left in the inhospitable forests as temperatures drop below freezing.
Anton Bychkovsky, a spokesman for Belarus’s border guards, told the Associated Press those at the border were seeking to “exercise their right to apply for refugee status in the EU”. He said they had gathered into such a large group in order to avoid “forcible ousting by the Polish side”.
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 nearly 30,000 illegal border crossings this year, with more than 17,000 coming in October. Many 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 on Belarus’s M6 highway on Monday, which critics saw as a dramatic attempt by Lukashenko to increase pressure on his neighbour. 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.
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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.