Poland has warned of an “armed” escalation of conflict involving migrants massed near the border with Belarus, as the global community reacted to the latest grim chapter in Europe’s migrant crisis.
Having blocked hundreds of people from entering the country, Polish government spokesperson Piotr Muller said a further 3,000 to 4,000 migrants were gathering near the border. “We expect that there may be an escalation of this type of action on the Polish border in the near future, which will be of an armed nature,” he said.
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. The situation has been simmering for months and worsened on Monday when Belarus authorities escorted an estimated 1,000 people to the Polish border.
“Interior ministry forces and soldiers managed to stop the first mass attempt to breach the border,” Poland’s defence ministry tweeted. The ministry said the migrants had set up camp in the Kuznica region and were “constantly guarded by Belarusian services”.
The Polish Border Guard said the crossing at Kuznica would be closed early on Tuesday.
Pawel Soloch, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, said late on Monday that “in the coming hours attacks on our border will be renewed by groups of several hundred people”.
Meanwhile, Germany called for EU members to “take action” to deal with the deepening crisis. “Poland or Germany can’t handle this alone,” caretaker interior minister Horst Seehofer told the Bild daily.
“We must help the Polish government secure their external border. This would actually be the task of the European Commission. I’m now appealing to them to take action,” he said.
With the path behind them blocked by Belarus, the migrants remain trapped between the two countries and at least eight people have died due to exposure. Many people seeking entry into Poland are desperately fleeing war and poverty-wracked countries in the Middle East.
Video reportedly showed an armed Polish officer using a chemical spray through a fence at men who were trying to cut the razor wire on Monday. Some migrants threw objects at police. Video footage from Belarusian media reportedly showed people using long wooden poles or branches to try to get past a border fence as police helicopters circled overhead.
Gunshots can be heard in another 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.
Nato on Monday hit out at Minsk, accusing the government there of using the migrants as political pawns. Poland, a member of the EU and Nato, has drawn sharp criticism for its tough rhetoric on migration in recent years.
Earlier, the EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, pledged greater support for Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to deal with the emergency. She said the EU would explore “how to sanction, including through blacklisting, third-country airlines that are active in human trafficking”.
“Belarus must stop putting people’s lives at risk. The instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes by Belarus is unacceptable,” Von der Leyen said.
The US state department called on the regime in Belarus to “immediately halt its campaign of orchestrating and coercing irregular migrant flows across its borders into Europe”.
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.
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.
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.