WARSAW, Poland (AP) – European Union officials on Wednesday accused Belarus of state-sponsored “trafficking” in human lives by luring desperate migrants to the Polish border – the edge of the EU – where many are now stuck in makeshift camps in freezing weather.
As the crisis showed no sign of abating, an EU leader also said the bloc was considering, for the first time, the idea of funding the construction of a wall or other barrier to its eastern border. This idea has always been rejected before and still faces many political and humanitarian obstacles.
Polish authorities estimate that around 3,000 to 4,000 migrants have gathered along its border with Belarus, with hundreds concentrated in a makeshift camp not far from the Kuznica crossing point. Warsaw has stepped up security at the border, where it declared a state of emergency.
Polish authorities tweeted a video of migrants, some using shovels and wire cutters, trying to cross a fence at the border into Poland.
The West has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging migrants from the Middle East to travel to his country and sending them to EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia as a means of retaliation against the bloc for the sanctions imposed on the authoritarian regime for its repression against internal dissent since a contested election in 2020.
“From a distance, these events on the Polish-Belarusian border may look like a migration crisis, but it is not a migration crisis, it is a political crisis triggered with the particular aim of destabilizing the situation in the European Union” , said the Polish. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Steffen Seibert, spokeswoman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told Berlin that Minsk was engaged in “state-run smuggling and trafficking … occurring 100% at the expense of people lured into the country with fake promises “.
Poland says Russia bears some responsibility for the crisis, given its unwavering support for Lukashenko. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer also accused Lukashenko of “using people’s plight – with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin – to destabilize the West”.
Merkel spoke by phone with Putin on Wednesday. “I asked him to exert his influence over President Lukashenko because people are used here,” she said.
“They are the victims of an inhumane policy, and something must be done about it,” Merkel said in Meseberg, near Berlin. Speaking ahead of a meeting with Latvian and Portuguese leaders, Merkel thanked Poland, Lithuania and Latvia for protecting the EU’s external borders. .
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins added that “this is what I would call state sponsored human trafficking, which directly affects my country, Lithuania and Poland”.
The Kremlin’s account of the appeal with Merkel said Putin proposed a discussion between “representatives of EU member states and Minsk”. He also said that Putin and Merkel “agreed to continue the conversation.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected Morawiecki’s suggestions that Moscow has any responsibility for the crisis, calling them “absolutely irresponsible and unacceptable”. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also suggested that the EU give financial assistance to Belarus to stop the flow of migrants.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met with President Joe Biden at the White House on Wednesday and said the White House aims to impose further sanctions on the Lukashenko regime by early December.
US Treasury Department officials have already started work on sanctions and seek to unveil them as Europe moves forward with its own, said a White House official who was not authorized to comment and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Von der Leyen said she had also discussed with Biden the possibility of the United States and Europe imposing sanctions on airlines that play a role in the influx of migrants through Belarus. Von der Leyen said they shared the assessment that “this is an attempt by an authoritarian regime to attempt to destabilize democratic neighbors. It will not succeed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Washington, said that “the idea that Belarus is militarizing migration is deeply reprehensible”.
“We will continue to put pressure on Lukashenko and the regime, and we will not diminish our calls for responsibility,” he added. Kuleba said Belarus “is a potential front line which should not be underestimated”.
European Council President Charles Michel met Morawiecki in Warsaw in a gesture of solidarity, declaring: “We are facing a hybrid, brutal, violent and outrageous attack, and we can only respond to it with firmness and unity, in accordance with our core values. “
Michel also said that the EU was discussing the possibility of financing “physical infrastructure” at its external borders. The EU Executive Board has long argued that walls and barriers are ineffective and refused to finance them with bloc money. It would only pay for security cameras and surveillance equipment, not for walls, fences and other physical infrastructure.
Today it is facing pressure from several member countries to do so, as Poland and Lithuania have already made progress in their plans to build high steel barriers and razor wire.
Security at the Polish border has been stepped up, with around 15,000 troops deployed there as well as border guards and police. The Polish Ministry of Defense has activated the reserves of its Territorial Defense Force to support border guards and the military in searching for migrants and helping residents whose lives have been affected by the restrictions in their area.
The ministry and police reported that groups of migrants attempted to enter the country late Tuesday and early Wednesday, but all who did manage to enter have been arrested.
He also accused Belarusian forces of firing in the air in a border area where migrants caught between countries have set up a camp. The ministry posted video on twitter with noises of what sounded like gunshots. Belarus accused Polish forces of firing in the air.
Caught in a geopolitical deadlock, thousands of migrants, including children, were pushed back and forth into a wooded area of swamps and bogs. Eight deaths have been confirmed and the situation is becoming more dangerous as temperatures have fallen below zero overnight.
Berlin says thousands of migrants have reached Germany, where many are accommodated in migrant centers. Others have been detained and placed in closed centers for migrants in Poland and Lithuania.
Poland, which is tougher on migrants, has been criticized at home and abroad for pushing many of them back to Belarus, often leaving them in the forest. Warsaw lawmakers recently legalized the return of people to the country from which they attempted to enter Poland without automatically giving them the right to seek asylum. Polish actions are considered illegal under international law, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Spokeswoman for Merkel Seibert, while blaming the “reprehensible behavior of the Belarusian leader”, also said migrants deserve legal protection and humanitarian assistance – an apparent message to Poland.
The United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have expressed concern over the growing humanitarian crisis. The UN Security Council has scheduled closed-door consultations on the crisis on Thursday at the request of Estonia, France and Ireland.
The Belarusian State Border Guard Committee said in an article on the Telegram messaging app on Wednesday that four men of Kurdish origin in the makeshift migrant camp on the border were injured. The committee blamed the Polish security forces for the injuries.
“According to the refugees, they were detained on the territory of Poland, where they tried to apply for protection and refugee status. Judging by the many injuries (…) the Polish security forces mistreated the men and forcibly pushed them through a barbed wire fence on the border with Belarus, ”the post said, accompanied by photos of the injured. .
It was impossible to verify the reports. Independent journalists face limits in their reporting in Belarus, and the state of emergency in the Polish border area prevents media from entering the region.
Moulson reported from Berlin. Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Lee and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.
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