By Jamie Dettmer
In a tit-for-tat round of recriminations, Belarus summoned Poland’s top diplomat in Minsk on Thursday to protest claims made earlier this week by Warsaw that Belarusian border guards had threatened to open fire on a Polish patrol.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said Polish allegations were unfounded and it accused Poland of engaging in “megaphone diplomacy” and issuing “dogmatic statements for the media.”
Amid rising tensions between the two countries over Belarus being used, with Minsk’s encouragement, as a transit point by migrants, mainly from Iraq, Poland’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday summoned Belarus’ top diplomat based in Warsaw to complain about Belarusian guards crossing into Poland. The incursion was said to have occurred Monday.
Stanislaw Zaryn, spokesman for Poland’s security services, said the Belarusians encroached 300 meters into Poland and were confronted by a Polish patrol. The Belarusians “reloaded their weapons and then departed,” Zaryn said.
Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have been militarizing their borders with Belarus to try to stop record numbers of migrants crossing their borders. They accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating migrant crossings as a form of “hybrid warfare” against the European Union in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Belarus over last year’s disputed elections. Those elections were widely seen as rigged and led to a harsh crackdown on protesters who challenged the legitimacy of Lukashenko’s rule.
The EU, United States and Britain also imposed sanctions in June targeting 86 officials and Belarusian state-owned entities in response to the forced landing in Belarus’ airspace of a Ryanair plane, which was carrying a Lukashenko critic.
‘We are forced to react’
Lukashenko has halfheartedly denied he’s seeking to needle or blackmail Europe by trying to fuel a migrant crisis, but said he was reacting to foreign pressure. “We are not blackmailing anyone with illegal immigration,” he told journalists in Minsk’s Independence Palace in August. “We’re not threatening anyone. But you have put us in such circumstances that we are forced to react. And we’re reacting.”
In October alone, Poland recorded 15,000 attempted illegal border crossings. Last week Poland deployed 2,500 more troops to the border, bringing to 10,000 the number of soldiers reinforcing the country’s border guards.
Piotr Wawrzyk, a deputy foreign minister, said: “The actions taken by the Belarusian authorities in recent weeks have the increasingly evident hallmarks of a deliberate escalation.” He told The Associated Press this week that there had been a “series of incidents and provocations organized by Belarusians,” but described the border crossing by Belarusian guards as “the most dangerous incident so far.”
Lithuanian officials also accuse Lukashenko of “weaponizing” migrants and of being behind a surge in Iraqi and Syrian asylum-seekers trying to cross their borders illegally.
Earlier this year, they said Belarus’s state-owned tourism agency had been organizing flights to Minsk from Baghdad and Istanbul for migrants, charging them from $1,800 to $12,000, and then handing them over to Belarusian border guards to transport them to the mainly forested 680-kilometer border Lithuania shares with Belarus.
Lithuania finished this week the first stretches of a razor-wire-topped steel wall it plans to extend along much of its border with Belarus. It has allocated $175 million for the project and plans to complete it in a year’s time.
Poland and Latvia have also laid stretches of coiled razor wire on their borders to stop the migrants. Polish officials, who accuse Belarusian border guards of slashing the wire, are bracing for even larger asylum-seeker surges.
Belarusian journalist Tadeusz Giczan reported last week that Minsk International Airport published a new schedule for the coming winter “according to which at least 55 planes will be flying from the Middle East to Minsk every week.”
The rising tensions along the Poland-Belarus border have seen the Poles summon the Belarusian charge d’affaires in Warsaw three times so far to the Foreign Ministry to be handed formal diplomatic protests.
The burgeoning crisis is also souring relations between EU member states and Poland about how to handle the asylum-seekers. According to analyst Elizabeth Braw of the Washington-based think tank American Enterprise Institute, that likely fits into what she dubs Lukashenko’s “sinister game.”
“The Belarusian ruler knows that immigration is a hugely divisive issue within the European Union, and within individual EU member states. Poland’s strategy of pushing migrants back into Belarus has already caused a rift with Brussels — and thus worsened Poland’s already tense relations with EU headquarters,” she wrote in a commentary for the news site Defense One.
EU officials say Poland is in breach of international norms by trying to force migrants back into Belarus and that it is obliged to offer them protection.
Poland has declared a state of emergency along part of its border with Belarus, hindering journalists and NGO workers from monitoring what’s happening in an exclusion zone in the Podlasie forests. NGOs say there is an urgent need for them to gain access to the militarized zone on the Polish side of the border and they have accused Poland of using the migrants as political weapons.
Eight migrants have died trying to cross the border so far, the latest a 19-year-old Syrian man whose body was retrieved from the River Bug by divers on October 21.“Disgraceful things are happening on the Polish-Belarusian border,” said the Polish refugee charity Fundacja Ocalenie, or the Salvation Foundation.
‘Illegal and inhumane practices’
In a letter in September to the EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, the charity said it had documented “numerous illegal and inhumane practices of the Polish authorities” along the border.
They included denying migrants the right to apply for international protection, rounding up migrants on Polish territory and “illegally transporting them back to the border and forcing them to cross the border back to Belarus.” The charity said sometimes the migrants were deposited in dangerous areas, such as swamps, “exposing these people, including young children, to life-threatening conditions.”
Fundacja Ocalenie said it and other humanitarian organizations had been denied the opportunity to provide assistance to migrants trapped in a no-man’s land between the borders, including dozens of Afghans camped in the Usnarz Górny area.
Rights organization Amnesty International has also complained about 17 Afghans at the border being violently pushed back into Belarus by Polish guards.
Two former Polish officials, Adam Bodnar, a former ombudsman of Poland, and Agnieszka Grzelak, who served as a deputy director of the Constitutional, European and International Law department in the office of the ombudsman, urged Brussels on Thursday to intervene with Warsaw, saying, “The EU can’t sit by while migrants die at the Belarusian border.”
Writing in Politico.eu, a news site, they said: “A few days ago, a former colleague from the Ombudsman’s office carried a three-year-old child out of the forest in his arms. If he had not found and taken care of him, or forced the border guards to register him, the child and his family would have been pushed back from Polish territory without any guarantee of safety by Belarusian authorities.”