Fears for migrants stuck on Belarus border as EU states tighten security

Poland and Baltic states building fences to block ‘weaponised’ migration via Minsk

A woman talks to a Polish border guard as migrants believed to be from Afghanistan sit on the ground in the small village of Usnarz Gorny, northeastern Poland, located close to the border with Belarus. Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

A woman talks to a Polish border guard as migrants believed to be from Afghanistan sit on the ground in the small village of Usnarz Gorny, northeastern Poland, located close to the border with Belarus. Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

 

Rights groups are increasingly concerned for the welfare of migrants trying to cross from Belarus into the European Union, as Poland and Baltic states increase border security to halt an influx of people that they blame on the autocratic regime in Minsk.

Lithuania, Poland and Latvia have stopped record numbers of people at their eastern frontiers in recent months, as Belarus allegedly facilitates the arrival of thousands of migrants on flights from Iraq and Turkey and their onward journey from Minsk to border areas.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko said he would let migrants flow freely through his country to the EU when the bloc imposed more sanctions on his regime in May, and Poland and the Baltic states have been fierce critics of his brutal crackdown on dissent, and strong supporters of his exiled opponents.

Scores of migrants from the Middle East are reportedly stuck at several stretches of the Belarusian border, as EU states refuse to allow them in and Belarus stops them turning back.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Poland expressed fears for dozens of people “who have been held for many days in the border strip near the town of Usnarz Gorny”.

“Our information shows that the group consists mainly of people from Afghanistan and Iraq, including children, women and people in need of medical care. Some of this group may be in need of international protection and, to our knowledge, have reported an intention to apply for asylum,” the agency said on Tuesday.

Challenges

“Although we understand the challenges related to the increase in the number of people entering Poland, we appeal to the Polish authorities to provide these people with access to the territory, immediate medical care, legal aid, and psychological and social support,” added Christine Goyer, the UNHCR representative in Poland.

Polish officials said they were sending tents, blankets and other supplies to the area, and had asked Belarus to allow the delivery to reach the migrants.

Warsaw announced on Monday that it would build a 2.5m-high “solid fence” on the Poland-Belarus frontier and double the number of Polish troops on the frontier to 2,000.

Lithuania also confirmed plans to erect a 3m-high border fence, having recently passed legislation that officials say will help it cope with growing numbers of migrants – but which critics fear could breach the fundamental rights of asylum seekers.

In a letter published on Tuesday, Council of Europe human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic urged Lithuania not to allow “the rights of individuals to become subordinate to political or geopolitical considerations”.

In her reply, Lithuanian prime minister Ingrida Simonyte defended her country’s approach and said Belarus bore “the entire responsibility for this artificially formed flow of irregular migration and its consequences . . . as their state institutions and border services are directly involved in organising it”.

Mr Lukashenko told leaders of other ex-Soviet states on Monday that it was “absolutely clear that people from Afghanistan will join the waves of migrants” following the Taliban’s return to power. “Even if their final destination is in the west, they will travel through our countries,” he said.