Poland declares state of emergency over Belarus ‘hybrid war’

Move a response to ‘destabilising’ efforts by Minsk, Warsaw says

Barbed wire installed on the border between Poland and Belarus near the town of Grzybowszczyzna in northeast Poland. Photograph: Artur Reszko/EPA

Barbed wire installed on the border between Poland and Belarus near the town of Grzybowszczyzna in northeast Poland. Photograph: Artur Reszko/EPA

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Poland has introduced a state of emergency in eastern regions bordering Belarus – an outer European Union frontier – after a surge in crossings by Afghans and Iraqis.

Warsaw said the move was a response to what it called “destabilising” efforts at “hybrid warfare” by Minsk, supported by Moscow, to funnel migrants into the EU.

Though co-ordinated with the EU and its Baltic neighbours, the first such state of emergency since the end of the communist era in 1989 has proven divisive and emotive among Poles.

“We must stop these aggressive hybrid actions, which are carried out according to a script written in Minsk,” said Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish prime minister.

Poland’s border police service said that in August it had recorded about 3,500 attempts to cross the border, of which 2,500 had been prevented. A week ago Polish troops began building a 2.5m-high barbed wire fence along nearly half of its 400km forest frontier with Belarus. The state of emergency applies for 30 days from Thursday in the “border zone” of 115 municipalities in the Podlasie region and 68 in Lublin province.

After President Andrzej Duda signed the measures, a presidential spokesman described the situation as “difficult and dangerous”.

“We must take measures to ensure the security of Poland and the European Union,” the spokesman added.

Interior minister Mariusz Kaminski said the restrictions would be “minimal” for locals and were directed at foreign nationals who were part of “provocations” such as illegal immigration and people smuggling.

The interior minister said the new regime would also prevent “trips, stunts or demonstrations” on the border. Last weekend some 13 activists were detained after a protest at the border to highlight the plight of 30 people from Afghanistan who have been camped there for nearly a month.

Polish authorities have refused to provide the migrants with supplies or allow them cross to make asylum claims, saying this would be giving in to the “blackmail” of Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Humanitarian aid

Opposition politicians and human rights groups have criticised the move has unduly harsh. The Council of Europe and the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, have urged Poland to provide humanitarian aid to the migrants.

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said the stand-off between Poland and Belarus was not solely a migration issue but part of a show of “aggression” by Belarus “with the aim to destabilise” the EU.

Warsaw says up to 10,000 people  are ready to cross into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania “at any minute”. In addition it says upcoming Russian-Belarusian military exercises in the region pose a “real danger”. 

The “West-2021” military exercises are expected to involve thousands of soldiers, tanks, artillery and aircraft from Russia and regional allies.

Polish government spokesman Piotr Müller said Warsaw was ready if the situation “heats up, with some apparently accidental events potentially taking place at the Polish, Lithuanian or Latvian border”. 

“We saw what happened in Crimea, Georgia and eastern Ukraine,” he added.

Poland’s constitution makes provision for a state of emergency of up to 90 days, introduced by the president at the request of government. Such measures can be extended for another 60 days, overturned or extended by a parliamentary majority.

During the state of emergency, authorities are empowered to limit the rights of assembly and protest, as well as restrict communications, including the press and social media.

NGOs have criticised the government’s refusal to provide more humanitarian aid to people camped on its border. Poland’s Ocalenie Foundation, which assists migrants, criticised the state of emergency as a “nuclear option”. The main aim, it argues, is to move aid workers and media away from the border so “no one can document what is happening there”.