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Poland is in no doubt about who is orchestrating a bitter humanitarian crisis at the border: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Since the summer, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has brought thousands of Middle Eastern migrants into his country, forcing them to try to cross the Polish border into the EU. The crisis escalated on Monday when a group of about 1,500 migrants ripped fence down and cut barbed wire near the village of Kuźnica, in northeastern Poland.
The men did not manage to break through, but will probably try again. In fact, columns of migrants have been marched to the border by Belarusian soldiers with no chance of returning. It raises the ghost of a humanitarian emergency, where migrants are trapped in a wooded no-man’s land while the temperature drops to below zero at night. While many of the migrants are young men, there are also older ones among them, as well as women and children. Warsaw has sent 12,000 soldiers to monitor the border.
The Polish government has identified the culprit behind this fringe of human life as the Kremlin, its eternal nemesis. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was quick to appoint Putin as the puppet master behind what Warsaw perceives as a form of hybrid warfare.
“This is the latest attack by Lukashenko, who is an executor but has a facilitator, and this facilitator is in Moscow, this facilitator is President Putin, who is showing a willingness to carry out a scenario of rebuilding the Russian Empire, the scenario where we “All Poles have to strongly oppose us,” Morawiecki told parliament on Tuesday.
For Poland’s security forces, the priority is to reject what they see as an attack and to seal the border. The government even plans to replace the barbed wire fence with a concrete wall. Authorities have also declared a state of emergency in the border region, excluding journalists, humanitarian workers and doctors.
It is crucial that Poland has broad support for keeping the line at the border. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer was quoted in the daily Bild as calling for EU solidarity with Warsaw and also pointed the finger at Moscow. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also argued that “the Belarussian authorities must understand that it will not help them succeed in their goal of pressuring the EU in this way through a cynical instrumentalisation of migrants.”
The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, will meet with Morawiecki in Warsaw on Wednesday.
“Just to add fuel to the fire of speculation that Moscow is pulling the strings in a blackmail offer, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that the EU pay Minsk to keep migrants out, just as it paid for Turkey in 2016.” “Why can they not help Belarus like this? Belarus also needs money to ensure normal conditions for the refugees, Lithuania and Poland are reluctant to close in,” he said. was quoted as saying at a press conference by the news agency Tass.
People were treated like ping pong balls
While the Polish army is holding on to the border, the country’s opposition and international humanitarian organizations are calling on Warsaw to help the migrants who arrive in Poland and who are asking for international protection.
“There is no doubt that this is a deep [humanitarian] crisis, ”said Hanna Machińska, Poland’s Deputy Ombudsman, who oversees human rights abuses in the country.
According to official data, 10 people died while crossing the border. But locals operating in the closed region say that the number could be significantly higher.
“A situation becomes a humanitarian crisis when no one is doing anything on either side to find the solution,” said Christine Goyer, a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Poland. “Countries on both sides need to find a solution so that people do not end up staying where they are,” she added.
The Polish government has sent two humanitarian convoys to Belarus – but they were not shut down. Some of the migrants who needed immediate medical attention were admitted to local hospitals.
But civic groups and human rights activists working close to the border say the situation is becoming more and more dangerous in this wooded, swampy district as winter comes.
Urszula Glensk, a professor at Wrocław University who came to the region to volunteer, said migrants found in the woods outside the emergency zone are usually soaked, hungry and thirsty, often with hypothermia and unprepared at low temperatures.
She said migrants were forcibly forced by the Belarusians into the forest on the Polish side, and so often are captured and sent back to Belarus. “They’re treated like ping pong balls,” she said. “I do not expect the Polish government to solve this problem in any humanitarian way.”
“It is clear that the Polish government is contributing to the suffering of the hundreds of people on the border with Belarus,” she added.
Some reports have suggested that migrants are being beaten by the Belarusian guards while others say that Polish guards threw a pregnant woman over the fence and that she had an abortion as a result. A deputy spokeswoman for the Polish border guard said she would investigate the incident and stressed that the authorities usually help pregnant women.
“It is unacceptable that the lives of children and their families are being used as a bargaining chip in a regional conflict.” said Save the Children, an NGO.
Goyer at the UNHCR said the agency was trying to ensure that everyone has the right to seek international protection.
“Poland is in the situation where it has a duty to protect its border … What is really important is really to find a way for those who need international protection to make their case heard, and if they try to seek asylum, they are able to do so, “she added.
The Border Group – a group of NGOs operating in the border area – called on the Polish government to create a humanitarian corridor and allow the media, civic groups and doctors to the closed zone.
“The provocations from the Lukashenko regime have so far not been met with an adequate response from Poland – a response from a democratic country that respects human rights,” the group said. “Instead of illegal deportations, violence and ignoring the humanitarian crisis, we demand protection of life and health, resistance to torture and protection and respect for the rights of migrants.”
Poland goes alone
It is unclear what international organizations can do. Poland is handling this crisis in its own way.
Brussels uses diplomatic tools to prevent any future influx of migrants. Von der Leyen said late Monday that Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas will be sent in the coming days to key countries of origin and transit “to ensure they act to prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap that they Belarusian authorities have set. ”
The bloc will also examine how to sanction third-country airlines involved in human trafficking, according to the Commission’s chief.
On the humanitarian front, von der Leyen promised to “explore with the UN and its specialized agencies how to prevent a humanitarian crisis from unfolding and to ensure that migrants can be safely returned to their country of origin with the support of their national authorities.”
Another tool available to the Commission to deal with a possible humanitarian crisis is the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, but assistance through the mechanism would require Warsaw to formally ask for help. A Commission spokesman told reporters on Tuesday that “no such request has been made by the Polish authorities” but that “we are ready.”
On the ground, the EU can also offer support to Poland through agencies such as Frontex and Europol, if requested.
But Warsaw has repeatedly refused to engage foreign observers. On Tuesday, Morawiecki said Frontex would not be “a real help” as it only has less than 1,000 troops.
Goyer said the UN had tried to gain access to the border zone but was not admitted.
Machińska struck a pessimistic tone. “We do not know how this situation will develop. There is a fear that it will only get worse. “
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