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Thousands of migrants have been gathering at the border between Belarus and Poland this week in a stand-off that is threatening a humanitarian disaster on the edge of the EU and has sent tensions rising among political foes across the region.
The migrants have been met with barb wire fencing and lines of Polish soldiers who have been drafted in their thousands to guard the frontier. Clashes have taken place with Polish police carrying riot shields as migrants have used logs, spades and other implements to try to break through.
It has sparked a geopolitical row involving the European Union and the US, who accuse Russia-backed Belarus of waging a “hybrid war” against the West by luring migrants from war-torn Syria and Iraq and sending them to the border of the EU in a bid to destabilise the region.
What’s happening at the border?
Around 2,000 migrants have been camping since Monday on the Belarus side of the border, waiting in freezing conditions with little food and shelter.
Video and photographs shows young children and babies among the people stuck at the border.
“There are lots of families here with babies between two or four months old. They have not eaten anything for the past three days,” said one person who filmed the disturbing scenes.
Migrants have complained of being repeatedly pushed back by Polish and Belarusian border guards, putting them at risk of exposure, lack of food and water.
“Yesterday we helped to secure and evacuate one group of immigrants,” said Michal Swiatkowski, 30, a member of the Polish Red Cross rescue group, on Wednesday
“There were 16 people, most of them were children. They did not require medical attention, although we donated warm clothes, blankets and some food,” he told Reuters.
Poland’s Border Guard recorded nearly 1,000 illegal attempts to cross the border on Monday and Tuesday, and have detained or sent back dozens of people.
Several deaths have been reported on both sides of the border.
How did this come about?
The EU accuses Belarus of inviting thousands of desperate migrants to fly to the country in order to spark a confrontation and destabilise the bloc.
Furious at sanctions imposed by the West on his regime, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced in July he would allow no longer stop masses of refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq coming into “warm and comfortable” Europe. “We will not stop anyone,” he said.
Since then, travel agents have been targeting Iraqis and Syrians with offers of package trips to Belarus, implying they can travel on to seek work in Europe.
On Monday, videos emerged showing Belarusian guards in camouflage marching hundreds of migrants along a road leading up to the Polish border region of Podlaskie.
The EU say Mr Lukashenko is seeking revenge for earlier sanctions imposed by the bloc, the US and Britain over Belarus’s violent crackdown on mass street protests that were sparked by Mr Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in 2020.
Some migrants have complained of being repeatedly pushed back and forth by Polish and Belarusian border guards, putting them at risk of exposure, lack of food and water.
Poland denies accusations by humanitarian groups that it is violating the international right to asylum by hustling migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection.
How has Poland responded?
Warsaw declared a state of emergency that prevents aid from reaching those trapped in the border area. It has also made it harder for journalists to independently verify claims from both nations about what exactly is going on.
Poland said on Monday it had stationed more than 12,000 troops at the border. It has since added a further 3,000 guards to patrol the 250-mile long frontier.
The Polish authorities accuse Belarus of trying to spark a major confrontation.
“Belarus wants to cause a major incident, preferably with shots fired and casualties,” Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk told Polish public radio on Monday.
What about the international community?
The crisis has exposed the political fault lines through Europe with the EU strongly backing Poland, and Russia quick to criticise the bloc’s response.
EU leaders accuse Mr Lukashenko’s regime of opening up a new migration route to Europe to create instability in retaliation for the sanctions.
The bloc's 27 ambassadors agreed on Wednesday that the growing numbers of migrants flying to Belarus to reach the EU border amounted to “hybrid warfare” by Mr Lukashenko, which would provide a legal basis for new sanctions.
“Mr Lukashenko ...unscrupulously exploits people seeking refuge as hostages for his cynical power play,” Germany's acting Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter.
He described images from the Belarusian border, where people are stuck in freezing conditions with little food and shelter, as “horrific” but said the EU could not be blackmailed.
Later on Wednesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced that EU sanctions against Belarus would be widened next week.
“We are deeply concerned by the Lukashenko regime’s inhumane actions and strongly condemn their callous exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people,” a White House National Security Council spokesman said.
In a bid to calm the growing tensions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to intervene with Belarus over the migrant situation.
The chancellor's office said Mrs Merkel spoke with Mr Putin by phone and underlined that the exploitation “of migrants against the European Union by the Belarusian regime is inhumane and completely unacceptable.”
Mrs Merkel asked the Russian president “to exert his influence on the regime in Minsk”.
Russia blames the EU for the crisis on the border, accusing it of failing to uphold its own humanitarian values and of trying to “strangle” Belarus with plans to close part of the frontier.
In a show of strength and support for Minsk, Russia took the rare step of dispatching two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace on Wednesday.
United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on states to de-escalate and resolve the “intolerable” crisis.
“These hundreds of men, women and children must not be forced to spend another night in freezing weather without adequate shelter, food, water and medical care,” she said.
What has Belarus said?
Mr Lukashenko has denied using the migrants as weapons and has blamed Europe for the crisis at the border.
It summoned Poland’s defence attache on Tuesday to protest what it said were unfounded allegations about the involvement of Belarusian military personnel in the crisis.
Mr Lukashenko and Mr Putin discussed the situation by phone and expressed concern over the build-up of Polish troops at the border, the Belarusian state news agency Belta reported.
“To conduct a war with these unfortunate people on the border of Poland with Belarus and move forward columns of tanks - it’s clear this is either a training exercise or it's blackmail,” Mr Lukashenko said in televised comments.
“We will calmly stand up to this.”