‘Instrumentalizing migrants’ Hundreds of refugees stranded in Belarus mass on border with Poland in hopes of crossing into the EU
Hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees stranded in Belarus set up an improvised camp on the border with Poland on the evening of Monday, November 8, following an unsuccessful attempt at a mass crossing into the European Union. Reportedly, most of the migrants are from the Middle East and many of them are Kurdish. Reports of a large column headed towards the border with Poland first appeared on social media on Monday morning. Videos and photos posted online show armed Belarusian border guards escorting migrants, including families with children, as they move towards the border area. In videos shared by the Polish Defense Ministry, groups of refugees can be seen trying to knock down a barbed-wire border fence, as Polish guards push them back with tear gas. Warsaw claims the escalation in tensions at the border was deliberately orchestrated by Minsk. Belarusian border authorities said on Monday that the migrants have no intention of staying in Belarus and that their ultimate destination is the EU.
On the morning of Monday, November 8, Belarusian media and Telegram channels began posting photos and videos showing hundreds of refugees walking along a highway, reportedly coming from the border town Bruzgi in the Grodno region. Citing Belarusian border authorities, RIA Novosti reported that the group numbered more than a thousand people, including “many women and children.”
Videos shared by Sputnik Belarus show armed Belarusian border guards escorting the migrants off the highway and into a forest. Sputnik Belarus’s correspondent reported that the migrants in the wooded area were some 500 meters (547 yards) from the border. Allegedly, they had told border guards that “they all want to go to Poland.”
Police officials in the Grodno region assured that law enforcement were taking measures “to ensure the protection of law and order” as the refugees “moved towards the border with Poland.” In turn, the Belarusian State Border Committee confirmed that the column was headed towards the border area, adding that additional border guards had been sent to checkpoints as reinforcements. According to Sputnik Belarus, servicemen from the internal troops were also dispatched to the Belarusian border.
Meanwhile, Polish authorities reported that the column of migrants intended to break through the border en masse. During a broadcast on Polskie Radio, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Piotr Wawrzyk said that any attempts to illegally cross the border would be halted immediately. Wawrzyk also accused the Belarusian authorities of trying to escalate the situation, warning that this could lead to casualties.
The Polish Defense Ministry later reported that groups of migrants were indeed trying to cross the border near the Kuźnica checkpoint. The ministry published several videos recorded in the area, one of which shows a group of people on the Belarusian side attempting to knock down a border fence. Another shows Polish border guards spraying something in an effort to push back the refugees.
The Belarusian State Border Committee reported that “the refugees repeatedly tried to tell the Polish side that they had left their countries because their lives were in danger.” The committee also claimed that the migrants began trying to break down the border fence after Polish authorities used aircraft “to exert psychological pressure” and sprayed the refugees with tear gas.
Yet another video from the Polish Defense Ministry shows armed men in combat fatigues standing near the refugees on the Belarusian side of the border fence. In a statement, the Polish Defense Ministry claimed that these “large groups of migrants” are “fully controlled by the Belarusian security services and army.” “The current situation on the Belarusian-Polish border is a result of the deliberate escalation of tension by the Belarusian side,” the ministry said.
As evening fell, the hundreds of refugees began setting up an improvised camp on the Belarusian side of the border fence. A video taken from a Polish Defense Ministry helicopter shows tents and campfires stretching along the border.
According to Belarusian border authorities, there are more than 2,000 people gathered in the border area, including families with children. “According to the foreigners, the ultimate [destination] of their route is the EU, where they want to apply for protection, and they don’t consider the territory of the Republic of Belarus as a place of residence,” reported the Belarusian State Border Committee on Monday, as quoted by Interfax.
Later in the evening, the independent Belarusian news site Zerkalo.io, citing a video from a migrant group chat, reported that two gunshots were allegedly fired in the border area. The Belarusian State Border Committee told RIA Novosti that the sound of the shots came from the Polish side. However, an opposition Telegram channel reported that the shots came from the Belarusian side (the channel, Motolkohelp, claimed to have obtained video evidence of an armed Belarusian guard firing into the air). Neither of these reports have been independently confirmed. At the time of this writing, there were no reported casualties.
EU countries bordering Belarus have seen a sharp increase in illegal border crossings in 2021. Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have all accused the Belarusian government of deliberately fomenting a refugee crisis along the border. In June, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko stated that Minsk would not prevent migrants from transiting to the European Union, claiming that European countries had “unleashed a hybrid war” against Belarus.
The Polish Border Guard announced on Monday evening that due to the situation on the border with Belarus, movement across the Kuźnica border checkpoint will be suspended at 7:00 a.m. local time on Tuesday, November 9.
In a statement EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged Belarus to “stop putting people’s lives at risk” and condemned Minsk for “instrumentalizing” migrants for political ends. She also called on EU member states to “finally approve the extended sanctions regime on the Belarusian authorities responsible for this hybrid attack.”