World

Germany accuses Belarus of 'state-run smuggling' amid migrant crisis

The German government on Wednesday accused Belarus of "state-run smuggling and trafficking" of human lives by luring desperate migrants to the Polish border — the edge of the European Union — where many are now stuck in makeshift camps in freezing weather.

Belarus denies allegations as migrants gather at border with Poland

Polish service members are seen through a barbed wire fence as hundreds of migrants gather on the Belarusian-Polish border in an attempt to cross it in the Grodno region on Wednesday. (Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/Reuters)

The German government on Wednesday accused Belarus of "state-run smuggling and trafficking" of human lives by luring desperate migrants to the Polish border — the edge of the European Union — where many are now stuck in makeshift camps in freezing weather.

As the migrant crisis showed no sign of easing, an EU leader also said the bloc was, for the first time, considering the idea of funding a wall or some other barrier on its eastern border. That idea has always been rejected before and still faces many political and humanitarian obstacles.

Polish authorities estimate that about 3,000-4,000 migrants have gathered along its border with Belarus, with hundreds concentrated in one makeshift camp not far from the Kuznica crossing. Warsaw has bolstered security at the frontier, where it has declared a state of emergency.

Polish authorities have tweeted video of migrants, some using shovels and wire cutters, trying to break through a fence on the border to enter Poland.

The West has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging migrants from the Middle East to travel to his country and sending them toward EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia as a way to retaliate against the bloc for the sanctions imposed on the authoritarian regime for his crackdown on internal dissent since a disputed election in 2020.

Belarus denies the allegations, but has said it will no longer stop migrants and others seeking to enter the EU.

'This is a political crisis,' Polish PM says

"From a distance, these events on the Polish-Belarusian border may look like a migration crisis, but this is not a migration crisis, it is a political crisis triggered with the special purpose of destabilizing the situation in the European Union," said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Steffen Seibert, a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said in Berlin that what Minsk is doing "is, of course, state-run smuggling and trafficking ... happening 100 per cent at the expense of the people who are lured into the country with false promises."

Seibert went on: "The whole thing is happening as a hybrid attack on the European Union."

Poland says Russia bears responsibility for the crisis, given its staunch backing of Lukashenko. Germany's Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, also accused Lukashenko of "using people's fates — with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin — to destabilize the West."

Merkel spoke by phone with Putin on Wednesday and asked him "to exert his influence on the regime in Minsk," her office said, underlying that the exploitation "of migrants against the European Union by the Belarusian regime is inhuman and completely unacceptable."

Kremlin denies any responsibility

The Kremlin's account of the call said Putin proposed a discussion between "representatives of EU member states and Minsk." It also said Putin and Merkel "agreed to continue the conversation."

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov rejected suggestions by Morawiecki that Moscow has any responsibility in the crisis, calling them "absolutely irresponsible and unacceptable." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also has suggested that the EU give Belarus financial assistance to stop the migrant flow.

European Council President Charles Michel, who oversees the EU's political agenda and meetings of European leaders, travelled to Warsaw and met with Morawiecki in a gesture of solidarity.

"We are facing a hybrid, brutal, violent and unworthy attack, and we can only reply to this with firmness and unity, in accordance with our core values," he said.

EU mulls more sanctions

The EU is discussing what steps to take next, Michel said, including more sanctions against Belarus and pressuring airlines not to participate in the illegal migration of people.

Michel also said the EU is discussing the possibility of funding "physical infrastructure" on the EU's external borders. The EU's executive commission has long held that walls and barriers are not effective and has refused to fund them with money from the bloc. It will pay for security cameras and surveillance equipment, not walls, fences and other physical infrastructure.

The migrants are on the Belarus side of the border with Poland near the village of Kuznica. (CBC)

But now, it is facing pressure by several member countries to do so, as Poland and Lithuania have already moved forward with plans to construct high barriers of steel and razor wire.

Security on the Polish border has been reinforced, with about 15,000 soldiers deployed there, working with border guards and police. Poland's Defence Ministry has activated reserves from its Territorial Defence Force to support border guards and the military by looking for migrants and supporting residents whose lives have been affected by the restrictions in their area.

The ministry and local police reported that groups of migrants tried to enter the country late Tuesday and early Wednesday but that all who made it in were detained.

It also accused Belarusian forces of firing shots into the air in a border area where migrants caught between the countries have set up a camp. The ministry posted a video on Twitter with noises of what sounded like shots. Belarus has accused Polish forces of firing in the air.

Caught in the geopolitical standoff are thousands of migrants, including children, who have been pushed back and forth in a forested area of swamps and bogs. Eight deaths have been confirmed, and the situation gets more dangerous as temperatures have fallen below freezing at night.

Berlin says thousands of the migrants have reached Germany, where many are housed in migrant centres. Others have been detained and put in closed migrant centres in Poland and Lithuania.

Members of a Kurdish family from Dohuk in Iraq are seen in a forest near the Polish-Belarusian border as they are assisted by activists from a non-governmental organization while waiting for the border guard patrol, near Narewka, Poland, on Tuesday. (Wojtek Radwansky/AFP/Getty Images)

Poland, which takes a harder line on migrants, has faced criticism at home and abroad for pushing many of them back into Belarus, often leaving them in the forest. Lawmakers in Warsaw recently legalized returning people to the country from which they tried to enter Poland without automatically giving them the right to apply for asylum. The Polish actions are considered illegal under international law, according to the UN refugee agency.

Merkel's spokesperson Seibert, while blaming the "condemnable behaviour of the Belarusian leader," also said the migrants deserved legal protection — an apparent message to Poland.

"It is quite clear that the people who have now landed in this situation, which is desperate for them, and who sometimes resort to desperate actions in order to get over the barbed wire, are also in need of humanitarian assistance," he said.

Belarus's State Border Guard Committee said in a post on the Telegram messaging app Wednesday that four men of Kurdish descent in the makeshift migrant camp at the border were injured. The committee blamed Polish security forces for the injuries.

"According to the refugees, they were detained on the territory of Poland, where they tried to ask for protection and refugee status. Judging by the numerous injuries ... the Polish security forces mistreated the men and forcibly pushed them out through a barbed fence on the border with Belarus," the post said, accompanied by photos of the injured.

It was impossible to verify the reports. Independent journalists face limits to their reporting in autocratic Belarus, and a state of emergency in the Poland's border zone prevents reporters from entering the area.

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