Poland's far-right groups demand strong borders as tensions rise in migrant standoff

Thousands marched in Warsaw on Thursday to mark Poland's Independence Day, led by far-right groups calling for strong borders, while its troops blocked hundreds of new attempts by migrants to enter the country illegally from neighbouring Belarus in a tense standoff.

Thousands of migrants, refugees gathered on Belarusian side of border with Poland

Members of far-right groups light flares at an annual Independence Day march in Warsaw on Thursday. Warsaw's mayor and courts had banned this year's event due to its history of violence, but right-wing authorities in the national government overruled the ban and gave the march state event status. (Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press)

Thousands marched in Warsaw on Thursday to mark Poland's Independence Day, led by far-right groups calling for strong borders, while Polish troops blocked hundreds of migrants attempting to enter the country from neighbouring Belarus in a tense standoff.

Security forces patrolled the capital for the parade, which was peaceful, unlike those in recent years that have seen violence by some extremists.

"Today, there are not only internal disputes. Today, there are also external disputes. Today ,there is an attack on the Polish border," Robert Bakiewicz, who led the march, said in a speech.

All Poles should support those who are protecting the eastern frontier, he told the crowd. 

The march was overshadowed by events unfolding along Poland's border with Belarus, where thousands of riot police, troops and border guards are turning back migrants, many from the Middle East, who are trying to enter the European Union.

Makeshift camps have sprung up in forests on the Belarusian side near a crossing at the Polish town of Kuznica, and with temperatures falling and access to the frontier restricted, there are fears of a humanitarian crisis.

Migrants gather at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Thursday. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA/The Associated Press)

National government shows support for far-right march

Courts and Warsaw's liberal mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, had banned the Independence Day march, which celebrates Poland's statehood, but right-wing authorities in the national government overrode the order and gave the gathering the status of a state ceremony.

The government's support for the far-right leaders of the march underlined the important of their backing to Poland's right-wing ruling party. In 2017, the parade drew tens of thousands of people and featured white nationalist and antisemitic slogans. The next year, the president, prime minister and other leaders marched the same route as the nationalists.

People take part in the Independence March, a yearly march led by far-right nationalist groups on Independence Day, in Warsaw on Thursday. (Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press)

UN blames Belarus for using migrants for 'political purposes'

The UN Security Council discussed the crisis privately but took no action, though six of its Western members condemned the use "of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus" and called on the international community "to hold Belarus accountable" and "to stop these inhumane actions."

Turkey on Friday halted airline ticket sales to Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni citizens wanting to travel to Belarus. The move follows EU pressure on airlines to stop bringing people from the Middle East to Minsk. Iraq followed suit, halting direct flights to Belarus Friday, which the government said was a bid to protect Iraqis from human trafficking gangs.

On Friday, Russia sent about 250 paratroopers to the Grodno region in Belarus, which borders Poland, in a show of support for its ally. They Russian Defence Ministry said the paratroopers re-boarded the transport planes and flew back to Russia after the exercise. That follows Russia's sending nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol over Belarus for two days this week. 

WATCH | Russia and Belarus stage military drills as migrant crisis worsens:

Russia and Belarus stage military drills as migrant crisis worsens

2 months ago
Duration 2:02
Tensions remain high after Russian and Belarusian officials held joint military drills near the Poland-Belarus border on Friday where thousands of migrants have been left stranded. 2:02

The Belarusian Defence Ministry said two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers practised bombing runs at the Ruzany firing range, located in Belarus about 60 kilometres east of the border with Poland. As part of the joint training, Belarusian fighter jets simulated an intercept, the ministry said.

The Defence Ministry said that such Russian bomber flights will be conducted on a regular basis.

A long-range Tu-22M3 bomber of the Russian Aerospace Forces flies to patrol in the airspace of Belarus on Thursday. (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

The Russian military said the bomber patrol "wasn't aimed against any third countries."

But Russia's deputy United Nations ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, told reporters at UN headquarters in New York that "it is a response to a massive buildup on the Polish-Belarusian border."

Russia has strongly supported Belarus amid the tense standoff this week. Polyansky pointed to the union between Russia and Belarus and said that "if there is a buildup of military resources on the border with Belarus, we have to react."

'Let them scream and squeak'

The European Union has accused Belarus's authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, of encouraging illegal border crossings as a "hybrid attack" to retaliate against EU sanctions on his government for its crackdown on internal dissent after Lukashenko's disputed 2020 re-election.

Belarus denies the allegations but has said it will no longer stop refugees and migrants from trying to enter the EU.

The Belarusian Defence Ministry accused Poland on Thursday of an "unprecedented" military buildup on the border, saying that migration control did not warrant the concentration of 15,000 troops backed by tanks, air defence assets and other weapons.

WATCH | Migrant standoff grows at Poland, Belarus border:

Migrant standoff grows at Poland, Belarus border

2 months ago
Duration 2:01
Polish and EU officials are accusing the Belarusian government of directing migrants to the border as a retaliation for sanctions, but there is growing concern for the migrants’ safety after at least 10 have died. 2:01

"It looks more like forming a strike group of forces," the ministry said. The Polish military buildup prompted Belarus to respond "both independently and within the existing agreements" with its strategic ally, Russia, it said.

Russia and Belarus have a union agreement envisaging close political and military ties. Lukashenko has stressed the need to boost military co-operation in the face of what he has described as aggressive actions by NATO allies.

Lukashenko on Thursday called the Russian bomber flights a necessary response to the tensions on the Belarus-Poland border.

The Russian military said the bombers spent more than 4.5 hours in the air during the mission, intended to buttress the countries' alliance. (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

"Let them scream and squeak. Yes, those are nuclear-capable bombers, but we have no other choice," said the president, who has been in office since 1994.

Retired Col.-Gen. Leonid Ivashov, the former head of the Russian Defence Ministry's foreign co-operation department, said the Russian bomber flights over Belarus were intended to demonstrate Moscow's support for its ally amid soaring tensions.

Russia denies exerting influence

Amid the tensions on the Belarus-Poland border, Russia has strongly backed Belarus, charging that the West destabilized the Middle East and therefore bears responsibility for migrants and refugees seeking safety in Europe.

At the same time, Moscow angrily rejected Poland's claim that Russia has helped foment a situation with humanitarian as well as political dimensions.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted the thousands of troops that have been deployed on either side of the Polish-Belarusian border and said that "it's a cause for deep concern of all sober-minded people in Europe."

Polish military vehicles are seen near the border to Belarus, in Dubiny, Poland, on Thursday. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Since the start of the year, there have been 33,000 attempts to cross the border illegally, with 17,000 in October alone, the border guard service said.

At least eight migrants have died, officials said, and conditions have been getting worse with freezing nighttime temperatures. Video from Russian state media Thursday showed hundreds of migrants pushing and scrambling to get aid that was delivered to them, along with a woman being treated for what the report said was hypothermia.

Mulusew Mamo, a UN Human Rights Council representative in Belarus who visited the migrants, called the situation there "catastrophic."

"And in a day, it will be more catastrophic, I think," Mamo said, noting that aid is being distributed via the Red Cross and will continue for several days.

The crisis has been brewing since summer, with migrants trying to cross from Belarus to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Many want to head for Germany, but Finland also is a destination.

Migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere stand near barbed wire at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Thursday. (Leonid Shcheglov/The Associated Press)
Migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere warm up at a fire at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Thursday. (Leonid Shcheglov/The Associated Press)

Warsaw has taken a hard line, depicting the migrants as dangerous criminals and changing its law to allow the arbitrary rejection of asylum applications, something condemned by the UN refugee agency.

But Poland has largely gotten support on the border issue from Europe, facing only mild criticism for pushing the migrants back. 

The problem "is not Poland," said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. "The problem is Lukashenko and Belarus and its regime, and so Poland has earned our European solidarity in this situation."

But Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said it was "shocking" to see Europe's inability to properly handle such a relatively low number of migrants at the Poland-Belarus border.

"A few thousand people at Europe's Polish border, many of whom have fled some of the worst crises in the world, is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people displaced to countries that are much poorer elsewhere," he said.