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8 November 2021

Belarus weaponises migrants as dispute with the EU escalates

Hundreds of migrants are at the border as Poland accuses Belarus of direct attacks on its forces.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – The videos that emerged from Poland’s eastern border early on Monday (8 November) are evidence of a significant escalation of the long-running migrant crisis at Belarus’s border with the EU. They show hundreds of migrants, many carrying large backpacks, escorted by Belarusian guards and directed westwards. Previously, migrants were reported to make their way to the border in small groups, never as part of an organised campaign of hundreds at once. The strategy of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is apparently to overwhelm Polish border defences through sheer force of numbers.

Videos published later in the day appeared to show a breach in the border fence being defended by a human shield of Polish officials, as migrants facing them shouted “German[y]”, an apparent reference to their intended destination. As of late Monday afternoon, there were no credible reports of significant numbers of migrants having managed to cross into Poland.

Poland has declared a state of emergency at the border, banning NGOs and most media from the region, making reports from the area difficult to verify. Late on Monday, the office of the Polish prime minister accused Belarus of the “organised destruction of border fortifications” and “direct attacks on Polish Border Guards officers, police and soldiers”.

Some observers worry that part of the Lukashenko regime’s strategy appears to be to escalate tensions at the border, potentially to the point that Polish troops use violence on migrants in an attempt to prevent them crossing. This strategy risks giving Belarus a propaganda win as it attempts to portray Poland as a violator of human rights.

[See also: Migrants freeze as Belarus pursues its cold war with the EU]

Grupa Granica, a Polish NGO helping migrants at the border, wrote in a statement that “there is a high probability that the Belarusian authorities will seek to escalate violence, which might be met with a violent response from the Polish authorities”. It said that migrants would be at risk if violence broke out.

The Polish side has placed the blame squarely with the Belarusian authorities for their tacit support of the new movements of people. The Polish Ministry of Defence tweeted that Belarusian soldiers were “supervising and controlling” the activities of migrants. 

The Lukashenko regime has “caused an unprecedented escalation of the border crisis, pushing hundreds of migrants to the EU border by armed men”, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader, said in a statement. “We must remember: Lukashenko is fully responsible for the hybrid attack on Poland, Lithuania, and the EU. This is an attempt to take revenge on democratic countries for supporting Belarusians.”

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Monday’s events will increase the pressure on Poland to accept support from other European countries, which it has so far resisted. The EU Commission was rebuffed when it offered Warsaw the support of Frontex, the EU’s border force, early in the crisis. This week, a spokesman for the Commission reiterated that Brussels would like to see Poland request backing from Frontex.

Activists have warned that as winter approaches, conditions at the border will become deadlier. Yet far from dropping off, the latest escalation indicates that the Belarusian regime has no intention of dropping its support of illegal migration into the EU, with potentially devastating consequences.

[Hear more: What can be done to challenge Lukasheko’s regime in Belarus?]