With thousands of people camped in the cold at the Poland-Belarus border, Western officials accuse Belarus’s repressive ruler of trying to manufacture a migrant crisis in Europe in retaliation for sanctions against his country, creating a new flashpoint in East-West relations.
The crisis deepened on Wednesday, as European Union leaders overlooked their own disputes with Poland and pledged solidarity in that country’s effort to keep out the migrants. Poland has stationed thousands of soldiers along the razor wire fence marking the frontier with Belarus, and Lithuania has declared a state of emergency.
The migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have flown into Belarus, a close ally of Russia, but do not want to remain there. They hope to cross the borders into Poland or Lithuania, E.U. member countries, hoping to gain asylum within the bloc or simply live there.
The rapidly swelling number of people at the borders is being orchestrated by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the autocratic president of Belarus, according to Western officials. They say he has greatly increased the number of people allowed to fly into his country and then funneled them westward toward the E.U.
The European Council president, Charles Michel, stood on Wednesday with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland to condemn what both leaders said was an orchestrated attempt to use human beings as weapons.
“Poland is facing a serious crisis that we take seriously, and it should enjoy the solidarity and unity of the whole European Union,” Mr. Michel said at a news conference in Warsaw. “It is a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack.”
The E.U. imposed sanctions last year after Mr. Lukashenko won re-election in a vote that outside observers called fraudulent, brutally suppressed demonstrations and jailed many of his critics. Some leading opponents who left the country rather than face prison have found shelter in Poland and Lithuania.
Now, E.U. leaders say, he is lashing back at them.
Top E.U. diplomats are expected to approve new sanctions against Belarus on Monday. Mr. Michel also mentioned the possibility of imposing sanctions on airlines involved in transporting people to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
In a reversal of prior statements by E.U. officials, Mr. Michel also said the bloc would consider the possibility of financing a wall at the border.
Poland has accused Russia of directing the migrant flow, which Russian officials deny.
BRUSSELS — The migration crisis of 2015, when millions of people surged into Europe, nearly tore apart the European Union. Many members offered asylum to the refugees; others, like Poland and Hungary, wanted no part of it.
Six years later, amid a standoff over migrants at the border of Poland and Belarus, E.U. officials insist that member states are united when it comes to defending the bloc’s external borders and that uncontrolled immigration is over.
What is different, the Europeans say, is that this confrontation is entirely manufactured by the Belarusian ruler, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, as a response to sanctions imposed on his country by the Europeans. They say it is not a true migration crisis, but an act of aggression by Mr. Lukashenko.
The crisis began in late August, when growing groups of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, began massing at the borders of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, shepherded there by Belarus. That movement has now become much larger, with at least 4,000 or more men, women and children trapped in the freezing cold, without proper shelter or toilets, between Belarus and its neighbors.
Both Poland and Lithuania declared states of emergency and fortified their borders, while Belarusian forces have in some cases aided the migrants in breaking through. The border regions have been shut to journalists and aid workers, but upsetting videos and pictures of the migrants facing barbed wire have been distributed, often by Belarus itself.
On Wednesday, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, called Mr. Lukashenko’s tactics a “cynical power play” and said that blackmail must not be allowed to succeed. In Washington, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, met President Biden and emerged to say that what was transpiring on the Belarus border is “a hybrid attack, not a migration crisis.”
The support for Poland is especially striking while the European Union is locked in a major confrontation with the right-wing Polish government about the supremacy of European law over Polish law and about restrictions on the independence of the judiciary. In that confrontation, Brussels is withholding from Warsaw billions of dollars of funds intended to help economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet in an indication of how seriously Brussels takes the standoff with Belarus, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, visited Warsaw on Wednesday to meet with the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to offer solidarity — and even, perhaps, some border funds.
“Poland, which is facing a serious crisis, should enjoy solidarity and unity of the whole European Union,” Mr. Michel said.
But the Europeans do not want to be seen as ignoring children, women and men, however manipulated they have been, in freezing conditions, without decent food, shelter or sanitary facilities, stuck between troops and barbed wire. Several have died.
In response, Brussels is contemplating another round of sanctions aimed at Belarusian officials and airlines that are ferrying the migrants from the Middle East to Minsk. But few believe that new sanctions will move Mr. Lukashenko any more than previous ones have done.
“This is a very serious crisis for the European Union, not just for Poland,” said Piotr Buras, a Warsaw-based fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a crisis of security, which could get much worse if Polish and Belarusian guards start shooting, and it’s a very serious humanitarian crisis, because Europe can’t accept people starving and freezing on the border.”
The deep forests that straddle the European Union’s borders with Belarus have become the stage for an international conflict as thousands of migrants struggle to make their way to the E.U. through the trees.
Deeper still, however, is the secrecy that shrouds the border zone, an area that Poland and Lithuania, both E.U. members, and Belarus have all declared off-limits to news media and aid workers. The information blockade has made it impossible to assess the veracity of the often inflammatory government statements about what is really happening along the border.
Poland’s nationalist governing party, Law and Justice, with a long history of demonizing migrants and hostility to critical media, has even prohibited doctors working for the Catholic Church, a close ally of the government, from visiting the area to assist cold and hungry migrants.
There is much the three nations might want to hide. E.U. officials say Belarus is manufacturing a crisis, allowing in people from the Middle East and then funneling them to the borders. There have been reports from migrants and humanitarian groups of people crossing the borders, only to be physically abused and forced back into Belarus.
At least eight migrants who sneaked into Poland, where temperatures have fallen below zero as winter approaches, have died from exposure, according to official reports. Aid workers say the real number may be much higher but they cannot enter the border area without getting arrested.
Warning of an “intolerable situation,” the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, on Wednesday called for immediate access to the area for journalists, aid workers and lawyers.
This appeal has so far fallen on deaf ears. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said that the presence of journalists along the border would only “intensify” what he called “provocative actions” by Belarus. He said the government was thinking about establishing a media center close to the border but gave no details, and warned that journalists risked falling prey to fake news spread by Belarus and its ally Russia.
“In a hybrid war, the fight is primarily in the field of information,” Mr. Morawiecki said after a meeting in Warsaw with Charles Michel, the president of the European Council.
Two Polish journalists working for an online news service were charged with a criminal offense in September for entering the border area. Tight restrictions on media access imposed by Poland, a democracy with a vibrant press, has allowed Belarus and its autocratic ruler, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to pose as a defender of media freedom.
In a statement late Wednesday, the Ministry of Information in Belarus said it was ready “to assist in inviting employees of the Polish media to work on the Belarusian side of the border.”
European Union officials said they were analyzing air traffic to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, as potential evidence that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus was effectively orchestrating a flow of migrants toward E.U. countries.
The timetable for the Minsk airport, effective Oct. 31, shows at least 47 scheduled flights per week from Middle Eastern locations, compared with no more than 23 flights per week on its previous schedule. The additional flights include a new daily route from Damascus on an Airbus A320 operated by the Syrian airline Cham Wings.
Travel agencies in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where many of the migrants come from, have been offering packages that include visas to Belarus and airfare either through Turkey or the United Arab Emirates for about $3,000.
Peter Stano, a spokesman for the E.U.’s executive arm, said officials were monitoring flights from around two dozen countries that were ferrying migrants into Minsk — including Morocco, Syria, South Africa, Somalia, India, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Libya and Yemen. The European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, said the E.U. was stepping up “outreach with partner countries” to prevent migrants from coming to Belarus in the first place.
“Our urgent priority is to turn off the supply coming into Minsk airport,” she said in a tweet.
Travel agents in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq say they have contracts with agencies that charge about $1,300 per visa from Belarus diplomatic missions in the U.A.E. and Turkey.
“We have more business now from people leaving for emigration than for vacations,” said Sana Jamal, a travel agent in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah.
SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — Before the Belarus police pushed Hajar, 37, across the border into Lithuania this week, they punched him in the head, he said. But that was just the start of his ordeal.
On the Lithuanian side, the police called for a group of commandos who he said took him and his friends away and started hitting them with sticks and plastic cables and shocking them with stun guns. In a video call from Minsk, he pulled up his shirt to show deep bruises on his side and back.
“They said ‘You don’t have the right to come here to our country,’” he said, speaking in Kurdish through an interpreter. “They said ‘You make our country dirty.’”
Hajar, an Iraqi Kurd who is trying desperately to get to the European Union, asked that his surname not be published for fear of repercussions from Belarusian and Lithuanian authorities.
He said the commandos, clad in black and wearing masks, took the migrants’ phones and warned that they had taken video of the Kurds, who would receive a much worse beating if they returned.
Hajar limped back across the border and made his way back to Minsk to tend to his wounds in a budget hotel which he said was charging migrants $100 a night in exchange for not reporting them to the authorities for their expired visas.
Two days later, he said, the Belarus police again forced them to go to the border but he was too afraid to cross.
Hajar, who said he had spent $6,000 getting to Turkey and then Belarus, said he was fleeing a tribal dispute in Iraq that put his life in danger. A single father, he hopes to get to Britain to earn money to send back to his 14-year-old son and his sick mother.
He said he plans to try to cross the border again.
“I just want to cross even if I lose my life,” he said.
In the city of Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Reben Sirwan, a journalist, said he too had gone to Belarus, where he was shocked and beaten by Belarusian police officers as they deported him last week.
“On the stairs of the plane they hit me and took my phone because I was doing live reports,” he said.
Mr. Sirwan, 29, said he had received threats over his work in Kurdistan, and planned to apply for asylum in Belarus. But rather than hear his claim, the Belarusian authorities, he said, put him on a plane — not to Iraq but to Syria. In Syria, the police held him for four days before letting him return to Iraq, he said.
“Belarus, Poland and Lithuania are playing with people,” he said. “They move them up, down, left and right. They hurt them, beat them, steal their phones and take their money.”
Sangar Khaleel and Barzan Jabar contributed reporting.
Karwan Jabbar, 30, has a job and a house in a village near the city of Suleimaniya, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. What he doesn’t feel he has is a future.
So Mr. Jabbar borrowed money and put up the family home as collateral to raise the $13,000 he said he needs to get his family to Belarus. From there, he plans to make his way into the European Union.
“We are living in a country with no future,” said Mr. Jabbar, who makes the equivalent of $400 a month working in a car battery factory. The money isn’t enough to make ends meet. And for the poor, he said, there is no dignity in life in Iraq.
Among the migrants flying by the thousands into Belarus, in hopes of then moving westward into the E.U., the largest group are Iraqi Kurds. Many others are Syrian.
Mr. Jabbar is planning his second attempt. He went to Turkey two years ago. But standing on the shore of the Aegean, contemplating a sea crossing to Greece, he thought about his then-pregnant wife and the danger, and changed his mind.
Now he, his wife and their two young children — a five-year-old and his almost two-year-old brother — plan to fly to Belarus as soon as his passport and visa are ready.
He said he would take work as a cleaner if needed, if he made it to Europe, “as long as it’s a job that people respect.”
Abdullah al-Yousef, 24, a Syrian from the city of Idlib, arrived in Minsk earlier this week on a flight from Lebanon.
“I’m getting ready to move toward the border tomorrow morning,” he said by phone. “I do not know what is waiting for me.”
Mr. al-Yousef has a friend who had arrived at the border before him in his fourth attempt to get to the E.U. He said his hotel in the Belarusian capital is full of people from other countries including Lebanon and Yemen, all waiting to cross.
Mr. al-Yousef, a stone mason, said his trip cost about $8,000. He was planning to take a taxi to the border and use a GPS to navigate across in a group with three others. If he makes it, he will try to send for his wife and children.
“I really hope I make it to Germany,” he said. “I want to start a new life.”
Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting from Suleimaniya, Iraq.
Alarmed by the conflict over migrants coming from neighboring Belarus, Lithuania imposed a state of emergency on Wednesday covering its border zone and detention centers holding thousands of migrants.
The emergency measures, which allow military forces to be mobilized and suspend privacy and many other legal rights, were approved on Tuesday by the Lithuanian Parliament and went into effect at midnight.
The main flow of Middle Eastern migrants hoping to pass through Belarus and into the European Union has been toward Poland, which has posted thousands of troops at its border with Belarus. But in recent days, Lithuania — also an E.U. member — has also seen a new surge in illegal crossings.
Polish and E.U. officials say Belarus’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, is orchestrating the human tide, calling it a retaliatory attack against the bloc. Poland and Lithuania have given shelter to some of Mr. Lukashenko’s most vocal opponents, and the E.U. has imposed sanctions against Belarus that he wants lifted.
Relations between Europe and Belarus soured sharply last year after Mr. Lukashenko claimed an unlikely landslide victory in an election widely viewed as rigged and unleashed a brutal crackdown on his critics.
The emergency measures reinforced a mood of crisis along the European Union’s — and also NATO’s — eastern border with Belarus, a close political and military ally of Russia.
This summer, after more than 100 migrants made their way across the border from Belarus into Lithuania, the Lithuanian government stepped up efforts to slow the flow of people it said were being used as “hybrid weapons” against the European Union.
The authorities built a fence and lawmakers in Lithuania — which is a member of the European Union — passed a law fast-tracking asylum procedures to process and return migrants faster, and legalizing the detention of migrants for up to six months without a court order.
But the state of emergency that took effect Wednesday is the most sweeping edict of its kind since the nation declared its independence in 1990.
Under the new law, migrants in Lithuania are not allowed to communicate in writing or by telephone with anyone, except to contact the country’s authorities. Only residents and property owners are allowed within about three miles of the border, and the movement of vehicles in that zone is restricted.
“A state of emergency is an instrument that has never been used in our independent state’s practice,” Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said this week, highlighting the urgency of the situation. She said the decision to extend the measures will be reviewed in one month.
MOSCOW — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday, urging him to push Russia’s close ally Belarus to stop its “inhuman and unacceptable” actions at the Polish border, her spokesman said.
Mr. Putin told Ms. Merkel, the Kremlin indicated, that there was nothing he could do.
“The Russian president suggested that the problems that have arisen be discussed directly by representatives of European Union countries with Minsk,” the capital of Belarus, a Kremlin statement describing Ms. Merkel’s phone call said.
The public posturing by Berlin and Moscow over Ms. Merkel’s phone call to Mr. Putin highlighted how Russia continues to staunchly back Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the Belarusian strongman who violently put down an uprising against him last year.
By urging the West to talk directly to Mr. Lukashenko over the migration crisis that European officials say was created by Mr. Lukashenko to put pressure on Europe, the Kremlin was increasing its ally’s leverage in the crisis.
“Belarus has repeatedly, at the present stage at the borders, proposed holding consultations, negotiating, resolving these issues on the basis of international law,” Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said in a news conference in Moscow alongside his Belarusian counterpart.
In another show of unity, two nuclear-capable Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers flew along Belarus’s borders with Poland and Lithuania on Wednesday. Belarus’s defense ministry said the allied air patrol of the country’s western borders would now be a regular occurrence given “the emerging situation in the air as well as on the ground.”
But Belarusian officials continued to insist they were not at fault in the crisis. The country’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, castigated Poland for deploying thousands of soldiers “against crying women and children and not allowing them into Europe.”
“This is a violation of all norms,” Mr. Makei said alongside Mr. Lavrov. “The accusations that Belarus is allegedly organizing these flows are totally groundless.”
National borders and the people trying to cross them have all too often have been used as political weapons. And in Europe, memories of the last time it happened are recent — and raw.
In 2015, more than a million migrants fleeing war and conflict in the Middle East and Africa surged into Europe, spurring a backlash from anti-immigrant, nationalist parties that opposed what they characterized as an invasion of Islam. They railed against the European Union and warned that the welcome to migrants in Germany, Austria, Sweden and elsewhere threatened to open an unrelenting migrant tap.
But 2021 is not 2015. While the standoff on the border between Belarus and Poland evokes memories of what happened six years ago, the events are very different.
To begin with, Western officials say the current flow of Middle Eastern migrants toward the European Union has been orchestrated by an authoritarian leader, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, trying to exact revenge for E.U. sanctions.
In 2015, many of the migrants were fleeing conflict and civil war, in some cases abetted by unscrupulous smugglers and braving vast distances in flimsy boats and on foot. But this time, many of the migrants reaching the Polish border arrived in Belarus aboard airliners, after paying as much as $3,000 to get visas to Belarus and airfare through Turkey or the United Arab Emirates.
The arrival of the migrants at the eastern border of Poland is particularly inciting for the country’s governing, far-right Law and Justice party, which came to power in 2015, at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, running on a campaign that inspired choruses of “Poland for Poles.”
The number of migrants involved is small compared with the 2015 wave, but Polish officials are treating the situation like a full-blown crisis and a danger to national sovereignty. The party’s anti-immigrant sentiment has echoes in Europe’s previous migration crisis.
In 2015, the then-new right-wing government in Denmark took out advertisements in the Lebanese news media warning refugees not to come, and stressing that the government had tightened immigration laws.
In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party, since renamed the National Rally, suggested that migrants brought filth, crime, poverty and Islamic terrorism.
And Hungary built a razor-wire fence along the border with Serbia, to the south, to try to stanch the flow of people moving through the Balkans. Two years later, the country began detaining asylum seekers in guarded and enclosed camps on the country’s southern border. Human rights advocates called it a reckless breach of international law.
The European Union struck a deal with Turkey to house millions of refugees rather than allow them to continue on to Europe, in return for aid. But that, too, has become a political cudgel, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested many times, when he is not getting what he wants from the E.U., that he could unleash a new migrant crisis on Europe.
The original story was published on Oct. 6, 2021.
ALONG THE EASTERN POLAND BORDER — The father had walked in circles in the rain-drenched Polish forest, cradling his sick daughter, delirious after three days with barely any food or water as temperatures dipped toward freezing. He was soaked, shivering and facing a terrible choice.
His daughter, 2, has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. He had wrapped her in a thin coat to protect her from the cold, and she needed urgent medical attention. The father, an Iraqi Kurd who gave his name as Karwan, had guided his family across the border from Belarus but was now in a forested area patrolled by Polish soldiers and border guards.
The choice for the father was pitiless: seeking medical help would mean a return to Belarus and the end of his family’s desperate journey to Europe.
“I can call for an ambulance for you, but border guards will come with it,” Piotr Bystrianin, a Polish activist who arrived to help, told the family, who said they wanted to request asylum in Poland. He had found them after hours of searching in the dark, alerted to their whereabouts by a locator pin sent by cellphone.
Karwan’s family had stumbled into a geopolitical fight between Belarus and Poland that has escalated into a man-made humanitarian disaster for Europe. At least five people who crossed illegally into Poland have died in recent weeks, some of hypothermia and exhaustion, according to Polish officials, and three nearly drowned in a Polish swamp.
“Many more will die as weather conditions get worse,” Mr. Bystrianin said. “Our government treats these people worse than criminals, who get taken to prison, as if they are not human beings, just rubbish to be thrown away. What is the plan — to get people killed?”