Live Updates: Belarus Moves Hundreds of Migrants Away From Border Checkpoint
Polish authorities warned that the border crisis could stretch on for months, even as Belarusian forces moved migrants to a warehouse, offering desperate families their first humanitarian aid in weeks.,
Migrants lining up for tea from the Belarusian Red Cross and Emergency Ministries at a logistics center close to the Belarus-Polish border at Bruzgi on Wednesday.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times
BRUZGI, Belarus — The Belarusian authorities moved Wednesday to ease pressure along the country’s frontier with Poland, the morning after the main border crossing erupted in violence — with desperate migrants hurling stones at Polish border guards who responded with tear gas and blasts from water cannons.
Hundreds of migrants are now being sheltered in a sprawling red brick warehouse a few hundred yards from the border crossing, a much needed bit of relief for scores of families who have spent weeks camped in freezing and fetid fields with little more than the clothes on their backs.
“Thank you Belarus. Thank you Belarus,” said Rebas Ali, 28. “Beautiful Belarus.”
Western officials have called the migrant crisis a “hybrid war” engineered by the Belarusian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to punish Poland for sheltering some of his most outspoken opponents and to pressure the European Union into lifting sanctions on his country.
But if it is a battle where migrants are used as pawns, it is also an information war. On Wednesday, the Belarusians sought to portray themselves as the humanitarians.
Reporters from international news organizations, including The New York Times, were invited to witness the squalor and desperation at the border. Belarus officials insist that the humanitarian catastrophe has been created by the European Union’s refusal to abide by international law and give people fleeing war and despair the right to at least apply for asylum once they enter Poland, a member of the bloc.
Poland, eager to keep despair out of the public eye, has sealed off its side of the border, barring aid workers, journalists and even doctors. On Tuesday, hundreds of migrants tried to rush into Poland. Polish border forces used water cannons and tear gas to drive them back.
After the melee, the nationalist governing party in Poland sought to portray it as a great victory.
“Thank you to the soldiers for stopping today’s assault,” Mariusz Blaszczak, the minister of defense, tweeted on Tuesday. “Poland is still safe. All soldiers currently serving on the border will receive special financial rewards.”
He said that while the pressure at the main crossing eased overnight, there were attempts to cross at multiple other points along the 250-mile border.
“The situation at the Belarusian border will not be resolved quickly,” the defense minister said on Wednesday in an interview with the Polish Radio One, the national broadcaster. “We have to prepare for months, if not years.”
The total number of migrants at the border is estimated between 2,000 and 4,000, many of them from Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Poland has now deployed more than 15,000 soldiers, joining scores of border guards and police officers.
Across the border, the number of Belarusian security forces deployed has not been made public. But scores stood guard outside the warehouse, their faces covered by black balaclavas. As the crisis escalated, migrants reported being beaten by Belarusian soldiers and being directed to different areas along the Polish border.
Even as hundreds of people were grateful for a warm meal and children were given milk and juice, many in the warehouses voiced uncertainty about what would happen next.
Balia Ahmed, 31, was in the warehouse with two children — 8 and 10 — and her husband. She said she was very nervous about being there for fear of being deported, but felt she had no other choice.
“My kids were freezing and about to die,” she said.
The green light in the window was easy to spot from the main road in Michalowo, a Polish town some 15 miles from the Belarusian border, in an area that in recent months saw thousands of asylum seekers trapped on their way to the European Union.
“It means that my house is a safe place for migrants to ask for help,” said Maria Ancipuk, a resident and the head of the City Council.
Ms. Ancipuk felt she had to act after a news report of a group of Yazidi children who were pushed back by border guards from her town into the freezing forest on the Belarusian side. “You just don’t forget such things,” she said, her voice trembling and her eyes full of tears. “I told myself: I will do everything so it would not happen here again.”
The European Union has accused the dictator of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, of funneling asylum seekers from the Middle East through his country into Poland, as a retaliation against sanctions imposed by the bloc on his regime after the disputed 2020 election and the following crackdown of the opposition.
As the standoff escalated in recent days, with clashes between the Polish authorities and migrants incited by the Belarusian police to breach the heavily guarded frontier, those caught in the middle have had to count on support from an unofficial network of local residents, activists from all over Poland and volunteer medics spread across the border area.
Only those who manage to lodge an asylum application receive some form of state support. Help from locals is even more crucial inside a two-mile-wide buffer zone surrounding the border, which has been closed off by the Polish authorities to all nonresidents, including journalists, doctors and charities.
But most helpers prefer not to publicize their activities. “There are only a few of us that are actively helping,” said Roman, a resident who asked to be identified by only his first name for fear of repercussions from the authorities and local far-right groups. “The majority remains silent.”
So far, putting out green lights as a sign for migrants has been largely symbolic, with very few of them aware of it. But it is as much a symbol for asylum seekers as it is for her neighbors, Ms Ancipuk said.
“People are scared of doing it,” said Ms. Ancipuk. “As soon as I put the light in my window, I started getting hate messages,” she said. “But I won’t be intimidated.”
The confrontation along the border of Poland and Belarus is many things — a humanitarian crisis in the making, a geopolitical standoff and another testament to the hardships of migration.
But it has also become a battle to control the narrative.
Belarus — blamed by the West for luring migrants to the country and engineering the crisis — is eager for the world to see the situation it has created. Poland, which has mobilized to block the migrants, is trying to restrict media coverage, which led to the detention on Tuesday of a New York Times photographer.
Poland’s nationalist government is prohibiting journalists from working in a ‘red zone’ border area where migrants are attempting to cross into the country from Belarus. It has also mobilized more than 15,000 soldiers, police officers and border agents in what leaders portray as a sweeping effort to keep the country safe.
On Tuesday evening, the Times photographer, Maciek Nabrdalik, and two colleagues were trying to document the militarization of the eastern frontier when they were detained by Polish soldiers for more than an hour. They were handcuffed, their cameras were inspected and their car was searched.
For more than a week, Mr. Nabrdalik, had been driving along the border to document the buildup, and while police officers had often stopped him, asking for identification, they had allowed him to keep working as long as he stayed clear of the “red zone.” At dusk on Tuesday, the three photographers pulled up to a military encampment outside the tiny village of Wiejki, only a few miles from the border.
“It is close to the restricted zone but outside the zone,” Mr. Nabrdalik said. “We came to the gate and introduced ourselves and told them we would take photographs outside and just wanted to give them a heads up. This is completely legal in Poland.”
As the photographers prepared to leave, more than dozen armed soldiers surrounded them, ordered them to empty their pockets and remove their coats in the frigid weather, and then handcuffed them. Soldiers them emptied Mr. Nabrdalik’s car and inspected their cameras.
“I told them listen, we are journalists, what they are doing now is breaking the law in Poland,” Mr. Nabrdalik said.
The police arrived more than an hour later and the tone changed, Mr. Nabrdalik said. Police officers offered a flashlight to help them collect their belongings from the side of the road and, eventually, they were allowed to drive away.
On Wednesday, the Polish Press Agency, the national news agency, released a statement condemning what it called an “attack” on photojournalists. Poland’s Ministry of Defense posted a statement on Twitter saying that the detention of the photographers was not an “attack” but a legitimate operation by soldiers in a tense environment.
“It should be remembered that soldiers serve in conditions of escalating tensions and are aware of the increasing use of methods of hybrid combat,” the ministry said. “We all need to be aware of how to act in an emergency.”
A military camp outside the village of Wiejki, only a few miles from the border.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
The sudden surge of migrants to Belarus from the Middle East that is now the focus of a political crisis in Europe was hardly an accident.
The government of Belarus loosened its visa rules in August, Iraqi travel agents said, making a flight to the country a more palatable journey to Europe than the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.
It also increased flights by the state-owned airline, European officials said. And according to Latvia’s defense minister, Artis Pabriks, Belarusian intelligence agents then actively helped funnel migrants from the capital, Minsk, to the frontiers with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Several Iraqi migrants said that Belarusian security forces had given them directions on how to cross into European Union countries, even handing out wire cutters and axes to cut through border fences.
European leaders have characterized the moves as a cynical ploy by Belarus’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to “weaponize” migrants in an effort to punish European countries for harboring his opponents and imposing sanctions.
Now, thousands of people are stranded or hiding along the border in freezing conditions, not allowed in the European Union countries nor, circumstances are making clear, wanted by Belarus, the country that lured them there in the first place.
The human tide has turned cities like Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, into bustling ports of departure for migrants eager to take an expensive and risky journey for the chance of a better life in Europe.
Thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have traveled to Belarus in hopes of reaching the European Union, but have been prevented by Poland and Lithuania, E.U. member countries, from entering. They are camped along the border with Poland, stranded in the bitter cold.
European Union foreign ministers have adopted new sanctions on the government of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the Belarus leader, who has already been sanctioned for fraud in claiming a sweeping re-election victory in August and for a subsequent harsh suppression of dissent.
The new sanctions, approved by European governments on Monday, would target “individuals and entities organizing or contributing to activities by the Lukashenko regime that facilitate illegal crossing of the E.U.’s external borders,” according to the European Commission, the bloc’s executive bureaucracy.
A list of those to be hit by asset freezes and travel bans under the new sanctions is expected to be finalized in coming days. Likely to be targeted are more than two dozen Belarusian officials; a Syrian airline, Cham Wings, for having transported migrants to Belarus; the Hotel Minsk in the Belarus capital, for housing migrants; and possibly Minsk airport, according to E.U. officials.
“Today’s decision reflects the determination by the European Union to stand up to the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes,” said the E.U. foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles. “We are pushing back on this inhuman and illegal practice.”
The European Union has called Mr. Lukashenko’s efforts “a hybrid attack,” saying that he has encouraged migrants to fly into Belarus from countries like Syria and Iraq with the express purpose of sending them on to the European Union in retaliation for the earlier sanctions.
The new sanctions will have to undergo legal vetting by the European Commission before being implemented and coordinated with Britain, Canada and the United States, which could take several weeks.
The growing numbers of migrants at the Kuznica-Bruzgi border crossing, which has raised fears of further tragedy and confrontation between the two governments, appeared to be a response by Mr. Lukashenko to the meeting of the E.U. foreign ministers. Mr. Lukashenko has vowed to retaliate against fresh sanctions, though his main supporter, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, has chastised him for threatening to cut off supplies of the Russian natural gas that flows through his country to Europe.