LONDON — Poland has threatened Belarus with further economic sanctions and the closure of its border to all freight and rail traffic, as thousands of migrants continue to try to cross the frontier. The European Union accuses Belarus of creating a humanitarian crisis by ferrying migrants to the border, in retaliation for EU sanctions imposed over last year’s rigged election.
Facing off across the frontier, Polish border guards filmed this footage Tuesday night, purportedly showing Belarusian security forces next to a section of broken border fence.
Poland’s prime minister said Wednesday he was ready to escalate the response to what he called a political crisis triggered by Belarus — using innocent people as “human shields.”
“We want to relieve this tension, but if there is an escalation by the other side, the Belarusian side, we are ready to go, unfortunately, up on this ‘escalation ladder.’ For example, [imposing] economic sanctions, border closure, closing border crossings for freight and rail traffic,” he said.
The EU said Tuesday it is preparing emergency legal measures on migrant asylum and return procedures.
“The aim is to support member states to set up the right processes, to manage irregular arrivals in a swift and orderly way, in line with fundamental rights,” she said.
Tensions have eased in recent days after Belarus moved some migrants away from the border. Still, hundreds remain stuck in camps in freezing conditions. Several migrants have already died attempting the crossing.
“To Poland, no have way. To Belarus, no have a way. We can’t go anywhere. We stay here until Europe accepts us,” says Diyar, a migrant from Iraq.
A report from Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with dozens of migrants, details how Belarusian forces cut the razor wire fence to help the migrants cross into Poland, where they are usually picked up by Polish border guards.
“They pleaded with the Polish border guards for asylum, for international protection. And if a person does that then it is the responsibility of state authorities to process these claims. Now what the people told me is that none of this happens. Rather, they are being put in vans or cars and then Polish border guards are driving them to specific locations at the border with Belarus where they force them to cross through the fence and go back to the Belarusian side,” says Lydia Gall from Human Rights Watch.
The migrants say they are then held in open air camps on the Belarusian side of the border.
“They are not provided with food or water, they are quite often violently abused by the border guards, they are extorted for money. They will then march larger groups of people back towards the Polish fence where they will coerce them to go back into Poland. And so that’s when you have these so-called ‘ping-pong’ pushbacks,” says Lydia Gall.
Poland denies breaking any asylum laws. Belarus also denies its border guards have committed abuses.
Among the latest casualties of the crisis — an unborn child — miscarried by his mother as the family crossed the border. His tiny coffin was buried Tuesday in a Muslim Tatar cemetery close to the border in Poland.