Posted on November 10, 2021

West Accuses Belarus of Orchestrating Migrant Crisis at Polish Border

Anton Troianovski, New York Times, November 9, 2021

Poland has massed thousands of troops on its border with Belarus to keep out Middle Eastern migrants who have set up camp there, as Western officials accuse Belarus’s leader of intentionally trying to create a new migrant crisis in Europe.

The standoff along the razor-wire fence separating the two countries has intensified a long-simmering confrontation between Belarus, a repressive former Soviet republic, and the European Union, which includes Poland.

Western officials say that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus is allowing asylum seekers from the Middle East into his country by the thousands and then funneling them westward toward Poland and the E.U., and has escalated that strategy this week. They say he is retaliating against sanctions imposed after his disputed 2020 election victory.

The sharp increase in tensions has rattled European officials, with images of desperate migrants evoking the refugee crisis of 2015. The confrontation with Belarus, a close Russian ally, also raises new security concerns.

E.U. leaders are scrambling to strike a balance between protecting the bloc’s external borders and preventing a worsening humanitarian crisis among the migrants camped along the edge of a forest in freezing weather.

On Tuesday, Polish authorities said, at least 3,000 people who hoped to enter the European Union were gathered near the Kuznica border crossing, near the Belarusian city of Grodno. Hundreds could be seen camped just feet away from the border fence in video footage provided by both sides. In response to the growing numbers, Poland increased its forces in the area to more than 17,000 soldiers, border guards and police, Polish officials said.

“This is a hybrid action carried out by the Belarusian regime against Poland and the E.U.,” said President Andrzej Duda of Poland, describing an operation that he said was orchestrated by Belarusian security forces to bring thousands of migrants into the forest near the border. “These are just aggressive actions that we have to resist.”


Poland’s government recently passed legislation legalizing pushbacks, which has been criticized by human rights groups and is being analyzed by the European Commission. For years, the nationalist governing party has cast migration from the Middle East as a threat to Polish culture and sovereignty.

Still, a show of support for Poland from E.U. countries and top officials suggested that Europe’s security concerns were trumping human rights.

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, said he spoke with Mr. Duda and pledged the alliance’s “solidarity.” Peter Stano, a spokesman for the E.U.’s executive arm, said Mr. Lukashenko was behaving like “a gangster” and that unspecified additional sanctions against Belarus were on their way.

But it did not appear that Mr. Lukashenko, an autocrat who has ruled his country since 1994, was prepared to change course. His government denies creating a refugee crisis, but he has hinted for months that he could do just that. In May, he warned the West: “We stopped drugs and migrants for you — now you’ll have to eat them and catch them yourselves.”

Until recently, migrants were scattered the length of the border, but now Belarusian authorities are collecting them at the Kuznica crossing, said Anna Alboth of the Minority Rights Group in Poland.


E.U. officials said they were analyzing air traffic to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, as potential evidence that Mr. Lukashenko 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.


The E.U.’s standoff with Mr. Lukashenko has been intensifying ever since he crushed street protests against election fraud last year. {snip}