“It’s totally inhumane,” said Polish parliamentarian Franciszek Sterczewski, who was filmed attempting to make a dash past border guards with a bag of supplies last week during his eight-day stay in a tent there.
He called it just the most visible “tip of the iceberg” in a battle over migration on Europe’s eastern edge that has seen vulnerable asylum seekers ping-ponged between borders.
On Thursday, Polish President Andrzej Duda declared a state of emergency covering 183 towns and villages in two provinces neighboring Belarus, the first time such powers have been used since the fall of Communism. The measure limits access to the border region to those not authorized by the government.
It comes as Belarus’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, chafing from European Union sanctions, is accused of retaliating by opening routes for thousands of migrants to enter the bloc. Lithuania, which also neighbors Belarus and has accused Lukashenko of weaponizing refugees in a “hybrid attack,” has already erected barbed wire fencing and beefed up its border guards amid a surge in attempted entries.
Poland, led by the populist Law and Justice party that espouses a hard-line anti-immigrant stance, says Lukashenko has been using similar tactics on its border, registering 3,500 attempts by migrants to cross from Belarus since early August — compared to zero in the same period a year ago.
Amnesty International raised concerns Thursday that the “state of emergency” will mean “serious risks” for asylum seekers attempting to reach Poland and exacerbate the conditions for the 32 Afghans that it says are in a “dire situation.” It says they have been denied adequate access to food and drinking water — an accusation Polish authorities deny.
Separately, a 5-year-old Afghan who was evacuated from the country by Poland at the request of the British government died Thursday after eating poisonous mushrooms while staying at a refugee center near Warsaw. His 6-year-old brother remains in critical condition.
As rights groups have raised concerns about the health of the 32 Afghans in recent weeks, their plight drew gaggles of supporters, rights groups and media to the border.
Sterczewski and human rights groups say the aim of the emergency measures is to cut off access to the refugees amid the growing publicity and allow the asylum seekers to be turned back without witnesses.
The order will limit journalists, lawyers and human rights activists from entering a two-mile stretch of land along the 261-mile border.
“It’s only to hide the illegal activities of our forces,” Sterczewski said. Poland says that the group of Afghans are still on Belarus’s territory, and it’s up to Belarus . . . to give them protection.
As they were forced to decamp and leave the area due to the state of emergency Thursday night, Fundacja Ocalenie, a Polish organization that has been monitoring the plight of the Afghans, explained what was happening to the Afghans over the police cordons using a loudspeaker.
“We lack words to describe the meanness of the Polish authorities,” the group wrote on Twitter. “But we had to find the words to tell the people we are fighting for that we must leave them today. We also said that we will not stop fighting for them.”
Kalina Czwarnóg, a Fundacja Ocalenie board member who spent two weeks camped at the border, said their activists had initially been able to speak with the asylum seekers who say they left Afghanistan and traveled by truck to Belarus, a journey of around 25 days.
They spent around 11 days sleeping rough on the border after being blocked from entering Poland before Fundacja Ocalenie arrived and brought them around half a dozen tents, Czwarnóg said.
There are particular concerns about the health of one of the older women who has problems with her lungs and kidney, she said.
In addition to concerns about adequate food and drinking water, they don’t have access to bathrooms, Czwarnóg added.
The United Nations’ refugee agency last month called on Poland to provide the group stranded at the border access to its territory, legal assistance and support.
But they have remained cordoned off, with police pushing back their supporters to a distance of a few hundred yards, reducing communication to loudspeakers on one side and shouting and hand signals on the other. Poland has said that with the rising numbers of crossings, it will construct an eight-foot fence along the border with Belarus.
Poland’s decision to bring in a state of emergency was taken “in connection with the particular threat to the security of citizens and public order, related to the current situation on the state border of the Republic of Poland with the Republic of Belarus,” Duda’s press office said.
In a television interview Thursday, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski described the situation on the border as “very tense” and said that “new instruments” were needed to deal with it, “as well as a certain freedom of action for the officers who are on the border so that they can act effectively.”
The numbers of arrivals are a trickle compared to those during the 2015 migrant crisis, when more than a million, largely Syrian, refugees sought refuge in Germany alone.
They are also coming to a changed Europe, with new border fortifications and less-than-welcoming rhetoric from many a European politician. Refugee advocates say that the tiny proportion of those displaced following the current upheaval in Afghanistan deserve to have their asylum cases heard.
The border crisis followed an E.U. decision to impose sanctions against Belarus over its violent crackdown on protests after the disputed 2020 election.
In June, Lukashenko warned that Belarus would stop border controls on migrants headed to Europe, drugs and even nuclear material, accusing Europe of attempting to engineer regime change.
In 2020, 74 illegal migrants crossed from Belarus to Lithuania. By early August this year, more than 4,100 migrants had arrived.
Lithuania has also started pushing migrants back into Belarus and announced plans to send illegal migrants back to Iraq.
European leaders have accused Belarus of orchestrating the crisis, encouraging migrants to come and ensuring they were swiftly ushered to the border, a claim denied Thursday by Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
“They’re saying in the West nowadays that Belarus unleashed a hybrid war on the European Union. It’s ridiculous to hear. Belarus, of 10 million [population], unleashed a hybrid war on the 500-million European Union,” he said, according to AP.
Former Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius on Thursday posted a video filmed by Lithuanian border guards that he said “proves the brutal, audacious treatment of migrants by Belarus officials. They have been lured into the country as tourists and are now forcefully being pushed into EU territory. They do realize that scam too late,” he tweeted.
The Belarusian border guards are shown with riot shields pressing against a group of migrants, shouting “Go, go, go!” The sounds of banging on riot shields can be heard.
In response, Belarus’s border guards released their own video Thursday claiming it showed Lithuania was driving migrants to the border and pushing them into Belarus.
Despite Belarusian denials, evidence has emerged suggesting Belarus both encouraged the flow of migrants and ushered them to the border.
Last month, video from the E.U. borders agency Frontex released by Lithuania appeared to show a chunky Belarusian border guard’s SUV escorting a group of migrants to the border at night. A joint investigation by Der Spiegel and independent investigative outlet the Dossier Center published documents indicating that migrants’ visas were issued by a Belarusian state-owned company.
According to their report, Tsentrkurort, a state travel company within the presidential administration, helped initiate the migrant flow. The company facilitated the visas, usually giving hunting tours as the reason for travel.
Dixon reported from Moscow. Dariusz Kalan in Warsaw contributed.