A Crisis the West Says Belarus Engineered Turns Dire for Migrants
WARSAW — As the volatile standoff over migrants along the European Union’s eastern flank grew more precarious on Thursday, with Polish news media reporting that a 14-year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq had frozen to death on the Belarus side of the frontier, the language from political leaders on either side of the razor wire ratcheted up.
In Poland, the government’s hard-line policy and its refusal to allow aid workers or even church doctors near the frontier has played well with its right-wing base among Polish nationalists, who on Thursday hold an annual march through the center of Warsaw to celebrate Independence Day.
In a statement posted Thursday on Facebook, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland compared events on Thursday to those that cost Poland its statehood more than a century ago. While stressing that the situation now “is not so dramatic,” he said: “What we are dealing with is a new type of war. This is a war in which civilians and media messages are the ammunition.”
Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Belarus’s autocratic leader, reeled off threats to his country’s western neighbors even as the Kremlin, Mr. Lukashenko’s main benefactor, said it was working to resolve the situation.
Mr. Lukashenko told government officials in a televised meeting on Thursday that he had agreed with Russia on patrols by nuclear-capable bombers of the country’s western borders. He also said he could shut down the flow of a major pipeline carrying natural gas from Russia to Western Europe via Belarus if the West escalated sanctions.
“We are warning Europe, and yet they threaten to close the border,” Mr. Lukashenko said, according to the Belarusian state news agency. “What if we close off the natural gas headed there? I would recommend the leadership of Poland, the Lithuanians and other brainless people to think before they speak.”
With temperatures dropping below freezing along the Belarusian border with Poland and Lithuania, both members of the European bloc, alarm is growing among aid workers that the number of deaths from exposure will increase sharply. So far, eight people have died, officials say, but the real number could be much higher.
With soldiers sealing off the border zone from news media and aid workers, the reported death of the 14-year-old could not be confirmed. The boy’s body, according to a report by OKO.press, had been taken away overnight by Belarusian security services.
Poland and Belarus have both barred journalists from entering the border area and are locked in an escalating information war, each blaming the other for a deepening crisis fed by inflammatory statements about the risk of armed conflict.
In a sign of escalating tension, Poland’s defense ministry on Thursday reported that its soldiers in the frontier area of Białowieza had fired warning shots into the air the previous day after “a group of several hundred migrants attempted to cross the border by force.” The migrants, the ministry said, threw objects at the soldiers and then tried to destroy a border fence.
Polish border guards said Thursday that 150 migrants had tried to cross the border from Belarus en masse overnight.
Polish officials warned of a possible attempt to “storm” the frontier Thursday evening, noting that Independence Day events scheduled across Poland had spread the security services thin, a situation that could encourage Belarus to push a new wave of people to the border.
As the border crisis along the European Union’s eastern flank has intensified, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus has once again turned to his most reliable patron and supporter: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The two have met in person at least five times this year, and Moscow has been steadfast despite a storm of criticism from Western leaders.
Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, said on Thursday that Russia was doing all it could to resolve the situation, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. But he also warned of the possibility of a military escalation, given the presence of troops on both sides.
“Indeed, the rise in tensions on this border where highly armed people — meaning the military — are present on both sides is a matter of utmost concern to all sober-thinking people in Europe,” Mr. Peskov told reporters.
But it was not clear what, if anything, Russia was doing to resolve a crisis that has escalated the tensions between Mr. Lukashenko and the European Union to their highest level yet since the Belarusian strongman claimed a victory in a broadly disputed election last year.
To Mr. Putin, the crisis appears to be an opportunity to force European governments — many of which claim that Mr. Lukashenko is an illegitimate leader — to negotiate directly with the Belarusian ruler.
“Russia has nothing to do with what’s happening on the border between Belarus and Poland,” Mr. Peskov said.
Underscoring Russia’s support, Russian strategic bombers conducted exercises with Belarusian forces for the second day in a row on Thursday, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said.
“We must constantly monitor the situation on the border,” Mr. Lukashenko said. “Yes, these are bombers that are able to carry nuclear weapons. But we have no other choice.”
As tens of thousands of far-right marchers took to the streets on Thursday to commemorate Poland’s recovery of national sovereignty at the end of World War I, the tensions on the border with Belarus threatened to inflame passions that have in previous years led to ugly scenes and clashes with the police and other demonstrators.
It is a day meant to evoke unity and solidarity, but in recent years, Polish Independence Day has more often served to underscore the divisions that have been tearing at the nation.
In downtown Warsaw, demonstrators started their march by lighting red flares and singing the national anthem. A small group of young men trampled a rainbow flag outside a subway station.
This year’s march comes as migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere have gathered at the border with Belarus, trying to make their way into Poland, an E.U. nation — a crisis Western officials say the leader of Belarus has orchestrated.
The Polish government, led by Law and Justice, a conservative nationalist party, has used the crisis to rally support within the European Union, with which its relations had previously been badly strained by arguments over the rule of law, L.G.B.T. rights and other issues.
But the underlying tensions with the bloc remain.
And Independence Day has long been a flash point between feuding political groups within Poland.
The opposition had planned to hold its own rival march, but a women’s group organizing that event announced on Wednesday that it had decided to cancel it to avoid the risk of a violent confrontation with the nationalists. It accused the government, which endorsed the nationalists’ march despite court orders prohibiting it, of openly siding with “neo-fascists.”
In 2017, demonstrations by right-wing groups involved violent clashes with the police and made international headlines when demonstrators chanted, “Pure Poland, white Poland,” and “Refugees, get out!”
A year later, leaders from Poland’s ruling party joined with far-right groups.
As the march became a point of friction with the local government in Warsaw, led by a liberal opposition party, city authorities challenged the registration of the far-right march in court and won both the first case and an appeal.
Zbigniew Ziobro, the country’s prosecutor general and also the justice minister, said the court rulings were wrong and “restricted the constitutional freedom of assembly.”
The head of the Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression said he had given the march formal status this week, allowing it to move ahead.
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.”
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.
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.