By Kacper Pempel, Joanna Plucinska, Sabine Siebold and Andrius Sytas
SOKOLKA, Poland – Hundreds of migrants shivered in freezing temperatures and huddled round campfires on the Belarusian border with Poland on Tuesday in front of razor wire fences and lines of Polish border guards blocking their entry into the European Union.
The EU promised more sanctions on Belarus and accused President Alexander Lukashenko’s government of using the migrants as political pawns and putting lives at risk, in what it branded “gangster-style” behavior.
Polish authorities were braced for further clashes after some migrants used logs, spades and other implements on Monday to try to break down a border fence, escalating a months-long crisis in which at least seven migrants have died.
Poland and other EU member states accuse Belarus of encouraging illegal migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa to cross the border into the EU in revenge for sanctions already slapped on Minsk over human rights abuses.
“The Belarusian regime is attacking the Polish border, the EU, in an unparalleled manner,” Polish President Andrzej Duda told a news conference in Warsaw.
“We currently have a camp of migrants who are blocked from the Belarusian side. There are about 1,000 people there, mostly young men. These are aggressive actions that we must repel, fulfilling our obligations as a member of the European Union.”
Lukashenko’s government, which is backed by Russia, denies engineering the migrant crisis and blames Europe and the United States for the plight of the people stranded at the border.
Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the situation by phone and expressed concern over the build-up of Polish troops at the border, the Belarusian state news agency Belta reported on Tuesday.
“To conduct a war with these unfortunate people on the border of Poland with Belarus and move forward columns of tanks – it’s clear this is either a training exercise or it’s blackmail,” Lukashenko said in later televised comments.
“We will calmly stand up to this,” he added.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested the EU provide Belarus with financial assistance to stop the migrant flows, referencing an earlier deal with Turkey.
The European Commission said Belarus was illegally offering migrants easy entrance into the EU via its territory.
“This is part of the inhuman and really gangster-style approach of the Lukashenko regime that he is lying to people, he is misusing people, misleading them, and bringing them to Belarus under the false promise of having easy entry into the EU,” a Commission spokesperson said.
Around 2,000 migrants have gathered at the border and are trying to enter the EU, the Commission said, adding that the bloc was ready to assist Poland at short notice if asked.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR also called for an end to the use of vulnerable people as political pawns.
EU governments partially suspended a visa facilitation deal for Belarusian officials.
A spokesman for Poland’s special services, Stanislaw Zaryn, said Belarusian security personnel were “firing empty shots into the air, simulating dangerous events”, while also providing tools to the migrants to help them destroy the border fence.
Poland’s Border Guard said it registered 309 illegal attempts to breach the frontier on Monday and 17 people, mainly Iraqis, were detained.
In Lithuania, which may soon declare a state of emergency on its border with Belarus, four army trucks with armed soldiers were seen arriving at the Pertakas border guard headquarters after reports that hundreds of migrants were moving to the area.
The crisis erupted after Western powers slapped sanctions on Belarus over its violent crackdown on mass street protests that were sparked by Lukashenko’s claim of victory in a presidential election in 2020.
His opponents say the vote was rigged, which he denies.
Humanitarian groups accuse Poland’s ruling nationalists of violating the international right to asylum by pushing the migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Poland says its actions are legal.
A poll by IBRiS for Polish daily Rzeczpospolita this week showed some 55% of Poles believe migrants who have illegally crossed the border should be pushed back.