Zanyar Karimi knows little about the geopolitics that left him camped at the Poland-Belarus border Thursday night, unable to go forward or backward. But he did know that it was cold enough, as overnight temperatures lingered close to zero, that some among the crowd of about 3,000 asylum-seekers could die.
“We don’t have any blankets, some of us don’t have coats. We don’t have any more food or water. You know hunger is the main cause of freezing,” said the 26-year-old Iranian-born Kurd. He travelled to Belarus more than a month ago after seeing an advertisement on Facebook that promised it was the safest way to reach Europe.
It hasn’t been safe. At least 10 people have died, according to aid organizations, since the refugees hoping to reach Europe began arriving in Belarus over the summer. Poland has reported some 33,000 illegal attempts to cross its border this year, more than half of which occurred in October. An 11th person – a 14-year-old boy – died Thursday on the Belarusian side of the border, aid groups say.
Mr. Karimi, who worked as a trader carrying goods on his back between Iran and Iraq, says he paid US$3,750 in September for a package that included a Belarusian visa, a flight and a four-day hotel stay in Minsk. Mr. Karimi believed that after his stay in the Belarusian capital, he would be able to travel freely to Germany or anywhere else in the European Union.
Senior International Correspondent Mark MacKinnon reports from near the border of Poland and Belarus where thousands of asylum seekers are being driven by Belarusian security forces.
The Globe and Mail
Mr. Karimi and the others camped at the closed Kuznica border crossing have now been disabused of such notions. The would-be refugees are outnumbered by some 15,000 Polish border guards and soldiers deployed behind a razor-wire fence on the far side of the frontier. Mr. Karimi communicated with The Globe and Mail in a series of WhatsApp messages after verifying his location with photographs.
He says he has tried to cross the border on five separate occasions, and made it into Poland twice, only to be pushed back into Belarus each time. Belarusian soldiers, meanwhile, prevent the refugees from leaving the border area.
It’s a standoff that’s dangerous for more than just those trapped at the frigid frontier. Belarus, which opened the refugee route with the apparent intent of creating a fresh migration crisis inside the European Union, is part of a borderless “union state” with its powerful neighbour Russia.
Poland and its allies accuse Alexander Lukashenko’s autocratic regime of creating the crisis to punish Poland and neighbouring Lithuania – which is also seeing a surge in attempted illegal border crossings – for their support of the democratic opposition inside Belarus.
An unprecedented 55 planes a week are now landing in Minsk from Middle Eastern destinations, and travel agents in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere have for weeks been advertising travelling to Belarus as a back door into the EU.
Thursday was also marked by spiking rhetoric on both sides, after Polish border guards reported being pelted with stones the previous night as the crowd of asylum-seekers tried to use logs to break through the barbed border fence.
NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia warned in a joint statement that the “hybrid attack” being carried out by Belarus “increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents that could also spill over into the military domain.” Ukraine, which is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said it was moving some 8,500 troops to reinforce its own border with Belarus.
The EU said it was preparing a fresh round of sanctions targeting individuals and companies – including any airlines found to be knowingly helping bring Europe-bound migrants to Minsk. Mr. Lukashenko and most of his inner circle have been targeted by EU, U.S. and Canadian sanctions since he claimed victory in a fraudulent election last year.
The autocrat warned Thursday that his regime could respond to any new sanctions by refusing to transit Russian gas to Europe. “We provide heat to Europe,” Mr. Lukashenko said, according to the official Belta wire service. “Therefore, I would recommend the leadership of Poland, Lithuania and other brainless folk to think hard before opening [their] mouth.”
Russia, meanwhile, flew a pair of Tu-160 strategic bombers over western Belarus as part of joint exercises that Russia’s Defence Ministry said were aimed at “ensuring military security of the Union State.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to discuss the crisis for the second time in as many days.
Poland declared a state of emergency two months ago along its entire border with Belarus, which prevents anyone but local residents from legally approaching the frontier. The ban includes journalists – and critical Polish MPs – leading to accusations that the Polish government is violating international law by pushing the asylum-seekers back across the border into Belarus, with little or no examination of the validity of the refugee claims, and no scrutiny of how the security forces are behaving.
“Why not have transparency? If you’re doing everything right, why not let people see this?” said Urszula Zielinska, a Green Party MP who visited the edge of the closed security zone on Thursday.
“It’s a humanitarian issue. Those trapped on the border or in between should be taken away from the Lukashenko regime so we can assess who is eligible for international protection.”
The right-wing Polish government, however, sees such thinking as naive. Jakub Kumoch, foreign-policy adviser to President Andrzej Duda, told The Globe that any opening of Poland’s borders would only encourage Mr. Lukashenko to send more migrants into the EU via Minsk.
Mr. Kumoch said Poland was saving lives in the Middle East by sending out the message that it was not safe to attempt to reach Europe though Belarus.
“Our very strong call for people all over the Middle East and Asia and Africa is not to go to Belarus. Because it’s a trap. You’re going to lose your money to a dictatorial regime, and you’re going to be used as human weapons and you will never get to Europe this way.”
Hope among those camped near Kuznica is now fading. “The weather is so cold. This is our last chance,” Mr. Karimi said, adding that he didn’t think there would be another attempt to storm the frontier. “We won’t do anything until the European Union does something for us. We stay until we die.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.