The EU has condemned the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, for acting like a “gangster”, amid a worsening humanitarian crisis at the country’s border with Poland.
The Belarusian government has been been accused of sending refugees to the EU’s external border in an attempt to punish the bloc for criticism of Lukashenko’s domestic crackdown on dissent.
Hundreds of people continued to travel on Tuesday as the Polish government announced that between 3,000 and 4,000 people had been settled in an improvised camp on the border just across from its village of Kuźnica.
In a first response to the unfolding situation, the 27 EU member states agreed to suspend an EU-Belarus visa facilitation agreement on Tuesday, as the Slovenian presidency of the bloc castigated Minsk for “playing with people’s lives for political purposes”.
A spokesperson for the European Commission said it was unacceptable for Lukashenko’s government to use people as political pawns. “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,” the spokesperson said.
Poland has sent about 11,000 soldiers to the border area, created a militarised zone two miles deep, built a razor-wire fence and approved the construction of a border wall. It is also enforcing a state of emergency in the region, complete with a media blackout.
Lithuania’s parliament voted on Tuesday to introduce a state of emergency on its border with Belarus and at detention camps for migrants. The decision will give Lithuanian police additional powers to expel asylum-seekers, restricts travel within five kilometres (three miles) of the border zone, and would allow authorities to break up public gatherings and confiscate migrants’ mobile phones in the border area.
Lukashenko and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, spoke by phone on Monday and expressed concern about the buildup 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. “We will calmly stand up to this.”
In a thinly veiled, but probably empty, threat, he added that Russia could be forced to intervene. “We are not bullying … Because we know that if, God forbid, we make some mistake, if we stumble, it will immediately draw Russia into this whirlpool and this is the largest nuclear power,” he said.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has suggested that the EU provide Belarus with financial assistance to stop the flow of refugees, referencing an earlier deal with Turkey.
Brussels said it was in talks with 13 countries that could be sources of people for Belarus to send to the EU’s external border. They are Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Georgia, Guinea, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkey.
Minsk has reportedly issued special visas allowing people to fly into Belarus from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, said: “The Belarusian regime is attacking the Polish border, the EU, in an unparalleled manner. We currently have a camp of migrants who are blocked from the Belarusian side.
“These are aggressive actions that we must repel, fulfilling our obligations as a member of the European Union.”
Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said EU countries had to stand together in the face of a “hybrid threat” posed by “politically organised migration”.
“The Poles have reacted correctly so far,” Seehofer told the German newspaper Bild of Poland’s reinforcement of the border. “We cannot criticise them for securing the EU’s external border with admissible means. The Poles are fulfilling a very important service for the whole of Europe.”
Polish police blocked hundreds of people from entering the country on Monday after Belarusian authorities had escorted them to the border.
A Polish government spokesperson said it was prepared for further incidents as more people gathered. “We expect that there may be an escalation of this type of action on the Polish border in the near future, which will be of an armed nature,” he said.
Hundreds of people spent Monday night in tents in a camp along the border, gathering firewood and lighting campfires as temperatures fell below freezing.
Poland’s Kuźnica border crossing was closed early on Tuesday, and police monitoring the area with night-vision and thermal imaging reported a large detachment of Belarusian troops approaching the camp.
During clashes on Monday, video footage emerged that appeared to show an armed Polish officer spraying chemicals at men who were trying to cut the razor-wire border fence. Others tried to clear the fence by climbing long wooden poles or branches. Polish police were hit with objects thrown from the Belarusian side as helicopters hovered above.
Gunshots were audible in several videos posted online on Monday evening.
Many of those seeking entry into Poland are desperately fleeing war and poverty-racked countries in the Middle East. Most want to reach Germany, which said it had received more than 6,100 refugees via Poland from Belarus since the beginning of the year.
Poland, a member of the EU and Nato, has drawn sharp criticism for its tough rhetoric on migration in recent years. The latest comments from Seehofer, Von der Leyen and others suggest a softening of the approach towards the country’s rightwing government.
Those attempting to cross from Belarus into the EU have become trapped between the two countries since October, when Polish police were authorised to summarily expel migrants and ignore asylum applications. Belarusian border guards have refused to allow them to turn back.
Belarus has denied it has any hand in directing the flow of people. “The indifference and inhumane attitude of the Polish authorities has prompted the refugees to take such a step of despair,” the Belarusian border guard said in a statement.