European Union officials have accused Belarus of state-sponsored “trafficking” of human lives by luring desperate migrants to the Polish border – the edge of the EU – where many are now stuck in makeshift camps in freezing weather.
As the crisis showed no sign of easing, an EU leader also said the bloc was, for the first time, considering the idea of funding the construction of a wall or some other barrier on its eastern border. This idea has always been rejected before and still faces many political and humanitarian obstacles.
Polish authorities estimate that about 3,000 to 4,000 migrants have gathered along its border with Belarus, with hundreds concentrated in one makeshift camp not far from the Kuznica crossing.
Warsaw has bolstered security at the frontier, where it has declared a state of emergency.
Polish authorities have tweeted video footage of migrants, some using shovels and wire cutters, trying to break through a fence on the border to enter Poland.
The West has accused Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging migrants from the Middle East to travel to his country and sending them towards EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia as a way of retaliating against the bloc for sanctions imposed on the authoritarian regime for its crackdown on internal dissent since a disputed election in 2020.
Belarus denies the allegations, but has said it will no longer stop migrants and others seeking to enter the EU.
“From a distance, these events on the Polish/Belarusian border may look like a migration crisis, but this is not a migration crisis, it is a political crisis triggered with the special purpose of destabilising the situation in the European Union,” Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said.
Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German chancellor Angela Merkel, said in Berlin that Minsk was engaged in “state-run smuggling and trafficking … happening 100% at the expense of the people who are lured into the country with false promises”.
Poland says Russia bears some responsibility for the crisis, given its staunch backing of Mr Lukashenko.
Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, also accused Mr Lukashenko of “using people’s fates – with the support of Russian president Vladimir Putin – to destabilise the West”.
Mrs Merkel spoke by phone with Mr Putin on Wednesday. “I asked him to exert his influence on President Lukashenko, because people are being used here,” she said.
“They are victims of an inhuman policy, and something must be done against this.”
Speaking ahead of a meeting with Latvian and Portuguese leaders, Mrs Merkel thanked Poland, Lithuania and Latvia for protecting the EU’s external borders.
Latvian prime minister Krisjanis Karins added that “it is what I would call a state-sponsored human trafficking, which is affecting directly my country, Lithuania and Poland”.
The Kremlin’s account of the call with Mrs Merkel said Mr Putin proposed a discussion between “representatives of EU member states and Minsk”. It also said Mr Putin and Mrs Merkel “agreed to continue the conversation”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected suggestions by Mr Morawiecki that Moscow had any responsibility in the crisis, calling them “absolutely irresponsible and unacceptable”.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also has suggested the EU give Belarus financial aid to stop the migrant flow.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen met with US president Joe Biden in Washington on Wednesday and said the White House was aiming to levy new sanctions on the Lukashenko regime by early December.
US treasury department officials had already begun working on the sanctions and were looking to unveil them as Europe moved forward with its own, a White House official said.
Ms Von der Leyen said she also discussed with Mr Biden the possibility of the US and Europe levying sanctions against airlines that play a role in the influx of migrants through Belarus.
Ms Von der Leyen said they shared the assessment that “this is an attempt by an authoritarian regime to try to destabilise democratic neighbours. This will not succeed”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met in Washington with Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, said “the idea that Belarus would weaponise migration is profoundly objectionable”.
“We will continue to pressure Lukashenko and the regime, and we will not lessen our calls for accountability,” he added.
Mr Kuleba said Belarus “is a potential front line that should not be underestimated”.
Security on the Polish border has been reinforced, with about 15,000 soldiers deployed there along with border guards and police.
Caught in the geopolitical standoff are thousands of migrants, including children, who have been pushed back and forth in a forested area of swamps and bogs. Eight deaths have been confirmed, and the situation gets more dangerous as temperatures have fallen below freezing at night.