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Belarus-Poland border grows calmer, but tensions remain

Two weeks ago, the European Union accused Belarus of weaponizing asylum seekers by forcing them to seek entry into the EU through Poland's razor wire fences. While the border has since grown calmer, tensions between Brussels and Minsk remain high.

(CN) — Tensions are easing along the border between Poland and Belarus after Minsk removed makeshift camps where hundreds of asylum seekers were staying in the hope to get into the European Union.

Two weeks ago, the situation on the border escalated dangerously as thousands of asylum seekers, mostly from the war-torn countries of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, desperately tried to break through razor wire fences and get into Poland.

The heavily sanctioned regime in Minsk led by President Alexander Lukashenko was accused of luring the asylum seekers to Minsk and then pushing them toward Poland with false promises that they would reach the EU easily. Russia, too, was accused as being behind the scheme, which the EU said was part of a “hybrid war” against the bloc.

The crisis deepened after Poland forced large crowds of asylum seekers gathered at the Kuznica border crossing back with water cannons and tear gas a week ago. Polish riot police sprayed the asylum seekers after rocks were thrown at them over the fence, video showed.

The EU was condemned by many for supporting such harsh tactics against asylum seekers suffering from lack of shelter, food and medicine in freezing temperatures. Humanitarian agencies say up to 13 asylum seekers have died at the border. In the past couple of days, the border has been blanketed in snow, making conditions even worse.

Poland and EU leaders say they are protecting the EU’s borders from illegal immigrants and have refused to take in the frozen asylum seekers, blaming Minsk for turning humans into weapons against the EU.

Tensions between the two sides have calmed following a new round of EU sanctions against Minsk and airlines accused of transporting asylum seekers and a flurry of diplomatic talks, including telephone calls between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lukashenko.

Last week, Belarus removed about 2,000 asylum seekers from the border and housed them in a warehouse close to the border. On Tuesday, Belarusian state media said about 1,800 asylum seekers were housed in the facility and that EU experts visited the site. United Nations humanitarian agencies are also providing aid to the asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, about 430 asylum seekers, most of them Iraqi Kurds, were flown back to Iraq last week, media reported. Faced with sanctions, some airlines promised to stop flying asylum seekers to Belarus. Belarusian state media said 118 asylum seekers returned home on Monday.

“I would have stayed till death, but my family were in danger. If the situation doesn't improve in Iraq I'll leave again. There's no other choice,” Mohsen Addi, a Yazidi from Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, told Reuters. He had taken his wife and children to Turkey then Belarus. The Islamic State is accused of committing genocide against the Yazidi community in 2014.

Polish authorities, meanwhile, report that they remain on high alert and that attempts to cross the border continue. On Monday, Polish border agents said more than 340 people had tried to get across the border illegally in the previous 24 hours. Polish authorities have reported arresting groups of asylum seekers who have made it across the border.

On Tuesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU will stand up to Belarus, which she accused of seeking to destabilize the EU.

“It is the European Union as a whole that is being challenged,” she said in a speech. “This has been initiated and organized by the Lukashenko regime and its supporters, luring people to the border, with the cooperation of migrant smugglers and criminal networks.”

She denounced Lukashenko for holding onto power through “fraudulent elections” in August 2020 and then violently repressing the opposition.

“This cynical blackmail has had just the opposite effect: The whole of Europe stands united in solidarity with Lithuania, Poland and Latvia on this issue,” von der Leyen said.

For its part, Belarus is using the crisis to criticize the EU and cynically try to portray it as violating human rights laws by pushing asylum seekers back from its borders. Since the August 2020 elections, Belarusian authorities have been accused of torturing protesters and severe repression against its citizens.

Lukashenko said in a recent interview with the BBC that the asylum seekers were not looking for refuge in Belarus but want to go to the EU.

“We have not received a single request to stay in Belarus so far,” he said, according to a translation from Belta, a Belarusian state news outlet. “You have not asked why there are 400 children and 200 women among these refugees in the camp. There are pregnant women. Why did they risk taking their kids with them? Because they were going to meet up with their relatives” in the EU.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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