WARSAW, Poland (AP) — European Union officials on Wednesday 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. That idea has always been rejected before and still faces many political and humanitarian obstacles.
Polish authorities estimate that about 3,000-4,000 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 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 toward EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia as a way to retaliate 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 destabilizing the situation in the European Union,” said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said in Berlin that Minsk is 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 Lukashenko. Germany's interior minister, Horst Seehofer, also accused Lukashenko of "using people’s fates — with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin — to destabilize the West.”
Merkel spoke by phone with 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," Merkel said in Meseberg, near Berlin. Speaking ahead of a meeting with Latvian and Portuguese leaders, 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 Merkel said Putin proposed a discussion between “representatives of EU member states and Minsk.” It also said Putin and Merkel “agreed to continue the conversation.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected suggestions by Morawiecki that Moscow has 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 President Joe Biden at the White House on Wednesday and discussed the possibility of the U.S. and Europe levying sanctions against airlines that play a role in the influx of migrants through Belarus.
Von der Leyen said afterward they shared the assessment that “this is an attempt by an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize democratic neighbors. This will not succeed.”
Washington condemned Belarus for “politically exploiting vulnerable people” and supports Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in confronting the challenge, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried told The Associated Press.
European Council President Charles Michel met in Warsaw with Morawiecki in a gesture of solidarity, saying: "We are facing a hybrid, brutal, violent and unworthy attack, and we can only reply to this with firmness and unity, in accordance with our core values.”
Michel also said the EU is discussing the possibility of funding "physical infrastructure" on its external borders. The EU's executive commission has long held that walls and barriers are not effective and has refused to fund them with money from the bloc. It would only pay for security cameras and surveillance equipment, not walls, fences and other physical infrastructure.
Now, it is facing pressure by several member countries to do so, as Poland and Lithuania have already moved ahead with plans to build high barriers of steel and razor wire.
Security on the Polish border has been reinforced, with about 15,000 soldiers deployed there along with border guards and police. Poland’s Defense Ministry has activated reserves from its Territorial Defense Force to support border guards and the military by looking for migrants and helping residents whose lives have been affected by the restrictions in their area.
The ministry and police reported that groups of migrants tried to enter the country late Tuesday and early Wednesday but that all who made it in were detained.
It also accused Belarusian forces of firing shots into the air in a border area where migrants caught between the countries have set up a camp. The ministry posted video on Twitter with noises of what sounded like shots. Belarus has accused Polish forces of firing in the air.
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.
Berlin says thousands of the migrants have reached Germany, where many are housed in migrant centers. Others have been detained and put in closed migrant centers in Poland and Lithuania.
Poland, which takes a harder line on migrants, has faced criticism at home and abroad for pushing many of them back into Belarus, often leaving them in the forest. Lawmakers in Warsaw recently legalized returning people to the country from which they tried to enter Poland without automatically giving them the right to apply for asylum. The Polish actions are considered illegal under international law, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Merkel's spokesman Seibert, while blaming the “condemnable behavior of the Belarusian leader,” also said the migrants deserved legal protection and humanitarian assistance — an apparent message to Poland.
The U.N. and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed alarm at the growing humanitarian crisis.
Belarus’ State Border Guard Committee said in a post on the Telegram messaging app Wednesday that four men of Kurdish descent in the makeshift migrant camp at the border were injured. The committee blamed Polish security forces for the injuries.
“According to the refugees, they were detained on the territory of Poland, where they tried to ask for protection and refugee status. Judging by the numerous injuries ... the Polish security forces mistreated the men and forcibly pushed them out through a barbed fence on the border with Belarus,” the post said, accompanied by photos of the injured.
It was impossible to verify the reports. Independent journalists face limits to their reporting in Belarus, and a state of emergency in Poland's border zone prevents media from entering the area.
Moulson reported from Berlin. Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Matthew Lee and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed.
Follow AP's migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
Vanessa Gera, Monika Scislowska And Geir Moulson, The Associated Press