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‘Instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes by Belarus is unacceptable’ von der Leyen

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In a statement issued yesterday evening (8 November), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes by Belarus as “unacceptable”.

Despite the EU’s offer to assist Poland with Frontex, the European Civil Protection Mechanism and Europol support, the Polish side has not requested help from the EU, while also complaining that it has been left alone by the EU in this crisis. 

President of the European Parliament David Sassoli tweeted that the Belarusian regime must stop exploiting migrants and asylum seekers for political power games, while also calling on Poland to accept the EU's offer to help vulnerable people in an orderly manner and prevent a further escalation.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said: “Our urgent priority is to turn off the supply coming into Minsk airport. While we step up outreach with partner countries, I will continue to prioritise the protection of the integrity of our shared external borders.”

Von der Leyen said that she had spoken to the prime ministers of the frontline countries, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė and Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš to express the EU's solidarity and discuss with them the measures the EU can take to support them in their efforts to deal with this crisis.

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The President also called on member states to “finally approve the extended sanctions regime on the Belarusian authorities responsible for this hybrid attack”. The European External Action Service, Peter Stano, 

Vice-President Schinas, in coordination with High Representative/Vice-President Borrell, will travel in the coming days to the main countries of origin and of transit to ensure that they act to prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities. The itinerary will be announced later today.

Sanctioning airlines

The EU is also exploring the possibility of sanctioning those airlines who have facilitated “human trafficking”. Flights into Minsk have come from Russia (70), Turkey (302), UAE (12), Syria (7), Iraq (4), Lebanon (2). 

Russia

The Commission’s external action service spokesperson Peter Stano said that Russia and its role is being evaluated, including the high number of flights from Russia. Putin has backed Lukashenko, who is increasingly isolated after orchestrating a brutal crackdown on pro-democratic opposition after losing elections in August 2020. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke with Polish President Andrzej Duda about the situation at the border and the use of migrants as a hybrid tactic. He said that NATO stood in solidarity with Poland and all our allies in the region.

Humanitarian help

The Commission is in discussion with the UN and its specialized agencies on how to prevent a humanitarian crisis from unfolding and to ensure that migrants can be safely returned to their country of origin, with the support of their national authorities.

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Belarus

EU vows unity on Belarus as Poland flags more border incidents

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Thousands of people stranded on the European Union's eastern border represent an attempt by Belarus to destabilize the bloc, rather than a migrant crisis, and as such call for a co-ordinated response, the head of EU executive said on Tuesday (23 November), write Alan Charlish, Marine Strauss, Pawel Florkiewicz, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Jan Strupczewski, Sabine Siebold, Andrius Sytas, Yara Abi Nader, Marko Djurica, Fedja Grulovic, Stephan Schepers, Felix Hoske, Sergiy Karazy, Andreas Rinke and Tomasz Janowsk.

Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament the 27-nation bloc was standing in solidarity with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, who are bearing the brunt of what the EU says is President Alexander Lukashenko's ploy to engineer a crisis by flying in migrants into Belarus and then pushing them across EU borders.

"It is the EU as a whole that is being challenged," von der Leyen said. "This is not a migration crisis. This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilise its democratic neighbours." Read more.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Warsaw's diplomatic efforts were helping reduce the numbers of migrants travelling to Belarus in the hope of entering the EU, but Poland and its neighbours warned the border crisis was far from over.

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Morawiecki, speaking after meeting the leaders of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Budapest, said Poland had been in talks with the governments of Iraq, Turkey, Uzbekistan and others.

Poland, at loggerheads with Brussels over accusations it was subverting the rule of law, has also been reaching out to its European partners.

A government spokesman tweeted Morawiecki would meet French President Emanuel Macron on Wednesday and Polish media reported plans for meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the meetings with Merkel and Johnson.

Von der Leyen said the EU was also coordinating its response to Lukashenko's challenge with its non-EU partners - the United States, Canada and Britain.

To deter intermediaries transporting migrants to Belarus from helping Minsk, the EU would create a blacklist of travel companies involved in trafficking and smuggling of migrants, she said.

It would provide the EU with a legal tool to suspend or limit the operations of companies, or even ban them from the EU if they were engaged in human trafficking, according to EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas.

"This is not a migration crisis, this is a security crisis," Schinas noted. According to the EU, over 40,000 attempts to enter the EU via the Belarus border were prevented in 2021.

A migrant walks with a child during snowfall, at a transport and logistics centre near the Belarusian-Polish border, in the Grodno region, Belarus November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Migrants stay in the transport and logistics centre Bruzgi on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus November 23, 2021. Andrei Pokumeiko/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

The EU hit Belarus with sanctions after Lukashenko's violent crackdown on protests against his disputed re-election last year, and Brussels earlier this month agreed to expand those to airlines, travel agencies and individuals involved in the movement of migrants.

Minsk cleared migrant camps at the border and agreed to the first repatriation flights in months last week and on Tuesday reported that about 120 migrants had left on Nov. 22 and more were due to follow.

But authorities in Warsaw said repeated incidents at the border showed Minsk may have changed tactics but had not given up plans to use migrants fleeing the Middle East and other hotspots as a weapon in the stand-off with the EU.

Border Guard spokesperson Anna Michalska said about 50 migrants tried to cross on Monday evening, with 18 briefly making it across the barbed wire barrier.

Another group of similar size gathered but ultimately gave up an attempt to cross at another location.

"There are repeated attempts to cross the border and they will continue," Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesperson for Poland's special services, told reporters.

Polish authorities estimate about 10,000 or more migrants could be still in Belarus, he said, creating the potential for further problems.

Lukashenko, who denies the allegation that he fomented the crisis, has pressured the EU and Germany in particular to accept some migrants while Belarus repatriates others, a demand the bloc has so far flatly rejected.

Humanitarian agencies say as many as 13 migrants have died at the border, where many have suffered in a cold, damp forest with little food or water as winter sets in.

Reuters was present when Syrian siblings who had crossed into Poland from Belarus were detained by border guards near the town of Siemiatycze on Tuesday, as the first snow of the winter fell on the forests around the frontier. Read more.

In a stark reminder of the human toll of the crisis, the imam of the Polish village Bohoniki buried on Tuesday an unborn child who died by the Polish-Belarusian border in the womb of its mother.

Halikari Dhaker's mother miscarried him while she, her husband and their five children crossed the border through dense forests and wetlands. Read more.

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Belarus waiting for answer from EU on taking 2,000 migrants, Lukashenko says

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A migrant woman carries a child as they exit a tent outside the transport and logistics centre near the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus November 21, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Belarus is waiting for an answer from the European Union on whether the bloc will accept 2,000 stranded migrants from the Belarusian border, President Alexander Lukashenko was quoted as saying on Monday by the official Belta news agency, write Maria Kiselyova and Matthias Williams, Reuters.

Lukashenko said Belarus would demand Germany takes in the migrants and said the EU was not making contact with Minsk on the issue.

He also warned that Poland should consider the consequences of acting on a threat to close a border railway crossing, saying rail traffic could be diverted to run through a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in such a scenario.

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The European Union accuses Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into the EU in response to European sanctions. Minsk denies fomenting the crisis. Read more.

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Belarus clears migrant camps at EU border, but crisis not yet over

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Belarus authorities on Thursday (18 November) cleared the main camps where migrants had huddled at the border with Poland, in a change of tack that could lower the temperature in a crisis that has spiralled in recent weeks into a major East-West confrontation, write Kacper Pempel and Joanna Plucinska.

The European Commission and Germany poured cold water on a proposal by Belarus that European Union countries take in 2,000 of the migrants currently on its territory, however, and the United States accused Minsk of making migrants "pawns in its efforts to be disruptive", signalling the tensions with the West were far from over.

European countries have for months accused Belarus of deliberately creating the crisis by flying in migrants from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to illegally cross its borders into Poland and Lithuania.

Minsk, backed by Moscow, rejected those accusations in a stand-off that had left thousands of migrants trapped in freezing woods at the border.

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A spokesperson for the Polish border guards said the camps on the border in western Belarus were completely empty on Thursday, which a Belarusian press officer confirmed. Belarus state news agency Belta said the migrants had been brought to a warehouse in Belarus away from the frontier.

"These camps are now empty, the migrants have been taken most likely to the transport-logistics centre, which is not far from the Bruzgi border crossing," the Polish spokesperson said.

"There were no other such camps ... but there were groups appearing in other places trying to cross the border. We'll see what happens in the next hours."

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In recent weeks, migrants have tried, mostly at night, to cross the frontier, sometimes clashing with Polish troops.

In a cruel illustration of the harsh conditions for those camped out, a couple, both injured, told the Polish Centre for International Aid, an NGO, early on Thursday that their one-year-old child had died in the forest. At least eight more people are believed to have died at the border in recent months.

U.S. Secretary of State State Antony Blinken said the United States would remain very focuses on the migrant crisis.

"It is profoundly unconscionable that Lukashenko and Belarus have sought to weaponize migration," Blinken told reporters during a visit to Nigeria, adding the United States had the authority to as necessary add to sanctions. Read more.

The move to clear the camps came during a week of intensified diplomacy. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone twice in three days to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, normally shunned by European leaders.

Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and his Poland's counterpart Mariusz Kaminski attend a news briefing in Warsaw, Poland November 18, 2021. Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via REUTERS
Belarusian law enforcement personnel walk in a camp near Bruzgi-Kuznica checkpoint on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus, November 18, 2021.  REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

And Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called on Lukashenko to start a dialogue with his opponents - who swiftly rejected the idea unless Lukashenko freed political prisoners first. Read more.

Belarus said earlier on Thursday that Lukashenko had proposed a plan to Merkel to resolve the crisis, under which the EU would take in 2,000 people while Minsk would send another 5,000 back home.

But German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer rejected the proposal and talked of misinformation.

"If we took in refugees, if we bowed to the pressure and said 'we are taking refugees into European countries', then this would mean implementing the very basis of this perfidious strategy"," Seehofer told a news conference in Warsaw.

A German government source added that Germany had not agreed to any deal, stressing that this was a European problem in which Germany was not acting alone.

Shortly before the plan was announced, the European Commission had said there could be no negotiation with Belarus over the plight of the migrants.

It declined to comment on the proposal, with a spokesperson saying: "We made our position very clear – this is an artificially created, state-orchestrated crisis and it is a responsibility of Lukashenko's regime to stop it and to solve it."

Earlier on Thursday, in what was potentially another sign of easing of the crisis, hundreds of Iraqis checked in at a Minsk airport for flight back to Iraq, the first repatriation flight since August. Read more.

"I would not go back if it wasn't for my wife," a 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who declined to give his name, told Reuters on the eve of the evacuation flight. "She does not want to go back with me to the border, because she saw too many horrors over there." The couple attempted to cross at least eight times from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland.

Meanwhile, Belarusian state airline Belavia has stopped allowing citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent to Minsk, Belta reported.

The EU has launched a diplomatic effort to ease the crisis by putting pressure on regional countries not to allow migrants to board flights for Belarus.

Before the border camp was cleared, migrants told Reuters how harsh the conditions were there.

"Here it's a really bad place for life, we are really cold, and we all are sick, especially the children. It is worst place for life," Nermin, from Iraq, said.

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