ITV News Europe Editor James Mates reports from the Polish border where a crisis has been declared
A tense standoff is in place after the migrants attempted to cross into Poland from Belarus in recent days.
Poland has accused Belarus of directing migrants to the border in retaliation to sanctions put on the autocratic country after they cracked down on protesters in the wake of the controversial 2020 presidential elections.
There have been reports of a least eight deaths on both sides of the border as the migrants endure near-zero temperatures with little shelter.
Polish authorities reported that the situation on the border - which is also the eastern border for the 27-nation European Union and NATO - was calm overnight and on Tuesday morning, but after Monday’s border scrum they said they were bracing for any possibility.
Poland’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that a large group of Belarusian forces was moving toward the migrants, who were camping out on the border.
Major Katarzyna Zdanowicz, from the region’s border guards, estimated 3,000-4,000 migrants were along the border, including about 800 in the vicinity of the large makeshift migrant camp.
She also said there was a greater concentration of Belarusian services on the border to “control, steer and direct these people.”
Polish Police shared videos of the situation on the border
Major Zdanowicz said the Polish assessment comes from aerial observations, and alleged that Belarus authorities were taking journalists to the border area to present the situation to the people of Belarus as propaganda.
The crisis has been simmering for months after President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime encouraged migrants to illegally enter the EU, first via Lithuania and Latvia and now by Poland.
The EU reacted Tuesday by tightening visa rules for Belarus officials over what it’s calling a “hybrid attack” by Belarus against the entire bloc.
EU headquarters said it was “partially suspending” an agreement it has with Belarus that eases visa rules.
On the border, Polish police have played announcements warning the migrants that crossing the Polish border is only allowed at official border crossings, where visas are required.
But as of early Tuesday, the nearest crossing point in Kuznica was closed.
One man who lives in Bialowieza, a Polish village in the restricted area said that he has met many migrants and they are often very thirsty, hungry and in need of boots or medical care.
He is among local volunteers providing food and other aid to the migrants and spoke on condition of anonymity because Polish authorities discourage such help.
“They are in really bad condition and the situation is getting worse” as the temperatures drop, he said.
He said some of the migrants are not aware of where they are, believing they are already in Germany and appeared to have been “very disinformed by Belarusian soldiers and guards.”
He said some were looking for taxis, unaware that no taxis are allowed in the closed zone.
The UN refugee agencies called the situation “alarming.”
They said they have been in contact with both the Polish and Belarusian governments and urged them to ensure that the large group in the makeshift camp received humanitarian assistance.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, accompanied by Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, went to the border on Tuesday morning to meet with border guards and other security officials.
Morawiecki praised them and said: “We do not know what else Lukashenko’s regime will come up with — this is the reality.”
Meanwhile, Lithuania’s government on Tuesday asked parliament to declare a state of emergency along the border with Belarus for a month beginning at midnight.
Poland has received strong signals of solidarity from the EU, other EU nations and the United States in the confrontation with Belarus.
Germany’s outgoing interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said all EU countries “must stand together, because Lukashenko is using people’s fates - with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin - to destabilise the West.”
“The Poles are fulfilling a very important service for the whole of Europe,” he said.
Many migrants have flown to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on tourist visas, and from there travel by taxi to the border with Poland.
The EU is seeking to pressure airlines not to facilitate such trips.