Belarus accused of 'state-run smuggling and trafficking' over migrant crisis at Polish border

ITV News' Europe Editor James Mates reports on the developing situation at the border

The German government has accused Belarus of “state-run smuggling and trafficking” of human lives over the growing migrant crisis at the Polish border, where many people are now stuck in makeshift camps.

As the situation showed no signs of resolving anytime soon, an EU leader also said the Bloc was, for the first time, considering the idea of funding a wall or some other barrier on its eastern border.

Polish authorities estimate that about 3,000 to 4,000 migrants - including children - have gathered along its border with Belarus.

Eight deaths have been confirmed so far, and the situation gets more dangerous as temperatures have fallen below freezing at night.

Credit: PA

Warsaw has bolstered security at the frontier, where it has declared a state of emergency.

Polish authorities have tweeted videos 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 the sanctions imposed on the authoritarian regime for his 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.

Families have gathered at the border, desperate for refuge. Credit: AP

Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said in Berlin that what Minsk is doing “is, of course, state-run smuggling and trafficking... happening 100% at the expense of the people who are lured into the country with false promises.”

“The whole thing is happening as a hybrid attack on the European Union,” Seibert said.

Poland says Russia bears 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.”

“The whole thing is happening as a hybrid attack on the European Union,” a spokesperson for Angela Merkel said. Credit: PA

Ms Merkel spoke by phone with Mr Putin on Wednesday and asked him “to exert his influence on the regime in Minsk,” her office said, underlying that the exploitation of migrants against the European Union by the Belarusian regime is "inhuman and completely unacceptable.”

The Kremlin’s account of the call 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 that the EU give Belarus financial assistance to stop the migrant flow.

A military policeman checks vehicles near the Kusnica border crossing on the border between Poland and Belarus. Credit: PA

The United States condemned the Lukashenko government for “politically exploiting vulnerable people” and is supporting Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in confronting the challenge from Belarus.

European Council President Charles Michel, who oversees the EU’s political agenda and meetings of European leaders, traveled to Warsaw and met with Morawiecki in a gesture of solidarity.

The EU is discussing what steps to take next, Michel said, including more sanctions against Belarus and pressuring airlines not to participate in the illegal migration of people.

Michel also said the EU is discussing the possibility of funding “physical infrastructure” on the EU’s 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.

But now, it is facing pressure by several member countries to do so, as Poland and Lithuania have already moved forward with plans to construct high barriers of steel and razor wire.

Poland and Lithuania have already moved forward with plans to construct high barriers of steel and razor wire. Credit: PA

Security on the Polish border has been reinforced, with about 15,000 soldiers deployed there, working 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 supporting residents whose lives have been affected by the restrictions in their area.

The ministry and local 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 a video on Twitter with noises of what sounded like shots. Belarus has accused Polish forces of firing in the air.

Berlin says thousands of the migrants have reached Germany, where many are housed in migrant centres. Others have been detained and put in closed migrant centres 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 - an apparent message to Poland.

The United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed alarm this week at the growing humanitarian crisis on the border.