WARSAW – Polish President Andrzej Duda declared a state of emergency in areas along the border with Belarus Thursday, following a surge in illegal migration.
Poland is now the third European Union member to impose a state of emergency in areas bordering Belarus — after Lithuania and Latvia did so earlier this summer arguing that they face a “hybrid war” attack.
The state of emergency lasts 30 days and will also allow Polish authorities to limit the movements of journalists, activists and other civilians in a 3-kilometer (nearly 2-mile) wide zone along the border.
Polish authorities say it will ensure greater security for Poland and the rest of the EU, also citing Russian military exercises planned in September which will include maneuvers in Belarus.
Here is a look at the standoff on the EU's eastern border, in which would-be asylum seekers have been caught up — including a group of Afghans now trapped between Polish and Belarusian border guards.
HOW IT STARTED
Months ago, neighboring countries charge, Belarus' authoritarian regime began to encourage people from Iraq and elsewhere hoping to reach Europe to come to Belarus. Then, Belarusian forces allegedly shepherded them to its borders with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
European leaders believe the migrants, who also come from Afghanistan, Syria and Africa, are being used to destabilize the EU in revenge for sanctions the bloc has imposed on President Alexander Lukashenko's regime, which is backed by the Kremlin.
Those sanctions were in reaction to a disputed election last year that gave Lukashenko a sixth term, and the ensuing harsh repression of domestic opponents. More sanctions were imposed after Minsk forced the landing of a Ryanair plane in May and arrested a dissident journalist on board.
Referring to Belarus’ actions at the border, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin last month that she strongly condemned “using people, refugees or people from other countries who are in distress, as a hybrid weapon.”
EUROPE AND MIGRATION
Europe is still trying to absorb large numbers of migrants who arrived in recent years, with more than 1 million immigrating in 2015 alone. Whether to welcome or rebuff people fleeing war and poverty is a question that has deepened political divides within European nations and among the 27 EU member states, and boosted anti-immigrant political forces.
The border standoff comes as the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan, creating worries about another wave of migrants and asylum seekers.
European countries have evacuated some Afghans who have worked with their NATO or other missions in Afghanistan and are offering protection to those who have helped their countries. But the bloc also wants to avoid large numbers of people arriving illegally.
Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have been fortifying their borders with Belarus, and have managed recently to stop thousands of people trying to enter. Hundreds have also been detained and put in closed centers. Some have applied for asylum but it is unlikely that many will receive it after entering the EU in an illegal manner.
There have been reports that some people have made their way undetected to Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe — the typical destination for refugees in Europe.
Lithuania said last week it had sent home 14 Iraqis who crossed from Belarus and many more “would follow them” soon.
WHAT BELARUS SAYS
Belarus’ top diplomat on Thursday rejected accusations that the ex-Soviet nation has used refugees against the EU.
“They’re saying in the West nowadays that Belarus unleashed a hybrid war on the European Union. It's ridiculous to hear. Belarus, of 10 million (population), unleashed a hybrid war on the 500-million European Union,” Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told reporters on Thursday.
Makei said Belarus has been offering to hold consultations with the EU on the issue of illegal migration, “but the European Union is categorically refusing to.”
While the new border barriers have stemmed crossings, one group of migrants has been stuck in a no-man's land between armed Belarusian and Polish forces, sleeping in tents for more than three weeks.
Reporters are not able to approach and question them directly, and information provided by the government and nongovernmental organizations has been difficult to verify.
Poland's border guards on Thursday said there are about 24-30 people there and that Belarusian guards regularly bring them warm meals, drinks, firewood, cigarettes and sweets.
The U.N. refugee agency said there are 32 men, women and children from Afghanistan there. The UNHCR said in an email to The Associated Press on Thursday that it sent a team, along with the Belarusian Red Cross, to deliver food, water, blankets and other aid on Wednesday, its second visit in one week.
Polish media have broadcast images of razor wire being rolled out at the border, and soldiers and border guards standing just feet from migrants without giving them aid.
That has drawn condemnation from many.
Prominent former anti-communist dissident Wladyslaw Frasyniuk said he believed soldiers behaved like “a pack of dogs that surrounded poor, weak people.”
Polish government officials have lashed back, accusing critics of siding with Belarus. Some government supporters have used the term “useful idiots” to refer to protesters — among them 13 activists who tried to cut the razor wire border barrier last weekend and now face prosecution.
The government argues the state of emergency is needed to protect Poland's security in the face of a Russian military exercise in Belarus this month, and to limit political actions along the border.
Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed.