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A couple of dozen people trapped at the Polish-Belarusian border have set off a political crisis in Poland that could play in favor of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
The migrants have been stuck for the last two weeks — Polish border guards won’t let them in and Belarusian soldiers won’t allow them to retreat.
The people, who say they want to seek asylum in Poland, are part of a wider effort by the Belarusian government to fly people from the Middle East and send them across its borders with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland as a way of exerting pressure on the EU.
“This is an effort to create a pan-European migration crisis by the regime of [Belarusian leader] Alexander Lukashenko,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday after visiting the border.
There’s also rising worry that any weak response could lead to an even larger crisis thanks to a possible wave of people fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover.
“We are determined to keep migratory flows under control and EU’s borders protected,” said Charles Michel, the European Council president, after a G7 meeting on the situation in Afghanistan.
But the sight of migrants stuck in a field exposed to rain with little food, water and no access to toilets is creating a political storm in Poland.
For PiS, it’s a chance to show off its law and order credentials and its toughness on migrants — an echo of its stance during the 2015 migration crisis when party leader Jarosław Kaczyński cemented support for his party by warning of the “parasites and protozoa” carried by Syrian refugees. It also comes as PiS is sagging in opinion polls and struggling to retain its control of parliament, raising the chances of a snap election.
“We’re not going to let these people into Poland,” said Maciej Wąsik, a deputy interior minister, warning that doing so would be “dangerous.”
The government beefed up its border guard presence by sending 900 troops to the area, and Morawiecki said the number of soldiers on the border will be increased even further. It has also built a 150-kilometer wire fence and is planning to put up a 2.5-meter-high wall.
That’s put the opposition in a quandary.
Donald Tusk, the leader of the opposition Civic Platform party and a former prime minister and president of the European Council, is being careful to criticize PiS without calling for open borders.
“Polish borders must be tight and well protected. Whoever questions it does not understand what the state is. Protection isn’t reflected by anti-humanitarian propaganda but by efficient action. Under PiS, the Polish border was crossed by a record number of illegal migrants,” he said on Twitter.
But other politicians have been less cautious.
Władysław Frasyniuk, a famous communist-era dissident and a former opposition politician, called the troops on the border “trash” in a TV interview.
“These soldiers aren’t serving the Polish state, rather they’re spitting on all the values which their parents and grandparents probably fought for,” he said.
That provided a juicy opportunity for PiS.
Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said he’ll seek to press criminal charges against Frasyniuk for offending the army, while other ruling party politicians have expressed patriotic outrage at his words.
Other members of the opposition have been moved by the plight of those at the border.
“It’s terrifying. I’m ashamed that on the Polish border … there are people who need help and they don’t even get a doctor to give them this help,” said Gabriela Morawska-Stanecka, deputy speaker of Polish Senate with The Left party who came to the border but wasn’t allowed to approach the refugees.
Błaszczak also denounced efforts by two Civic Platform MPs to hand food to the group.
“The methods of some politicians of the total opposition is escalating tensions,” he said. “Their visits to the Polish-Belarusian border are an example of … attacking the government. This is dangerous for the security of Poland.”
“This crisis is very much in favor of the ruling party because it creates the narrative that either one is for strong borders or for opening Poland for refugees,” said Marcin Zaborowski, editor-in-chief of the magazine Res Publica Nowa, adding: “This crisis puts the opposition in a difficult situation because the opposition has to either take up a more conservative narrative, or … come out with its support for the refugees, which is not supported by the majority of society.”
‘Tragedy’ at the border
While politicians scrap, there is growing dismay over the situation of the people at the border.
Agata Ferenc, an activist who came to the border from the western city of Wrocław, said a cordon of troops and cars separates the group from humanitarian organizations who want to supply them with food, blankets and clothes. Every time workers try to communicate, the border guards start engines and sirens to drown out attempts at communication.
“It’s terrifying, it’s absurd,” Ferenc said. “They’re like tortured hostages, held right at the EU border … A tragedy is happening over there.”
She added that with the help of a translator, they did manage to get some messages from the migrants, who complained they don’t have enough food and that some are sick. They also confirmed they’re seeking international protection.
On Monday, one of the men held up a sign in English, reading: “We are hardly sick. There is no any food, water. We are dying, help!”
But Poland is refusing to accept any asylum claims. Last week, the interior ministry changed the rules, allowing border guards to catch people who cross the frontier illegally and send them back to Belarus. Lithuania has adopted similar methods.
The U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, issued a statement Tuesday calling on Poland to abide by its international obligations.
“While we acknowledge the challenges posed by recent arrivals to Poland, we call on the Polish authorities to provide access to territory, immediate medical assistance, legal advice, and psychosocial support to these people,” said Christine Goyer, the UNHCR’s representative in Poland.
“We urge the Polish government to make an individual assessment of each case before expelling these people or preventing them from entering the territory of the Republic of Poland,” Goyer added.
The European Commission stressed on Tuesday that it “firmly rejects attempts to instrumentalize people for political purposes. We cannot accept any attempts of the third countries to incite … irregular migration towards the EU.” A spokesperson said that “orderly” border management and “full respect for migrants’ fundamental rights” are both needed.
Warsaw’s position is that the people at the border — who activists say are from Iraq and Afghanistan — were trafficked there by Belarus. The Polish government is willing to send supplies to help, but insists that this be done from the Belarusian side of the frontier. A humanitarian convoy with food, medicines and protective equipment is now waiting at the border for Minsk to let it in.
“We can’t be pulled into this Belarusian game, the script of which is written across the eastern border [in Minsk],” said Michał Dworczyk, Morawiecki’s chief of staff.
Lili Bayer contributed reporting.