Poland has warned that the growing migrant crisis on its border could end in a miliary confrontation as thousands of migrants camped out on the Polish-Belarus border overnight, surrounded by armed guards, water cannons and barbed wire.
The sub-zero temperatures, and occasional warning fire of Belarusian forces, heightened awareness of the precariousness of their situation. Their fates are now entangled in a harsh and unpredictable game of high politics.
By Tuesday morning, Polish authorities were warning that the migrants’ attempt to illegally enter Poland could end in armed violence.
Government spokesman Piotr Muller said that as many as 4,000 migrants were now estimated to have gathered at the eastern border in camps near Kuznica. The European Union said about 2,000 migrants were trying to enter Poland from Belarus.
Warsaw expected an “escalation… of an armed nature,” Muller said.
Poland’s army is on high alert, with 12,000 troops and anti-terror squads mobilised in border areas.
To the north, fellow EU member Lithuania on Tuesday also announced an incoming state of emergency. It explained the move as a protection against what it described as an act of hybrid warfare from Belarus.
Local media reported large numbers of cars loaded to capacity travelling along the Hrodna-Sapotskino towards Lithuania. Social media footage from Minsk also showed groups gathering ahead of what could be a journey to the same border.
Europe contends Minsk is deliberately creating a migrant emergency on its eastern border in retaliation for sanctions.
The European Commission said on Tuesday Belarus was taking a “gangster-style” approach to the issue by illegally offering migrants easy entrance into the Eu via its territory. It said more sanctions against Minsk were on the way.
Thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa have arrived in Belarus in hope of achieving safe passage to a new life in Europe. Many of those currently at the border are Iraqi Kurds.
They began arriving in May, when Minsk’s contested leader Alexander Lukashenko declared he was no longer in a position to control migrant flows to Europe.
Local reports suggest Belarusian state tourism companies help organise the migrants’ travel, visa and convoys to the border.