Belarus-Poland border crisis deepens, with thousands trapped in dire conditions

By Kara Fox and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 5:53 p.m. ET, November 11, 2021
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8:11 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

There's a tense standoff on the Poland-Belarus border. Here's what you need to know

Hundreds of migrants camp at the Belarus side of the border with Poland are seen in this photograph released by the Polish Defense Ministry on November 10.
Hundreds of migrants camp at the Belarus side of the border with Poland are seen in this photograph released by the Polish Defense Ministry on November 10. (MON/Handout/Reuters)

Thousands of people are stranded at the border between Poland and Belarus in terrible conditions, trapped at the center of an intensifying geopolitical dispute.

The migrants -- most of whom are from the Middle East and Asia, and who are hoping to travel on from Poland deeper into Europe -- have been gathering on the Belarusian side of the Kuznica border crossing. Authorities closed the crossing on Tuesday, with aerial footage showing large crowds congregating in the area.

Polish authorities said Thursday that since the beginning of November, there have been 4,300 recorded border crossing attempts. The Polish border guard said it had recorded around 1,000 crossing attempts in the last two days, including some "large-scale" efforts with groups of more than 100 people trying to breach the fence. Polish authorities have detained small numbers of people and immediately sent others back to Belarus.

A Polish border guard representative told CNN earlier this week that some of the migrants had been pushed toward the barriers by Belarusian services.

Migrants warm themselves by a bonfire in the Grodno region.
Migrants warm themselves by a bonfire in the Grodno region. (Ramil Nasibulin/Belta/AFP/Getty Images)

Facing dire conditions: Charities say people stuck in the border area are battling freezing weather and lack food and medical attention.

Polish authorities said seven migrants have been found dead on Poland's side of the border, with reports of more deaths in Belarus.

Humanitarian groups are also accusing Poland's ruling nationalists of violating the international right to asylum by pushing people back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Poland says its actions are legal.

Stuck in a geopolitical crisis: Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has previously been accused of manufacturing a migrant crisis on the border by the Prime Ministers of neighbors Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, leading Poland to adopt a bill in October for the construction of a wall along its border with Belarus.

Lukashenko's government has repeatedly denied such claims, instead blaming the West for the crossings and treatment of migrants.

Russia, Belarus' largest (and most important) political and economic partner, has defended Minsk's handling of the issue. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Belarus was taking all necessary measures to act legally on Monday.

The war of words is escalating: The EU has said it is likely to impose further sanctions on Belarus, with the European Commission labeling it "a gangster regime" on Tuesday and criticizing Lukashenko over his "false promises" that it said lured migrants to the border believing they will gain "easy entry into the EU." 

On Wednesday, Polish authorities posted two videos from the border that they claim shows Belarus troops firing into the ground and scuffling with people. Poland said the footage shows the tactics employed by the Belarusian services to intimidate migrants in their presence. CNN cannot verify that claim as the video is not clear enough to say what is happening.

Meanwhile, the Polish government has been sending text messages to foreign cell phone numbers in the border area which read: "The Polish border is sealed. BLR [Belarus] authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk!" The message ends by warning migrants against taking pills from Belarusian soldiers -- referring to a claim from Polish officials that a migrant was given a tablet before falling ill and dying.

7:22 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Germany says EU to extend sanctions against Belarus as lawmakers welcome Belarusian opposition leader with standing ovation

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt in Berlin

The European Union is set to extend sanctions against Belarus, Germany's acting Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German lawmakers on Thursday.

The announcement came as Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was standing in the visitor's gallery in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. 

"The European Union will expand and tighten its sanctions against Lukashenko's regime. This is what we will decide at our foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on Monday,” Maas told German lawmakers in parliament.

''Those people and companies actively involved in human trafficking will be further sanctioned, no matter where on the globe," Maas said.

Mass also said that there were "other options on the table," including expanding current economic sanctions.

He added that the EU will continue its ''fight against illegal human trafficking by Belarus.'' 

''No one involved in this human trafficking should go unpunished. This is a message to transit countries, the countries of origin and the airlines taking migrants to Belarus. They must know that the European Union is no longer willing to accept that.'' 
Maas added that in the current Poland-Belarus standoff: ''We stand in solidarity with our European partners Poland and Lithuania.'' 

Tikhanovskaya, who has been living in exile since August 2020 -- when Belarusian security forces mounted a sweeping crackdown on protests over the result of the disputed presidential election -- received welcoming applause from lawmakers in the Bundestag.

She said she was “deeply touched by the warm welcome from MPs," in a tweet. 

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier also met with Tikhanovskaya in Berlin on Thursday.

7:34 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Moscow denies shuttling people to Belarus

From CNN’s Anna Chernova in Moscow

Russia has denied any involvement in the refugee crisis in Europe or assisting people in getting into Belarus, saying that it "has nothing to do with what is happening on the border of Belarus and Poland."

"Russia, like other countries, is making efforts to resolve this situation,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin is “in constant contact with his Belarusian colleague [Alexander Lukashenko]” on the situation on the border and is discussing it with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Peskov said.

Bloomberg previously reported that the European Union is considering sanctions against airlines allegedly involved in shuttling migrants.

When asked to comment on possible sanctions against Russian airline Aeroflot for allegedly helping refugees travel into Belarus via Moscow, Peskov dismissed the accusations, calling them “planted news.”
Peskov added that they had seen statements from Aeroflot demonstrating that it “did not provide and is not providing transportation of migrants to Minsk.”
The Kremlin spokesperson added that “even if some airlines are engaged in this, it in no way contradicts any international regulations."

Aeroflot also denied organizing mass transportation of refugees to Belarus in a Thursday statement, according to Russian state media TASS. 

"Our airline does not operate regular flights to the cities of Iraq and Syria, as well as flights on the Istanbul - Minsk route,” Aeroflot told TASS. “Charter flights to these destinations are also not available. The transit movement of citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria through the territory of the Russian Federation to the territory of the Republic of Belarus is impeded as it requires obtaining transit visas of the Russian Federation."

7:26 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Russia flies warplanes over Belarus, signaling support for Lukashenko

From CNN's Katharina Krebs, Zahra Ullah and Anna Chernova in Moscow 

In this handout photo from a video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Wednesday, November 10, 2021 shows a long-range Tu-22M3 bomber of the Russian Aerospace Forces on patrol over Belarus.
In this handout photo from a video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Wednesday, November 10, 2021 shows a long-range Tu-22M3 bomber of the Russian Aerospace Forces on patrol over Belarus. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Russian warplanes performed joint patrols over Belarus airspace on Wednesday, a move that underlines the Kremlin's support for Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko's regime as international condemnation of his actions grows.

The two long-range Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 supersonic strike bombers practiced “issues of interaction with ground control points” with armed forces of both countries, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense.

A statement posted to the Belarus Defense Ministry's Telegram channel called the military exercise measures of adequate response to the evolving situation both in the air and on the ground."
"Joint flights with the two countries’ air forces will be 'performed on a regular basis' going forward, it added.

Some background: The Tupolev Tu-22M3 is a supersonic long-range bomber which entered service in Russia during the 1980s.

The aircraft is capable of performing nuclear strikes as well as conventional attacks and anti-ship missions, according to Jane's by IHS Markit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in 2018 that Russia would soon unveil new weaponry that can render NATO defenses "completely useless," including a new hypersonic missile system.

This spring, satellite images showed a huge Russian military buildup in the Arctic.

Russia stands by Belarus: On Tuesday, the Kremlin said that Putin and Lukashenko discussed the situation on the Belarusian borders.

“The Presidents also exchanged views on the situation with refugees on the Belarusian-Polish and Belarusian-Lithuanian borders,” a Kremlin statement said.

The leaders discussed a number of issues pertaining to “bilateral cooperation” including the “intention to further develop mutually beneficial integration processes,” the statement added.

Earlier this week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Belarus was taking all necessary measures to act legally at the border.

WATCH:

6:04 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

US and EU prepare to sanction Belarus -- again

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

The United States is preparing "follow up sanctions" designed to hold Belarusian leaders accountable for "ongoing attacks on democracy, human rights and international norms," in a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council said on Wednesday.

"We are deeply concerned by the Lukashenka regime's inhumane actions and strongly condemn their callous exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people," the spokesman said.

The new sanctions will come in "close coordination with the EU and other partners and Allies." They did not specify when they would come into place.

Western leaders are accusing Belarus' autocratic regime of manufacturing a migrant crisis at the EU's eastern border.

Earlier, European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen told reporters she and US President Joe Biden had discussed the possibility of new sanctions on Belarus in an Oval Office meeting.

"We will widen our sanctions against Belarus, very rapidly at the beginning of next week there will be a widening of sanctions against Belarus," von der Leyen said.

This is the second round of sanctions announced in recent months: In August, the White House announced a sweeping executive order targeting those in the Belarusian regime involved in the repression of human rights and democracy.

The executive order was released on the one-year anniversary of Belarus' election, which sparked widespread protests throughout the country and which the US -- and much of the international community -- declared fraudulent.

6:21 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Syrian man details beatings and grueling conditions at border

Scene from the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on Thursday, November 10, 2021.
Scene from the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on Thursday, November 10, 2021. Ramil Nasibulin/Belta/AFP via Getty Images

Youssef Atallah, a 37-year-old Syrian, recently arrived in Poland after his third attempt at crossing the border from Belarus.

Speaking at a refugee center in Białystok, in northeastern Poland, Atallah said that upon arriving at the border, guards caught his group of four and he was beaten, leaving him with facial injuries, a broken nose and bruised ribs.

"They took us to the forbidden area. That was the first try to cross the border to Poland," he told CNN. He said Belarusian officials refused to provide medical aid and repeatedly told them to head to Poland rather than return to Minsk.

While making their way through the forest, the group got separated while trying to flee Polish guards, he said. While making the journey into Poland, Atallah said he had no food and drank water from a swamp.

"I saw stuff left by another refugee group (and) I found a cube of sugar. I just start sucking on it because I can't chew, I can't bite or anything," he said.

Atallah said that his memory of the journey was clouded by the medical issues he's faced as a result of the beatings. He understands, however, that he spent three days in the forest before he was picked up by Polish police and brought to the refugee center.

Atallah said the experience he's had with Polish guards and at the refugee center has been starkly different to his experience with Belarusian officers.

"They are very kind with us actually. They took me to the hospital and the crew at the hospital are marvelous. The doctors even gave me clothes," he said.

Despite the treacherous journey, Atallah said he'd make the trip again for his family, citing an even more perilous situation back in Syria.

WATCH:

5:31 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Germany's Merkel asks Putin to "exert his influence" to ease tensions

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt and Kara Fox

Migrants continue to wait at the Polish-Belarusian border on November 10 in Belarus.
Migrants continue to wait at the Polish-Belarusian border on November 10 in Belarus. Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to “exert his influence” on Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko to stop the escalating crisis on the border. 

"Human beings are being used. They are victims of a misanthropic policy and something needs to be done about this," Merkel said in a joint press conference with Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Wednesday.

Merkel thanked countries that are trying to protect the borders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland under pressure from flow of migrants. 

She called for a humane solution to the crisis, while stressing the importance of securing the EU borders simultaneously.

Some background: In 2015, Merkel's so-called open-door refugee policy was both hailed as the epitome of a liberal, compassionate approach to migration and condemned as the nail in the coffin of the European project.

As a result of that policy, Germany has received more asylum applications than any other EU country since 2015 -- and remains the top destination for people seeking protection in Europe today, even though Merkel agreed to cut down migration in 2018.

In recent months, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have also seen a surge of people attempting to enter their countries from Belarus. Many of the people are hoping to travel on from Poland deeper into Europe. Lithuania declared a state of emergency for a month, which went into effect at midnight on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, video from Belarus state media showed children shouting "Germany, Germany" towards the barrier on Tuesday.

In an interview with the German tabloid Bild on Tuesday, acting Interior Minister Horst Seehofer called on the EU for support, saying: "Poland or Germany cannot handle this on their own."

''We have to help the Polish government secure the external border. That would actually be the task of the EU Commission. I am now appealing to it to take action. All EU states must stand together here, because Lukashenko, with the support of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, is using human fate to destabilize the West," he told BIld.

"That's why we have to stand together now," Seehofer said, adding: "Poland or Germany cannot do this alone."