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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2:15 p.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Iraq offers to evacuate citizens from Belarus

From CNN's Aliza Khalidi

Iraq's Embassy in Russia has announced it will organize an evacuation flight from Belarus following the border crisis between Belarus and Poland.

In a statement published on the Iraqi Embassy's website Thursday, the embassy stated that it would arrange evacuation "for Iraqi citizens wishing to return from the Republic of Belarus to Iraq."

12:12 p.m. ET, November 11, 2021

"We lost everything": Migrants detail harrowing scenes at the Poland-Belarus border

From CNN's Frederik Pleitgen, Claudia Otto and Tamara Qiblawi

People fleeing war and conflict have been making their way to the Poland-Belarus border en masse for weeks, with 4,300 recorded border crossing attempts recorded this month alone, according to Polish authorities.

Here are three of their stories.:

A Syrian woman

One Syrian woman who CNN spoke to in recent weeks said she had flown from the Lebanese capital Beirut to Minsk. From there she alleges the Belarusian military helped her and a group of other migrants get to the border area and cut the border fencing.

When Polish police repeatedly pushed the group back, the woman said they begged Belarusian authorities for safe passage back to Minsk airport -- so they could go back to their countries of origin. She said they refused.

The woman said she ended up trapped in the forest on the Belarusian-Polish border for 12 days before she was able to slip past Polish police and cross the border into Poland. From there, she made her way to Germany -- the desired destination for many of the migrants -- after hiring what she described as a "taxi" for $2,000.

Speaking to CNN several weeks ago from a refugee center in the German town of Eisenhüttenstadt, the woman, who asked not to be named, said: "I slept under a tree all the time. [The] first days we have a sleeping bag. [But] we lost everything when we walked [between] the trees."

"Five days later we drink water from the floor. We don't have anything, they didn't help us," she said. "We put a bottle on the floor ... we drank water from puddles."

"We cannot drink from it in the morning because it is black," she said, choking back tears.

Iraqi teenager Jino

Jino, a 17-year-old from northern Iraq, said the Belarusian military hauled her group into the back of a truck and transported them to the border.

"The Belarusians ... sometimes they treated us bad, sometimes they treated us good," said Jino, who did not disclose her surname for security reasons. "In my case, they brought us to the border in a truck ... and they cut the [border] wire."

Mohammad, from Syria

Mohammad Nassar, 27, told CNN that his journey to the border soured very quickly.

Nassar said that he first traveled from Syria to Lebanon, where he got a tourist visa to fly to Belarus. Migrants who CNN has spoken to say they paid around $8,000 for their journey.

"At the airport, they treat you like a tourist. There's a hotel. But as soon as you go to the border village of Harodnia, they start to treat you very badly," Nassar said. "For the last four days, we had no food. They gave us nothing. They only gave us water sometimes."

Read more here:

11:09 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Aid group condemns Belarus for using migrants as "pawns," but says that doesn't let EU off the hook

From CNN’s Sharon Braithwaite in London

Migrants warm up by a fire at the Poland-Belarus border on Thursday, November 11.
Migrants warm up by a fire at the Poland-Belarus border on Thursday, November 11. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA/AP)

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has condemned Belarus for using migrants as "pawns" in a geopolitical game of chess, but said that the country's actions do not let the European Union off the hook on its responsibility to refugees.

"Vulnerable people are not chess pawns to be used in a geopolitical struggle," Jan Egeland, head of the aid group, who previously served as a United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said in a statement on Thursday, adding that "this does not in any way free Europe from its responsibility to ensure that people turning up on its borders are allowed to seek asylum and are treated humanely."

Egeland called the bloc's inability to handle the number of migrants stranded at the Poland-Belarus border "shocking," especially when countries elsewhere with far less resources are dealing with a stream of refugees daily. He said that arrivals to the EU's external border were "a drop in the ocean" compared to Iran, which has been receiving "up to 5,000 Afghans a day" and is still coping.

And international responsibility-sharing cannot be reduced to providing financial and humanitarian support to refugee-hosting countries alone, England added: "It must also include Europe keeping borders open for those seeking protection, according to the same rules it expects other countries to abide by."

The Norwegian Refugee Council is an independent humanitarian organisation helping people forced to flee.

11:24 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Here's where the crisis is unfolding

Thousands of 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.

The Polish border guard press officer told CNN that on Wednesday night, around 4,000 migrants were camped out along the border.

10:37 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Lukashenko says Belarus is ready to respond to sanctions

From CNN's Katharina Krebs in Moscow

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a cabinet meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Thursday, November 11.
President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a cabinet meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Thursday, November 11. (Nikolay Petrov/BelTA/Pool/AP)

Belarus is ready to issue a response to any new packages of sanctions, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday at a meeting with the leadership of the Council of Ministers.

The European Union, the United States and NATO have accused the Belarusian leader of manufacturing a migrant crisis on the EU's eastern frontier as retribution for sanctions over human rights abuses. 

The European Union is set to extend sanctions against Belarus, Germany's acting Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German lawmakers on Thursday. The United States is also preparing "follow up sanctions" designed to hold Belarusian leaders accountable for "ongoing attacks on democracy, human rights and international norms," a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council said on Wednesday.

“Too many people started scaring us with the fifth package [of sanctions]. Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko, you were instructed on this fifth package: we should not forgive them anything,” Lukashenko said, referring to the Belarus government leader.

“Poland is scaring us that it will close the border. Please, close: fewer fugitives will move there. The question is not that. I just listened to these scoundrels, who are actually headless. And if we close the transit through Belarus? It will not pass through Ukraine: the Russian border is closed there. There are no roads through the Baltic States. If we close it for Poles and, for example, for the Germans, what will happen then? We must not stop at nothing defending our sovereignty and independence," Lukashenko said.

He also noted that the transnational export gas pipeline Yamal - Europe runs through Belarus, and recently the volume of gas transit from Russia to the West has significantly increased.

“We are heating Europe and they still threaten us with closing the border. And what if we shut off natural gas there? I would therefore recommend that the leadership of Poland, Lithuania and other headless people think before speaking. But this is their business. If they are closing it, let them close it. The Foreign Ministry must warn everyone in Europe: if they impose additional sanctions on us, which are ‘indigestible’ and ‘unacceptable’ for us, we must answer," said Lukashenko. 

In a statement published on Thursday by the press service of the President of the Republic of Belarus, the head of state alleged there are attempts to transfer weapons and ammunition to the camp of migrants in order to provoke a conflict. 

Lukashenko said the Ministry of Defense, the KGB and the border troops need to ensure control over the movement of NATO and Polish troops.

"You can already see 15,000 military personnel, tanks, armored vehicles, helicopters and planes flew. They pulled up to our border, moreover, insolently, without warning anyone. Although under contracts they are obliged to do this," Lukashenko said.

"You must see them, and you must have plans of counteraction, God forbid that. We are not deploying our group of the Armed Forces, I did not give such instructions. But we must see. And foresee everything. So, if they create a war on the border there, and we turn out not to be ready for it, " stressed Lukashenko.

Lukashenko added that he had asked the Russian Ministry of Defense through the Russian President Vladimir Putin to join the watch on the borders of Belarus.

"As I noticed yesterday, they sent strategic bombers here, accompanied by our fighter jets. We must constantly monitor the situation at the border. Let them squeak and shout. Yes, these are bombers that are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. But we have no other choice here. We must see what they are doing there outside," he said.

The head of state noted that Russians and Belarusians must control the situation together.

"That ring -- the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine -- should be monitored by Russian and Belarusian servicemen. This is what we have agreed with the Russians. We must not joke. The situation there is serious. Most importantly, they have moved away from the agreements. We do not know what they want," said Lukashenko.

The President said that on Thursday morning there were 1,790 people in the camp and 322 on the Polish side, whom the Poles tried to push out into Belarusian territory at night. 

"But it didn't work out. They don't want to go from there. And now 322 people are sitting there on that border. It's okay, they will sort it out there. But there are 1,790 people, who are mostly in the camp in the Bruzgi area," said Lukashenko.

9:23 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Thousands of Poles march through Warsaw to celebrate Independence Day, despite court ban

From CNN’s Martin Goillandeau, Antonia Mortensen and Kuba Kaminsky

Thousands of people were marching through Polish capital Warsaw on Thursday to mark 103 years since Poland regained its independence, despite a court ban on the annual event. 

The capital’s Roman Dmowski roundabout, adjacent to the Palace of Culture and Science, was packed with people holding white and red flags, singing nationalist chants and cheering for Poland’s border guard “not letting anybody in,” a reference to the country’s authorities blocking hundreds of migrants at the Belarus border in the past weeks. 

A decision by the Warsaw district court last month had banned the rally, organized by nationalist parties following violence last year. But Poland’s conservative government backed the march, which has attracted large numbers of participants in recent years, turning it into an official event. 

Earlier in the day, President Andrzej Duda attended an official ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in central Warsaw, in which he made a speech with nationalistic references in support of the government’s strict policy of keeping the border with Belarus closed to migrants. 

“We have always been, we are and we will be part of a Europe based on Christian values, which are also the foundations of our tradition and culture,” Duda said. 

“The time has come when you need to defend your homeland. But we need to guard its borders more than before,” the President added. “It must be done with dedication, with sleepless nights, in coldness, in hardship, in a very ungrateful situation to which we were forced by the hybrid actions of the Belarusian regime against Poland and against the European Union.”

Duda also thanked the Border Guard officers, policemen and all formations and services.

Warsaw’s mayor Rafal Trzaskowski posted photos on Twitter showing him laying flowers, at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier, paying tribute to “those to whom we owe independent Poland,” per his tweet. Trzaskowski, who pushed for the march to be banned this year, said in an earlier tweet people had “the right” to “celebrate with dignity and peace.”

9:08 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Leaders of Belarusian neighbors Lithuania and Ukraine meet to discuss escalating crisis

From CNN’s Sarah Dean in London

Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda.
Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda. (Adrian Dennis/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda said that he discussed the “worsening illegal migration situation" with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday.

Zelensky said in a tweet that the pair had a phone call and he “assured that Ukraine will adequately respond to the situation on our border.”

The call comes as Ukraine's military announced it would ramp up protections at its borders and as Lithuania marks day two of a month-long national emergency.

Some background: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have seen a surge of people attempting to cross into their countries from Belarus in recent months.

The European Union, the United States and NATO have accused Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of manufacturing the crisis in order to destabilize the EU in retribution for its sanctions on Minsk. His government denies the claims, and instead blames the West for dangerous, sometimes fatal, border crossings and poor treatment of migrants.

Lithuania declared a one-month state of emergency on Tuesday in a 5-kilometer (3-mile) swathe of land running along its entire border with Belarus, where special services will be allowed to randomly search vehicles and people, public broadcaster LRT Lithuania reported.

The state of emergency will also apply to refugee registration and detention centers, and a 200-meter radius around them, according to LRT Lithuania.

8:24 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Ukraine will hold military drills in region bordering Belarus and Poland

From CNN's Katharina Krebs in Moscow

Ukraine will hold military drills in an area near its borders with Poland and Belarus to counter a potential migrant crisis, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said in a Thursday statement.

The "combat coordination" exercises will be held between the State Border Service, National Police, National Guard and State Emergency Service, according to the ministry statement.

Ukraine's Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky said that the exercises would take place "in order to counter the potential crisis with migrants," and that the multi-pronged effort will demonstrate a "united fist of Ukraine's internal security."

On Thursday, Monastyrsky flew to the Ukraine's northwestern Volyn region, which borders both Poland and Belarus, to work out how to protect the area from a possible attempt by "artificially organized crowds of migrants."

Some 8,500 servicemen and police will participate in the exercises, along with military aircraft, including 15 helicopters, Monastyrsky added.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address on Facebook on Wednesday that Ukraine will increase security on its border with Belarus due to migration threats, but it will not affect the crossing of the border by Belarusian citizens. 

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.