Belarus-Poland border crisis traps thousands in "catastrophic" conditions

By Kara Fox and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 4:45 p.m. ET, November 12, 2021
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10:26 a.m. ET, November 12, 2021

CNN Exclusive: At the Belarus-Poland border, desperate people scramble for food and heat before it's too late

From CNN's Matthew Chance in Bruzgi, Belarusian border

Migrants gather to receive humanitarian aid in a camp on the Belarus-Poland border on November 12.
Migrants gather to receive humanitarian aid in a camp on the Belarus-Poland border on November 12. (Ramil Nasibulin/Belta/AFP/Getty Images)

CNN's Matthew Chance has gained exclusive access inside a makeshift migrant camp at Bruzgi, at the Belarusian border with Poland.

Walking through a crowd that's swelled to some 2,000 people in recent days, Chance detailed harrowing scenes of hunger and despair.

People are starving and desperate for firewood, he said, and are scrambling to get fires lit before the sun goes down to avoid hypothermia.

CNN also documented chaotic scenes at a food distribution area. As the Belarusian Red Cross tried to hand out food aid, Belarusian security forces were pushing crowds back. Around 200 children and 600 women are trapped at the border, according to authorities.

Chance explained that people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq had come to Belarus with the expressed purpose of moving deeper into Europe and of trying to find a better life. But inside the camp, there's a bitter sense of disappointment that isn't happening.

Meanwhile, more people keep arriving. Belarusian authorities told Chance that the number of migrant arrivals to the border could swell to 10,000 in the upcoming weeks -- if the standoff continues.

WATCH CNN's Matthew Chance report from the Belarusian border here:

10:21 a.m. ET, November 12, 2021

Kamala Harris says Lukashenko regime is engaged in "very troubling activity"

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal and Jeremy Diamond

Vice President Kamala Harris briefs reporters in Paris, on Friday, November 12.
Vice President Kamala Harris briefs reporters in Paris, on Friday, November 12. (Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times/AP)

Vice President Kamala Harris says the US is “very concerned” about the situation at Poland’s border with Belarus. 

“We are very concerned and closely paying attention to it,” Harris said at a press conference in Paris Friday, “and the Lukashenko regime I believe is engaged in very troubling activity.” 

She added she had discussed the issue during her meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. “The eyes of the world and its leaders are watching,” Harris said. 

9:26 a.m. ET, November 12, 2021

Iraqi woman loses unborn baby near Belarus-Poland border

From CNN’s Allegra Goodwin in London

An Iraqi migrant has lost her unborn child in Belarus near the border with Poland, the Belarus Health Ministry said in a statement Thursday. 

The head of the main department for organizing medical care at the Ministry of Health, Aleksey Shcherbinsky, told reporters Thursday that a pregnant Iraqi woman from a refugee camp was taken to a hospital in the Grodno region of Belarus, according to the statement, posted to the Ministry’s official Telegram channel. 

“Unfortunately, despite all the actions taken, the specialists failed to save the baby: intrauterine fetal death was diagnosed. The woman herself is in a stable condition and receives all the necessary assistance,” Shcherbinsky said.

Over the past 24 hours, Shcherbinsky said Thursday, 18 people from the camp turned to hospitals and clinics for medical help.

The patients were aged between 10 and 70 years old, Shcherbinsky said, and added “about 20 ambulance teams have already been sent out.” 

"Undoubtedly, violations of the sanitary and epidemiological conditions in which refugees find themselves carry additional risks of both infectious and non-infectious diseases,” said Shcherbinsky.

9:01 a.m. ET, November 12, 2021

EU talks with airlines on Belarus are seeing results, says Germany

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt in Berlin 

Talks initiated by the European Union between airlines and transit nations playing a role in transporting people to Belarus are starting to yield results, Germany said.

"The talks are ongoing and today some indications show that we already have some success," Germany's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Andrea Sasse said Friday.

The EU and other Western powers have accused Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of creating a migrant crisis on the eastern edge of the bloc as retribution for sanctions over human rights abuses. Lukashenko's government has repeatedly denied such claims, instead blaming the West for the crossings and poor treatment of migrants.

Sasse's comments follow an announcement from Turkey, who said in a tweet earlier on Friday that they would ban Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni citizens from flying from Turkish airports to Belarus.

EU Council President Charles Michel replied to the tweet, saying “thank you” for the “support and cooperation." 

Some background: On Thursday, the EU said it was looking into the legal means to extend sanctions against Belarus, including blacklisting airlines transporting migrants to Belarus who later were attempting to cross the EU border. 

Earlier this week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the border crisis a "challenge to the whole of the European Union."

"This is not a migration crisis. This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize its democratic neighbours. This will not succeed," she said.

9:15 a.m. ET, November 12, 2021

A Polish fire station near the border has opened its doors to "all people in need"

From Magda Chodownik in Michalowo, Poland

(Magda Chodownik)
(Magda Chodownik)

As the humanitarian crisis on the border worsens, a group of residents in the eastern Polish town of Michalowo have decided to step in to help people who have managed to cross the frontier into the European Union.

Maria Ancipiuk, a Michalowo city council representative, told CNN that they created a “helping point” at a local fire station to assist “all people in need.”

Migrants can rest with a warm cup of tea and food at the center -- which is located approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border. Basic medical aid and food supplies are also available, Ancipiuk said.

The center, which was opened on October 4 in response to the situation on the border, has received donations from people around Poland and abroad. It also provides supplies to organizations that are helping people stuck on the border.

Ancipiuk said that the center also had a good relationship with the local Border Guards unit, who they donated food and clothes to.

“The helping point was created to help all people in need,” Ancipiuk said.

“I would not like Michalowo to be known as a place where people are dying, freezing to death,” she said. “We are ready to assist people in need by giving them food, shelter, and clothes as a lot of them arrive exhausted.”

The center is open day and night, and is staffed solely by volunteers from the community. Volunteers are also teaming up with local hospitals to help fill any gaps in services there too, donating food, medication and clothes to injured migrants.

10:50 a.m. ET, November 12, 2021

Russia and Belarus hold paratrooper drills near Polish border, underlining their special relationship

From CNN's Katya Krebs, Anna Chernova and Kara Fox

Russia and Belarus are flexing their military might for a second time this week as they hold joint paratrooper drills near the Polish border on Friday.

The exercises are being held "in connection with the buildup of military activity near the State Border of the Republic of Belarus," according to a statement from the Belarusian Defense Ministry

Some 15,000 Polish soldiers have been deployed to Poland's border with Belarus recently, in reaction to the tense standoff there.

"Today, joint tactical airborne paratroopers from the Special Operations Forces of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus and the Airborne Forces of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation as part of a combined battalion tactical group are landing at the Gozhsky training ground," the statement said.

Belarusian and Russian paratroopers will perform a number of combat training tasks, it added.

Russia, Belarus' largest (and most important) political and economic partner, has defended Minsk's handling of the border crisis while also denying any involvement in it.

On Wednesday, Russian and Belarusian forces performed joint military exercises over Belarus airspace.

The two long-range Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 supersonic long-range bombers practiced "issues of interaction with ground control points" with armed forces of both countries, the Russian Ministry of Defense said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is also scaling up security around border with Belarus. On Thursday, it announced it would hold military drills with some 8,500 servicemen and 15 helicopters in an area near its borders with Poland and Belarus to counter a potential migrant crisis.

Some wider context: The crisis at the Poland-Belarus border is continuing to test a fragile political order, with allegations from the United States on Russia’s military buildup this week deepening concerns over the potential for a wider geopolitical crisis.

On Wednesday the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US is "concerned by reports of unusual Russian military activity" and mentioned the possibility that Russia may be "attempting to rehash" its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. 

On Friday, Russia called allegations that it could invade Ukraine “empty, groundless escalation of tensions."

7:02 a.m. ET, November 12, 2021

Russia guarantees European gas supplies after Lukashenko threatens to turn them off

From CNN’s Anna Chernova in Moscow 

Russia has guaranteed its supply of gas to Europe despite Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s threats to block it, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday.

“Russia has been, is, and will be a country that honors its commitments to ensure European consumers with gas and to fulfil all its contractual obligations,” Peskov said.

“[The] reliability of Russia as a [gas] supplier and as a contract partner is not subject to any doubt.”

On Thursday, Lukashenko threatened to block Europe’s gas transit through Belarus should the European Union introduce new sanctions on Minsk.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Friday, November 12.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Friday, November 12. (Nikolay Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo/AP)

“They are threatening that they will close the border ... And what if we stop the transit of natural gas there?” Lukashenko said Thursday, adding: “The Foreign Ministry must warn everyone in Europe: if only they introduce additional sanctions against us, unacceptable and undigestable to us, we must retaliate.”

Lukashenko’s statements have not been discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Peskov said.

When asked if Moscow will ensure the gas supply regardless of Belarusian actions, Peskov said: “Absolutely. Russia is a country guaranteeing the energy security of the European continent.”

Russia is Europe's main gas supplier, accounting for 41% of its imports.

6:11 a.m. ET, November 12, 2021

Poland says Belarus is using migrants for "propaganda," while rights groups criticize Polish pushbacks

From CNN's Antonia Mortensen, Fred Pleitgen and Kara Fox

Poland has accused the Belarusian regime of using migrants as propaganda tools, amping up a war of words as the humanitarian and geopolitical crisis on their border continues.

"Migrants are used as instruments by the Lukashenka regime. In the Kuźnica area, a group of women and children was moved to the fence, only so that the Belarusian services could prepare propaganda material," the Polish Ministry of Defense said in a tweet Friday.

Polish authorities also said Friday that 223 border crossing attempts had been made by migrants on Thursday from the Belarusian side.

The Polish Border Guard press office told CNN that out of those people, 18 were able to apply for international protection in Poland.

Over 4,500 people have tried to cross the border since the start of this month, it added.

The Polish Ministry of Defense shared a video on their official Twitter account on Friday, purportedly showing migrants crossing the Kuznica border crossing on the Belarusian side.

Poland is under fire by international aid organizations who say they are breaching international law by pushing asylum seekers back into Belarus, instead of accepting their applications for international protection. Poland stands by their actions, saying they are legal.

Who can seek international protection?

Under article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries.

5:36 a.m. ET, November 12, 2021

Belarus airline bans Syrians, Yemenis and Iraqis flying from Turkey

From CNN’s Anna Chernova in Moscow

(Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)
(Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Belarusian air carrier Belavia is banning citizens from Iraq, Syria and Yemen from boarding flights from Turkey to Belarus, according to an official statement published by the airline on Friday.

“In accordance with the decision of the competent authorities of Turkey, from November 12, 2021, citizens of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will not be admitted on flights from Turkey to Belarus,” the statement said.

Some background: The European Union was reportedly considering sanctions against third-country airlines for allegedly contributing to the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border by transporting people to Minsk, the Belarusian capital. 

Turkey's Foreign Ministry fought back against claims it was contributing to the crisis on Thursday. "We refuse to be portrayed as part of a problem which Turkey is not a party to," the ministry said Thursday.

"Furthermore, we find it to be intentional that a globally prominent company like Turkish Airlines is targeted even though information on this issue is shared transparently," the ministry added.

Russia has also 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."

When asked to comment on possible sanctions against Russian airline Aeroflot for allegedly helping refugees travel into Belarus via Moscow on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry 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."