WARSAW – Poland plans to build a fence along its border with Belarus and deploy more soldiers there to stop migrants seeking to enter the European Union nation.
The government on Monday also offered to send humanitarian aid to a migrant group stuck at the border for more than two weeks.
Poland and the three Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of sending migrants across their borders, which also form part of the EU's eastern border, in what they call a “hybrid war.” The migrants are mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq.
All four EU nations believe the surge in migrants is Minsk's revenge for the EU's sanctions against the autocratic regime in Belarus.
“Using immigrants to destabilize neighboring countries constitutes a clear breach of the international law and qualifies as a hybrid attack against ... Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and thus against the entire European Union,” they said in a joint statement Monday.
From Geneva, the U.N.'s Refugee Agency's spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said the organization has been closely following the situation.
“We have been very concerned by developments at the borders resulting in people being stranded for days,” Mantoo said.
The Polish government said last week that 2,100 migrants had tried to enter Poland illegally from Belarus so far in August. Almost 800 of them got in and have been placed in state-run centers.
In response to the migrants' arrival, Poland said it had deployed over 900 soldiers to the border with Belarus and was reinforcing the border with 150 kilometers (93 miles) of barbed wire. On Monday, Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said more soldiers would be sent and a fence 2.5 meters (8 feet) tall would be erected on the border.
Blaszczak said the new border fence would be modeled on the one Hungary erected against migrants years ago on its border with Serbia, which is reinforced with coils of razor wire.
“We are dealing with an attack on Poland. It is an attempt to trigger a migration crisis,” he said at a news conference at the border.
Noting that Lukashenko's regime has ties to the Kremlin, Blaszczak said: “We will not allow the creation of a route for the transfer of migrants via Poland to the European Union.”
Meanwhile, political tensions are growing in Poland over 30 migrants who became stuck on the border with Belarus. A refugee rights group says the group includes people from Afghanistan and some who need medical attention. Poland insists they are on Belarusian territory, but has still faced criticism for not allowing the migrants to apply for asylum.
On Monday the Polish Foreign Ministry said it submitted a diplomatic note to Belarus offering to provide food and medicine for the group, as well as tents, beds, sleeping bags, blankets and pajamas.
Lukashenko, who had spiked an agreement with the EU on stemming illegal migration in response to Western sanctions, assailed Polish authorities later Monday for reportedly using force to push migrants back to Belarus.
“They caught 50 people heading to Germany ... and pushed them to the border with Belarus by firing shots in the air,” Lukashenko claimed.
In Warsaw, about two dozen protesters chained themselves to a fence in front of the Border Guards headquarters and put barbed wire on its gates to protest the behavior of Polish authorities along the border.
Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski said the border situation was testing how the country would react to more serious acts of hybrid warfare.
“The statements and behavior of a significant number of Polish politicians, journalists and NGO activists show that a scenario in which a foreign country carrying out such an attack against Poland will receive support from allies in our country is very real,” Jablonski said on Twitter.
He said authorities should use this situation to “better prepare for similar threatening actions in the future."
Lithuania has seen similar tensions triggered by a surge of migrants on its border.
“Lukashenko isn't only using migrants as a hybrid weapon to take revenge against the West, he is trying to provoke a division and an internal political crisis in Poland and Lithuania,” said independent Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich. “Lukashenko is playing a dangerous game, trying to test the limits of the West's patience.”
Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.
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