26th Sep 2023

First refugee deaths confirmed on Belarus-EU border

  • Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki (Photo: premier.gov.pl)
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Poland has confirmed the first fatalities among people trying to enter the EU via Belarus.

Three men were found dead on the Polish side of the border late on Sunday (19 September) after having perished from "hypothermia, exhaustion", Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki told press after visiting the area on Monday.

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The apparently lifeless body of a woman was also seen by Polish guards on the Belarusian side of the border, Polish authorities noted.

Morawiecki voiced sympathy for the "very tragic" deaths and said Poland was "sensitive to people's suffering".

Meanwhile, the risk to life was highlighted by the fact Polish officers rescued a further eight people, including children, who had wandered into a swamp.

Earlier in August, Belarus had claimed that a man died after being beaten by Lithuanian border guards, but Lithuania dismissed it as fake news by a regime with a track record of anti-EU propaganda.

On Monday, Belarus claimed the body of the apparently deceased woman had been dragged by Polish officers from Poland onto Belarusian territory, but Polish authorities said this was a "lie".

Belarus has also circulated clips on YouTube alleging Lithuanian and Polish brutality.

And a Telegram group used by migrants to exchange information, which was seen by EUobserver, claimed two Yemeni men had been shot dead this weekend.

But there has been no independent corroboration of events because Poland has banned NGOs and media from the border zone under a state-of-emergency law.

Frontex, an EU border-control agency based in Warsaw has sent 122 officers to help Lithuania deal with the crisis.

But the agency has not sent anybody to the Polish border because Poland has not requested its assistance.

By comparison, thousands of people drown each year trying to reach Greece, Italy, and Spain from North Africa by boat.

But the increasingly cold weather in the Belarus region, where temperatures already fall below 10 degrees Celsius at night, meant the number of fatalities there was likely to rise.

Telegram groups spoke of the need to bring warm clothes, but some have been trying to cross the border wearing light shoes or flip-flops.

People, mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq, began coming to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in high numbers in summer because Belarus started flying them in from Baghdad, Dubai, and Istanbul in revenge for EU sanctions.

About 300 a day were currently trying to enter Poland and there had been 3,800 irregular-crossing attempts so far in September alone, Poland said.

For his part, Morawiecki blamed both Belarus and Russia for putting people's lives at risk for the sake of political "provocation".

"We have drone footage showing that people are being driven from Belarusian territory to Belarusian border crossing-points and then to the Polish border," he said on Monday.

"It's clear that these actions are being steered from Russia. It's also disturbing that Belarus has introduced visa-free regimes with several countries with a high migration potential," Morawiecki added.

The Belarus border emergency comes amid EU concern that people from Afghanistan might also start coming to Europe in "huge" numbers if the Taliban's takeover of the country leads to civil war.

Russian president Vladimir Putin recently used the threat of letting Afghan migrants come to Germany if German chancellor Angela Merkel did not dial down support for the pro-Western government in Ukraine, according to Ukrainian intelligence.

But Russia itself is more at risk than the EU from the situation in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's neighbouring countries in Central Asia do have border fences, some dating back from the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But the vast land borders between the Central Asian states and between Kazakhstan and Russia remain wide open because they were all part of the same bloc until some 30 years ago.

Polish-Belarus asylum-seeker border standoff continues

An EU Commission spokesperson called the situation's origins as "an attempt by a third county to instrumentalise people for political purposes, which we very firmly reject and described as a form of aggression".

Activists: 'More deaths' expected on Polish-Belarus border

The European Commission has demanded Warsaw "ensure that people at the border are given the necessary care and assistance". But activists say without any help, more stranded people along the Polish-Belarus border will likely die as temperatures plummet.

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