Europe

Amid migrant surge, lawmakers in Poland approve Belarus border wall

Published : October 30, 2021 19:38 IST

Poland had already set up a temporary fence on the Belarusian border, now it is looking for something more permanent. Photo: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The legislation will be signed by President Andrzej Duda in the coming days.

Legislators in Poland's Sejm parliament on October 29 approved the construction of a hard wall along the country's eastern border with Belarus to stem the tide of migration into the country. The wall is expected to cost an estimated €353 million ($407 million) and will span more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) of what is one of the European Union's (E.U.) exterior borders.

Poland says the controversial project was necessitated by a major influx of migrants rushing across its border from the former Soviet republic of Belarus. Poland's nationalist-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government has described the construction as a "barrier," whereas opposition parties refer to it as a "wall."

What steps has Poland taken to stop the influx of migrants?

Poland began construction of a temporary, 2.5 meter-high (eight-foot-high), razor-wire-topped fence in August after thousands of migrants, mainly from Middle Eastern and African countries, began entering the country. In recent weeks, Poland has deployed thousands of soldiers to the border, where it has legalized so-called "pushbacks" and put the entire area under a state of emergency — blocking all access to journalists, activists and international observers.

E.U. Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson has called on Poland to allow E.U. Frontex border patrol agents access to the area, saying, "Right now there is no transparency as to what is going on at the border." Last week, Poland and 11 other E.U. member states called on Brussels to contribute to hardening the bloc's exterior borders. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rebuffed the idea, saying, "there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls."

On October 28, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki insisted Poland was "under attack," saying the wall was essential to "protect" the country and noting that Warsaw had "not asked anyone for help." The deputy spokeswoman for the German government, Martina Fietz, said Berlin supports E.U. efforts to provide financial support to Poland, Latvia and Lithuania for border protection.

Where are the migrants from and how are they getting to the border?

The facilitation of migration from Belarus to the E.U. is widely seen as an act of revenge by President Alexander Lukashenko. The long serving strongman has been accused of waging a "hybrid war" against the bloc in retaliation for sanctions Brussels leveled against Minsk as punishment for Lukashenko's violent crackdown on opposition forces and citizens protesting what was roundly considered an unfair presidential election in August 2020. Lukashenko's government arrested tens of thousands of protesters during mass nationwide demonstrations, jailed opposition politicians and even forced the landing of a commercial jet flying over its airspace to arrest a dissident journalist.

In July, Minsk began "weaponizing" migrants by flying them to the capital from abroad and then dumping them at the E.U.'s doorstep. Since then, large numbers of migrants from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other troubled regions have been attempting to illegally enter the E.U. via Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. A spokesperson for Germany's Foreign Ministry called the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border "depressing" and said humanitarian aid was needed. "The responsibility for resolving this crisis clearly lies with Minsk," she said.

Aid organizations have warned of a worsening situation as winter approaches and migrants become stranded at the Polish-Belarus border. The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR says that eight migrants have already died at the border.

What effect is the Polish border crisis having on Germany?

The number of migrants entering Germany via Poland has also increased dramatically since then, with German authorities reporting that 4,889 people tried to illegally enter the country in October alone — more than double the number in September. This week, Berlin tightened border controls with Poland as Interior Minister Horst Seehofer ordered the deployment of 800 extra police officers. On October 27, Seehofer said more than 1,000 migrants had entered Germany in a single day this week — noting that it was the first time in years the country had seen such numbers.

On October 23, authorities arrested a suspected smuggler after 31 illegal migrants from Iraq were found in a van near the Polish border. On the morning of October 29, an Iraqi refugee was found dead near the German-Polish border. Police in the eastern state of Saxony say they unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate the 32-year-old man who was later thought to have been dead for "several hours." Police in Görlitz say they were acting on a tip when they found roughly 30 individuals who had just exited a van on the highway near Schöpstal. Police detained a 48-year-old Turkish man said to have been driving an escort vehicle, the 42-year-old Turk driving the van escaped.

Such incidents have further fueled far-right anger in Germany, where armed vigilante groups have begun gathering near the border to stop migrants from entering. On October 29, an administrative court in Saxony upheld a local ban on a demonstration by the group "Freie Sachsen" (Free Saxons). The group, which the German government has labeled right-wing extremist and anti-constitutional, had planned a 1,000 person march on the A4 highway near Schöpstal where the van was found.

js/aw (AFP, dpa)

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