When Angela Merkel departed Brussels on Friday, most likely for the last time as German chancellor, she warned that Europe’s failure to agree a joint migration policy has left the continent “vulnerable from the outside”.
Six years after an influx of migrants and refugees across the continent brought more than a million people into Germany alone, a renewed migrant crisis starting in the summer has sounded alarm bells in Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and now Berlin.
In unusually outspoken language, Dr Merkel left no doubt about who she blames: Aleksander Lukashenko. The Belarusian dictator has triggered a “hybrid threat” against Europe by “instrumentalising” refugees, she said: funnelling people from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Yemen through his country into neighbouring EU states.
The numbers tell their own story: in August, 209 people were picked up in Germany’s eastern border state of Brandenburg, rising to 1,164 in September and about 2,000 so far this month. Add in numbers from two other border states and Germany’s border police service has logged 5,700 illegal border crossings this year, mostly by people from Syria or Iraq.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. Photograph: Dmitry Astakhov/Pool/AFP via Getty
Some 700km farther east, Poland has registered about 10,000 attempts to cross the border from Belarus since the beginning of October alone – up from 6,000 in September.
Germany and Poland see a direct link to Lukashenko’s crackdown on opposition leaders after August 2020 elections, culminating with the daring snatch of an opposition figure from a forcibly rerouted plane. In response the EU stepped up sanctions on the country and, in retaliation to that, the Belarusian leader said he would no longer stop migrants on their way to the EU. The move has made him the “head of a state smuggling ring”, according to Germany’s caretaker foreign minister, Heiko Maas.
After a summer of discontent, Poland has largely sealed its 400km eastern border with large rolls of barbed wire and signs – in English and Arabic – reading: “Go back to Minsk. Go home.”
Latvia and Lithuania have followed suit, while Berlin is discussing with Warsaw shared border patrols. With up to 15,000 people reported to be waiting in Belarus to enter the EU, German federal and state officials will meet on Wednesday to discuss a co-ordinated response.
Regional leaders in Brandenburg and Saxony, on the front lines of the new migration wave, warn that a lack of clarity has seen locals talk of forming armed militias.
“The citizens of our town are insecure: what are these people doing coming to us?” said Fred Mahro, mayor of the German border town of Guben. “We have to make clear to the Polish side that their job is to protect the border, but we can’t leave countries like Greece and Poland alone with this situation either.”
A German far-right group, The III Way, has advertised a “border patrol” on Saturday in the Guben region – a gathering local officials fear will turn into an illegal manhunt.
On its blog the group, said to have 600 members, warns of “a mass invasion of unimagined proportions ... protect your homeland from illegal foreigners!” It urges would-be participants to bring weatherproof dark clothing and shoes, headlamps, flashlights, gloves and, if possible, night-vision goggles.
While Germany’s immigration authorities insist there is no comparison to the scale of the 2015-2016 crisis, and that they are better prepared, police officials are less certain. Some eight 100-strong police squads are on duty along the 500km German-Polish border, according to the German police union, but only spot checks are possible.
“The risk is very high that there will be uncontrolled immigration,” said Heiko Teggatz, head of the police union. “We need a second control line on the German-Polish border.”
For now Germany has ruled out closing its open Schengen border to Poland. As well as the economic cost, acting federal interior minister Horst Seehofer said such a move “would be legally very, very questionable” given Polish efforts to halt “irregular immigration”.
Warsaw has imposed a state of emergency in its eastern border regions, making it impossible to know for sure the situation there. Some human rights groups have reported “push-backs” of people back into Belarus – a breach of international law.