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Give Me a Crash Course in... the Belarus-Poland border stand-off

What’s happening on the Polish border with Belarus?
A geopolitical game of chicken and a humanitarian crisis. For months, Polish border police have reported growing numbers of people turning up in the dense wooded area of western Belarus, trying to cross into neighbouring Poland. Poland’s border police service said it had recorded about 3,500 attempts to cross the border in August alone, of which 2,500 had been prevented. That same month Polish troops began building a 2.5m-high fence of barbed and razor wire along nearly half of its 400km forest frontier with Belarus. The situation has escalated in recent days. Amid violent attempts to breach the border, an estimated 4,000 people are sitting in the no-man’s land between Poland and Ukraine.

Who are they and where are they coming from?
Mostly men, though with women and children in tow, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and other crisis regions of the Middle East. Many report buying all-in deals from travel agencies linked to Belarus. Flight, visa, accommodation and even transport to the eastern EU border started at $3,000.

How did this circuitous route arise?
Poland and its allies accuse Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko (inset) of “hybrid warfare”: encouraging mass migration in retaliation at EU sanctions imposed after his dubious August 2000 election victory and subsequent crackdown on opponents. Belarus denies this.

Why can’t the people get through?
Because they are being blocked by razor wire, the Polish army and European political realities. Poland is acting on behalf of all EU member states to avoid a repeat of the 2015-2016 refugee crisis. Despite the Schengen free travel area, each EU member state retains competence to guard its own borders. Warsaw continues to decline neighbours’ increasingly urgent offers of assistance.

Why is this a problem?
There is a complete lack of transparency over the human cost of what’s going on. In September the Polish parliament backed a state of emergency in the border region to prevent what one minister called “trips, stunts or demonstrations”. A week earlier some 13 activists were detained after a protest at the border, highlighting the plight of 30 people from Afghanistan who have been camped there for nearly a month. With 100 times that number there now, all humanitarian assistance and media reporting in the region is banned.

Poland and its allies accuse Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko (inset) of ‘hybrid warfare. Photograph: Nikolay Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo/AP

Poland and its allies accuse Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko of ‘hybrid warfare'. Photograph: Nikolay Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo/AP

Do we know anything about what’s happening?
Videos show people camping out with no shelter and little food and water, people are starving and freezing in makeshift border camps. Many report being beaten up by border guards and being pushed back from Polish to Belarusian territory. Critics say this violates the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees, prohibiting states from expelling people without assessing their eligibility for asylum and protection from violence in their country of origin.

What will happen next?
Anyone’s guess, given the chains being rattled on all sides. Lukashenko, viewed by many as Europe’s last dictator, has threatened to cut the EU’s supply of Russian gas, which transits his country. He also suggested that one wrong move could force Russia into the conflict.

Why would Russia get involved?
Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki believes Russia is already involved and that president Vladimir Putin is “masterminding” the crisis via the politically and economically dependent Belarusian leader. Moscow insists it is merely a concerned bystander, forced, in response to a Polish military build-up on the border, to send two nuclear-ready bombers to patrol Belarus territory and air space.

Where is this going?
No one knows. EU member states are likely to impose additional sanctions on Belarus next week, as well as its state airline Belavia. Yesterday the airline vowed to end all flights to the Middle East. Calls are growing for the trapped people to be sent to a third country, possibly Ukraine, where they can file asylum applications.

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