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Poland, Latvia, Lithuania: Life’s Threatening Situation on EU Eastern Borders, Thousands Protest Pushbacks

Dangerous conditions for people trapped along the Polish eastern border have cost the eighth life since the political stalemate with Belarus started in August. Protesters continue to rally in Warsaw against violent pushbacks by Polish officials, however still, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania continue to deploy military and strengthen their borders with Belarus. While states of emergency impede any humanitarian assistance to be available, local communities and NGOs are striving to fill in the gap.

The life-threatening situation in the Polish-Belarusian border zone dates back to August, 2021, when Belarus began to actively promote the migration route to EU through its own borders. Since then Poland answered by violently forcing people back to Belarusian territory, passing legislation allowing for the expulsion of people seeking asylum, as well as planning a 353 million border wire wall. On the 20th October, Polish border guards informed about the discovery of the dead body of a 19-year-old Syrian man in the Bug river at the border. It is claimed that the victim was shoved into the river by Belarusian security forces. Up until now, eight migrants have lost their lives in this clash between the EU and Belarus since June.

Furthermore, on 20th October as well, a group of migrants stuck in the middle of both hostile Belarusian and Polish border guards for weeks tried to get through the barbed wire fencing to get to Poland. According to Ocalenie Foundation, at least 17 people were arrested on site and then pushed out: some of them were gassed and pulled through mud. This situation occurred only 3 days after protests in Warsaw, where thousands of people joined a rally against the actions of Polish authorities, pushbacks and inhumane treatment of migrants at the eastern border. The demonstrations were peaceful, some of the participants held banners made of thermal blankets, symbolising the serious risk of death by hypothermia for the people sleeping rough in forests where temperatures reach below zero.
Latvia, Lithuania and Poland continue to refer to the increased arrivals as a “hybrid attack” from Belarus and have sought to militarise their borders in response. On 19th October, the Polish Minister of Defence Mariusz Błaszczak informed that the country had deployed “almost 6,000 soldiers” along the Polish-Belarusian border. This signifies a doubling of the 3 thousand troops that were present there 3 days before. The authorities informed about 612 attempts to cross the border on 18th October, and a total of 9,600 since the beginning of the month. Lithuania’s Minister of Interior, Agne Bilotaite, reported that the state would increase the number of soldiers on the borders up to 64 daily to strengthen its own border with Belarus. Bilotaite also reported that 7 thousand migrants were expected to cross into the EU in the coming days, she admits though that this figure is not confirmed. Lithuania has also called on the EU to put sanctions on those airlines that have inbound flights to Minsk and to further  block them from EU airspace. This demand responds to Europol reports that Belarus is orchestrating flights from Damascus and providing visas to Pakistani, Egyptian and Jordanian nationals.

Latvia has extended the state of emergency at the border until 10 February 2022. The interior ministry justified the measure on the basis that 1,800 people had been stopped while attempting to cross into the EU via Latvia. The Latvian state of emergency was first imposed on 11 August alongside efforts to roll out barbed wire across sections of the frontier, a process that is due to be completed in mid-November. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have all declared emergencies at the border which allow them to derogate from human rights instruments and heavily restrict media access. In Poland, humanitarian groups are also entirely blocked from accessing the zone, with the exception of the Polish Red Cross. Medical volunteer team Medycy Na Granicy have sent a statement to the Polish government asking anew for immediate access to the zone in order to save lives. Caritas Poland meanwhile has mobilised local dioceses in the state of emergency zone to act as “aid points” that provide backpacks with thermal blankets, energy bars and water. Local citizens have also found ways to help people in need: one grassroots initiative calls on people living near the border to switch on a green light outside their homes to signal that they can provide migrants with a hot meal or change of clothes.

Sources and further information:

ECRE, Poland: Parliament Approves ‘Legalisation’ of Pushbacks, Council of Ministers Adopt Bill to Construct Border Wall, Another Life is Lost at Border with Belarus, October 2021
ECRE, Lithuania: Frontex Serious Incident Reports Multiply, Stranded People Suffer at the Border, Camps Improved with EU Funding, Twelve States Ask EU to Fund Fences, October 2021