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Poland, Baltics step up border controls amid migrant crisis

Henry-Laur Allik
June 16, 2024

Since the start of the EU-Belarus border crisis three years ago, migrants have made nearly 150,000 attempts to illegally cross into either Poland, Lithuania or Latvia, DW analysis shows.

A standoff between migrants and Polish soldiers on Kuznica Bialostocka-Bruzgi border crossing on the Belarusian-Polish border, November 8 2021.
The crisis escalated in November 2021 when several thousand migrants approached the Belarusian-Polish border and set up a tent campImage: State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Shortly after the European Union imposed successive rounds of sanctions on Belarus for a presidential election that the opposition denounced as fraudulent, thousands of Middle Eastern and African migrants began arriving at Belarus' border with Lithuania in the summer of 2021.

This sudden influx, which Poland and the Baltic states have accused Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of coordinating together with Russia, expanded into a wider border crisis that is still ongoing three years later. Statistics from the three states neighboring Belarus show border guards have stopped some 150,000 illegal crossing attempts by migrants, overwhelmingly in Poland.

"There is no doubt that the crisis at the border was caused by hybrid actions of the Belarusian side. We know that it is an artificially created and controlled migration route," Andrzej Juzwiak, a spokesperson for the Polish border guard agency, told DW.

EU officials believe many of the migrants have been organized and aided by Russia and its ally, Belarus, in a coordinated attempt to destabilize the European Union. According to Polish officials, about 90% of the migrants stopped at Poland's border hold Russian visas, an indicator of Russia's involvement.

Poland bears brunt of migrant crossings

Since 2021, Polish border guards have stopped nearly 100,000 attempts by migrants to illegally cross into Poland from Belarus, followed by Latvia with around 25,000 attempts and Lithuania with 22,000. This doesn't mean, however, that as many people have tried to cross into the EU, as one person could have attempted the crossing several times.

Looking at the statistics by year, 2021 tops the chart with just over 52,000 attempts to enter the EU from Belarus, followed by 2023 with 43,000, and 2022 with around 31,000.

During the first five months of this year, border guards in the three countries have already registered more than 20,000 attempts to cross into the EU. Poland is once again under the most pressure, with Polish authorities reporting 400 attempts every day by migrants mainly heading for Germany and the United Kingdom, further west.

"We are prepared for various scenarios," said Juzwiak, without being specific.

Meanwhile, on the EU's direct border with Russia in Estonia and Latvia, the situation has been relatively calm, with both countries reporting no "weaponized" migration.

"Of course, there have been attempts [by migrants] throughout recent years to cross the Estonian border either on their own or with the help of various criminal associations for the purpose of illegal migration," said Veiko Kommusaar, head of Estonia's border guard agency. "However, these numbers are not large and cannot be equated with what is happening in Latvia-Lithuania-Poland, where the [Belarusian] state has deliberately directed the flow of people to the border."

Estonia's neighbor to the north, Finland, saw around 1,300 migrants arrive at its checkpoints with Russia in late 2023. In response, the country indefinitely closed its entire border with Russia in April.

Migrants growing more aggressive, say border guards

Since 2021, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have spent hundreds of millions of euros to secure their borders with high fences bristling with barbed wire and equipped with thousands of cameras and motion sensors. The number of border guards and soldiers stationed there have also been increased.

Despite the extra fortifications, problems have persisted for border authorities.

The year started calmly for the Latvian Border Guard: still operating under special border protection measures, there were almost no illegal border violations in January and the beginning of February, which is why Latvia decided to end the special measures. But then migrants suddenly started to flow from Belarus again.

Establishing a state of emergency gave the Latvian border guard the right to operate in a wider area, not only near the border. Border guards got the right to search residential buildings if there is suspicion that migrants are hiding there, border personnel have the right to work overtime, and the Latvian police and defense forces are obliged to assist the border guard.

Poland has now reacted the same way by implementing its own special measures on the border with Belarus.

Polish soldiers patrol the border with Belarus along the border fence in the Bialowieza forest.
Poland has reintroduced a buffer zone along parts of its border with Belarus, set to remain in place for the next three monthsImage: Attila Husejnow/ZUMA Press Wire/IMAGO

On June 13, Poland redeployed a roughly 60-kilometer (40-mile) no-entry buffer zone along its border with Belarus, a 200-meter wide area off limits to all non-residents, including humanitarian groups and journalists. Poland's previous government temporarily set up a larger buffer zone along its entire border in 2021. 

The main purpose of the zone is to ensure the safety of locals and security officials on duty at the border and to limit the activity of human smugglers, said border guard spokesperson Juzwiak. 

Since the start of the migrant crisis, he added, migrants have become more and more aggressive. "They are using dangerous tools, knives, knives attached to sticks, clubs, slingshots. Stones, branches, burning branches are thrown at the Polish patrols," said Juzwiak.

On May 28, a young Polish soldier was stabbed in the chest by a migrant through the bars of the border fence near the village of Dubicze Cerkiewne. He later died as a result of his injuries

Rights, freedoms of all migrants must be respected: IOM

Refugee rights groups have spoken out against the buffer zone, saying it will prevent them from assisting migrants who cross the border in remote areas and are in need of food or medical assistance.

Poland, Latvia and Lithuania have repeatedly been criticized by humanitarian organizations for their approach to handling the crisis. NGOs have accused the countries of violating human rights by using a "pushback" tactic to expel migrants and asylum-seekers. Individuals and groups who have tried to assist migrants are often detained and prosecuted.

The Polish Border Guard reported that on the section of the Polish-Belarusian state border, 196 helpers and organizers of illegal border crossings were detained this year as of June 10.

The International Organization for Migration has called on all three states to ensure that rule of law is upheld at the borders, and that the human rights and freedoms of all migrants are respected, regardless of immigration status.

"The fundamental responsibility to protect vulnerable people should be shared among states in a spirit of solidarity and in adherence to international obligations and commitments," a spokesperson told DW, adding that the IOM has also called for an end to the use of migrants for political purposes.

Donald Tusk shakes hands with soldiers, who are standing in a receiving line
Prime Minister Tusk (left) visited troops stationed at the border with Belarus in MayImage: Artur Reszko/pap/dpa/picture alliance

But speaking on a visit to the border in May, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was undeterred in the fight against illegal migration organized by Russia and Belarus.

"There is no room for negotiation. Poland's border must be protected," he said. "Polish troops, border guards, officers have become the targets of aggression, and you have every right, not to say an obligation, to use every means available to you [...] when you are defending not only the border but also you own life."

Edited by: Martin Kuebler

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