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ACAPS Briefing Note: Belarus/Poland: Migration crisis on the Belarus-Poland border (2 December 2021)

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Thousands of migrants have been arriving to the Belarusian border since July 2021 (BBC 15/11/2021). As at 13 November, an estimated 20,000 migrants and asylum seekers are present in Belarus (NYT 17/11/2021; The Economist 13/11/2021). At least 5,000 people are stuck on the Poland-Belarus border without adequate access to services or assistance (BBC 19/11/2021 a). Migrants and asylum seekers (mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) intending to cross into the EU have arrived in Belarus since late July (Vox News 14/11/2021; BBC 26/11/2021). Some have been stranded in the border areas for weeks because of ‘pushback’ policies by Polish border control and coercion by Belarusian officials to cross again.

The crisis started when Belarusian authorities, through tourist agencies, began promoting tours with accompanying tourist visas to Belarus in the Middle East (BBC 22/10/2021). Smugglers also spread misinformation through social media to encourage travelling to Belarus (NYT 22/11/2021). Once people arrived in Belarus, misinformation led them to believe that they could easily enter the EU by crossing either the Polish, Lithuanian, or Latvian borders.

In response, the three countries deployed border patrols and put up fences to dissuade crossing (The Economist 09/11/2021). Lithuania declared a state of emergency for a month starting 10 November (CNN 11/11/2021), while Latvia declared a state of emergency for three months starting 11 August (France 24 10/08/2021). Polish authorities reinforced border control and prevented migrants from entering the country. The Polish Government, the EU,
NATO, and the US blamed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for manufacturing the crisis in retaliation for the EU sanctions imposed over the arrest of dissidents, which happened amid disputed elections in Belarus and a crackdown against the opposition (CNN 09/11/2021; DW 13/11/2021; AP News 11/11/2021; BBC 19/11/2021 b).

On 2 September, Poland declared a state of emergency covering 183 localities in a 3km strip along the border with Belarus in the provinces of Podlaskie and Lubelskie (Polish Republic Service 31/08/2021). Restrictions include a ban on staying in the area covered by the state of emergency; the prohibition of recording and photographing objects and areas, including border infrastructure, border control officers, police, and soldiers; and limited access to public information on activities carried out in the area. The state of emergency was extended by 60 days on 30 September (bne IntelliNews 01/10/2021). Only Polish Border Guards, ambulances, and residents are allowed to enter the 3km exclusion zone along the border (The Guardian 21/10/2021). There have been documented instances of ambulances failing to enter the area. Reasons include unclear locations and the ambulance used by activist doctors being refused entry (KII 23/11/2021 b).

In October, Belarus reported stopping 5,000 attempts to cross the border, while the Polish Border Guard recorded 11,300 (DW 09/11/2021; Schengen Visa 11/10/2021). In comparison, the Polish border agency recorded only 88 attempts in 2020 (BBC 16/11/2021).

In November, a group of migrants attempted to reach Poland by going through Ukraine but was stopped by border control (KII 23/11/2021 a)