Poland says groups of migrants have made new attempts to illegally cross the border from Belarus, and warned against interpreting recent moves by Minsk to repatriate some of the migrants as a de-escalation of the crisis on the European Union's eastern frontier.
The Polish officials issued the warning on November 23 as top EU officials said the 27-nation bloc was readying a fifth package of sanctions against Belarus for mounting a "hybrid attack” against the bloc by bringing thousands of men, women, and children from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into the European Union through Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Minsk is accused of trying to destabilize the EU in response to sanctions that Brussels imposed earlier following a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown by authoritarian leader Akyaksandr Lukashenka against protesters who accuse him of stealing an election in August last year.
Last week, Belarusian authorities cleared migrant camps at the border and allowed the first repatriation flight to Iraq in months.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said 118 migrants left the country on November 22 and more would depart on November 23.
But authorities in Warsaw said the subsequent incidents at the border showed Lukashenka had not given up his plans to use migrants as a weapon in the standoff with the EU.
"We don't consider the recent measures taken by the Lukashenka regime as a step back from its long-time strategy. While those [repatriation] flights may seem a symptom of de-escalation, we believe it's too early to say so,” Poland's Special Services Ministry spokesman Stanislaw Zaryn told journalists.
Polish authorities estimate at least 10,000 migrants could be still in Belarus, Zaryn said.
About 2,000 people are currently staying at a warehouse facility near the border with Poland. Lukashenka has said a total of 7,000 migrants remain in the country.
Meanwhile, the country’s Border Guards reported 174 illegal attempts to cross the border from Belarus in the previous 24 hours.
“Sixty-six migrants were given expulsion orders which increased the total number of such orders to 1,760, as of October 26," spokeswoman Anna Michalska said.
Lukashenka, who denies fomenting the crisis, has pressured the EU and Germany, in particular, to accept some migrants while Belarus repatriates others, a demand the bloc has so far flatly rejected.
Officials of the International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' office met with Belarusian officials in Belarus on November 23 to discuss aid delivery and paperwork needed to repatriate the migrants.
Humanitarian agencies say as many as 13 migrants have died at the border since the crisis began.
In Strasbourg, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc was standing in solidarity with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia in the face of Minsk’s destabilization attempts.
"It is the EU as a whole that is being challenged," von der Leyen told the European Parliament. "This is not a migration crisis. This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize its democratic neighbors."
To counter such efforts, she said her commission would draw up a "blacklist" of travel and transport firms involved in trafficking migrants into the EU.
She also said Brussels was coordinating its new package of sanctions against Minsk with Britain, Canada, and the United States.
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told lawmakers that the commission proposed “a new legal framework which will enable us to adopt targeted measures against transport operators...that knowingly or unknowingly engage or facilitate smuggling or trafficking people into the European Union.”
The proposal would provide the legal tool allowing the bloc to suspend or limit the operations of companies organizing transport by land, air, and sea or even ban them from the EU.
European Council President Charles Michel said the new set of sanctions would include a ban on Belarus airline Belavia to lease planes from EU-based companies.
"The majority of the fleet of Belavia are aircraft leased from EU companies, this will be halted when the decision is taken, which is imminent," he said.
According to RFE/RL''s Europe editor and former Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak, the EU’s fifth package of sanctions could be adopted “late next week” and includes about 30 individuals and entities.”