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Thousands of Migrants Stuck At Polish-Belarusian Border; EU To Widen Sanctions Against Minsk

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A migrant and her children rest beside a tent in Belarus's Hrodno region, near the Polish border, on November 10.

Hundreds of migrants were spending another night outdoors in freezing temperatures behind razor-wire barriers on the border between Belarus and EU member Poland as Brussels announced fresh sanctions against Minsk, accusing the Belarusian regime of mounting a "hybrid attack" against the bloc.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet meanwhile raised the alarm about the humanitarian crisis at the EU border, which she called "intolerable."

Polish media reported on November 10 that around 200 migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa trapped in Belarus had tried to breach the border a day earlier, and a second group of around 60 people tried to cross after midnight despite the presence of thousands of Polish border guards in the area.

"These hundreds of men, women, and children must not be forced to spend another night in freezing weather without adequate shelter, food, water and medical care," Bachelet said.

Polish authorities say they have detained dozens who forced their way across its eastern border with Belarus. And defense officials accused Belarusian police of firing shots into the air, in apparent attempt to frighten migrants and push them toward the border.

'Hybrid Attack'

The crisis on the border has taken on increasingly urgent tone, as the Polish and Lithuanian governments have declared a state of emergency, and European Union leaders have accused Belarus’s leadership of flying the migrants into the country and purposely pushing them to the border.

"We are facing a brutal hybrid attack on our EU borders. Belarus is weaponizing migrants' distress in a cynical and shocking way," EU Council President Charles Michel said on November 10.

EU ambassadors on November 10 agreed to broaden existing sanctions against Belarus which European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said would be announced as early as next week and could also include airlines involved in "human trafficking."

"Very rapidly at the beginning of next week there will be a widening of the sanctions against Belarus," von der Leyen told reporters after a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington.

"We will look into the possibility of sanctioning those airlines who facilitate human trafficking towards Minsk and then the EU-Belarus border," she added.

Media reports said the new sanctions would target some 30 individuals and entities including the Belarusian foreign minister and the national airline.

Following the talks between Biden and von der Leyen, the White House said in a statement that the two addressed the humanitarian situation on the European Union's border with Belarus and voiced "deep concern about the irregular migration flows."

Crisis Intensifies As Migrants Mass On Belarusian-Polish Border
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 10, to ask him to use his influence with Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Merkel told Putin that “the instrumentalization of migrants by the Belarusian regime is inhumane and unacceptable," her spokesman Steffen Seibert tweeted. She asked Putin “to influence it.”

The Kremlin issued a separate statement quoting Putin as saying the EU should engage in "direct contacts" with Minsk on the matter.

The influx of migrants to Belarus has been building for several months, with thousands of people from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa trying to illegally enter Poland, as well as fellow EU members Latvia and Lithuania.

A satellite picture of the border between Poland and Belarus taken on November 10 shows a large group of migrants who have grouped along parts of the border, seeking to cross into Poland.
A satellite picture of the border between Poland and Belarus taken on November 10 shows a large group of migrants who have grouped along parts of the border, seeking to cross into Poland.

The EU has accused Lukashenka of flying in migrants and funneling them to the bloc's borders to retaliate against Brussels for sanctions imposed after last year's disputed presidential election.

Lukashenka's government, which is backed by Russia, denies the EU charges and has accused Poland and the EU of violating human rights by refusing to allow the migrants to apply for asylum.

The EU has also suspended a visa agreement with Belarus, targeting only Belarusian officials and not affecting ordinary citizens, the European Council said on November 9.

The crisis is reminiscent of the migrant plight of 2015, when the EU had to deal with an influx of more than 1 million people fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

That crisis led to deep differences between member states and boosted public support for far-right parties.

However, the current crisis differs from the previous one as it takes place at the border that separates EU and NATO from Moscow-allied Belarus and Russia itself to the east.

Highlighting the geopolitical dimension of the current crisis, Russia on November 10 sent two nuclear-capable bomber aircraft flying over Belarusian airspace.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and TASS
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