German interior minister says Poland needs support to deal with ‘hybrid threat’ of politically organised migration
People gather on the Belarusian-Polish border. Photograph: Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA/TASS
The Guardian-Andrew Roth in Moscow with agencies
Germany needs to get the “whole of the democratic world” onboard to support orderly immigration to Europe, its interior minister has said, amid a worsening crisis at the Poland-Belarus border.
Horst Seehofer accused Belarus and Russia of exploiting refugees and migrants in an attempt to destabilise the west, and said EU countries must stand together in the face of a “hybrid threat” posed by “politically organised migration”.
Polish police blocked hundreds of people from entering the country on Monday after Belarusian authorities had escorted them to the border.
Poland and other EU countries have accused Belarus of trying to provoke a new refugee crisis in Europe in revenge for their criticism of Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on domestic opposition. Minsk has reportedly issued special visas allowing migrants to fly into Belarus from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.
“The Poles have reacted correctly so far,” Seehofer told the German newspaper Bild of Poland’s reinforcement of the border. “We cannot criticise them for securing the EU’s external border with admissible means. The Poles are fulfilling a very important service for the whole of Europe.”
EU countries “must stand together, because Lukashenko is using people’s fates with the support of Russian president Vladimir Putin to destabilise the west,” he said. “Poland or Germany can’t handle this alone. We must help the Polish government secure their external border. This would actually be the task of the European Commission. I’m now appealing to them to take action,” he said.
Seehofer’s deputy, Stephan Mayer, told Bild that “Germany could send police very promptly to support Poland if Poland wants that”.
A Polish government spokesperson said a further 3,000 to 4,000 migrants were gathering near the border on Tuesday. “We expect that there may be an escalation of this type of action on the Polish border in the near future, which will be of an armed nature,” he said.
Poland has sent thousands of soldiers to the border area, created a two-mile deep militarised zone, built a razor-wire fence and approved the construction of a border wall. It is also enforcing a state of emergency in the region complete with a media blackout.
Hundreds of people spent the night in tents in a camp along the border overnight, gathering firewood and lighting campfires as temperatures fell below freezing.
Poland’s Kuźnica border crossing was closed early on Tuesday, and police monitoring the area with night-vision and thermal imaging reported a large detachment of Belarusian troops approaching the migrant camp.
During clashes on Monday, video footage emerged that appeared to show an armed Polish officer spraying chemicals at men who were trying to cut the razor-wire border fence. Others tried to clear the fence by climbing long wooden poles or branches. Polish police were hit with objects thrown from the Belarusian side as helicopters hovered above.
Gunshots were audible in several videos posted online on Monday evening. It is not clear whether anyone was injured. In the footage, a voice off-camera says that Belarusian border guards had opened fire, possibly in the air. Belarusian officials confirmed that gunshots were audible but claimed they had come from the Polish side of the border.
There have been no repeats of Monday’s clashes, although the situation remained tense. On the Belarusian side, guards have been searching cars and buses approaching the border area and reportedly fired warning shots to prevent more people from joining the camp.
Paweł Soloch, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, said late on Monday that “in the coming hours attacks on our border will be renewed by groups of several hundred people”.
Many of those seeking entry into Poland are desperately fleeing war and poverty-racked countries in the Middle East. Most want to reach Germany, which said it had received more than 6,100 refugees via Poland from Belarus since the beginning of the year.
On Monday, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, pledged greater support for Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to deal with the emergency. She said the EU would explore “how to sanction, including through blacklisting, third-country airlines that are active in human trafficking”.
“Belarus must stop putting people’s lives at risk. The instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes by Belarus is unacceptable,” she added. Nato also hit out at Belarus, accusing its government of using migrants as political pawns.
The US Department of State called on the regime in Belarus to “immediately halt its campaign of orchestrating and coercing irregular migrant flows across its borders into Europe”.
Poland, a member of the EU and Nato, has drawn sharp criticism for its tough rhetoric on migration in recent years. The latest comments from Seehofer, Von der Leyen and others suggest a softening of the approach towards the country’s rightwing government.
Those attempting to cross from Belarus into the EU have become trapped between the two since October, when Polish police were authorised to summarily expel migrants and ignore asylum applications. Belarusian border guards have refused to allow them to turn back.
Belarus has denied it has any hand in directing the flow of migrants. “The indifference and inhumane attitude of the Polish authorities has prompted the refugees to take such a step of despair,” the Belarusian border guard said in a statement.