The National - News
MIGRANTS ON BELARUS-POLAND BORDER FACE COLD AND COVID-19
▶ Aid workers fear for health of 2,000 people as Minsk demands that EU help out
People stranded at the EU’s eastern border are suffering from hypothermia and may lose their lives, humanitarian workers said.
Concern for migrants at Poland’s border with Belarus, where snow fell yesterday, is growing. Some of the migrants have been moved away from makeshift camps.
Belarus has been blamed by the West for engineering the crisis by exploiting people from countries such as Iraq, but aid workers criticised Poland for pushing the migrants out of its territory.
The International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian group, estimated that 13 people have died.
Some were buried by a Muslim community on the Polish side of the border.
The IRC said the migrants were living in freezing conditions, without food, water or shelter, and there were “growing reports” of hypothermia.
“The misdeeds of Belarus, which have lured vulnerable people into a political game, cannot be answered with inhumanity,” said Harlem Desir, IRC vice president.
“The EU should continue to do all it can to dissuade Belarus from these actions. European countries must uphold people’s right to asylum and ensure that all claims are processed fairly and quickly.”
Belarus has moved some migrants to a warehouse, but others are still in tents.
There were reports of a coronavirus outbreak among the migrants, said Oleg Ignatov of the International Crisis Group.
“The approaching winter cold will soon make the crisis even more acute,” he said.
Other aid agencies raised concerns about the health of children and pregnant women stranded at the border.
While humanitarian groups are calling for a de-escalation of the crisis, opponents of the Belarusian government are divided over how to handle the situation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko by phone, which led to a demand by Belarus that the EU should take the 2,000 migrants.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Mr Lukashenko in an election last year, asked EU ministers to “refrain from any contacts with the regime” until it releases political prisoners and eases its repression of the opposition.
“I understand why it has been done … to de-escalate the situation at the borders, but as a Belarusian, from the side of the Belarusian people, [the demand to the EU] looked very strange,” she said.
Julie Fisher, the US ambassador to Belarus who lives in Lithuania, said Belarus’s ally Russia could be contributing to the situation.
“We are concerned that the migrant crisis has diverted attention away from Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine and have urged our partners to keep a close eye on the region as well,” she said.
Mr Lukashenko said the EU was avoiding his demands to discuss the proposed transfer of migrants.
Germany said the matter was not up for discussion.
A total of 118 people left Belarus from Minsk’s main airport on Monday, state media reported.
Poland said the pressure at its border was continuing despite efforts at de-escalation.
Another 174 people tried to enter Poland illegally from Belarus on Monday, Polish officials said, including 50 “aggressive foreigners”.
The Polish Defence Ministry said soldiers fended off an attack it claimed was “supervised by the Belarusian services”.
Belarus appealed to the UN yesterday, saying the World Health Organisation should examine Poland’s treatment of the migrants.
Belarus blames Polish guards, and the EU’s refusal to open its doors, for their plight.
A UN meeting is “needed for all our colleagues who are members of the WHO to look at how health care is ensured by the European Union”, Belarusian deputy prime minister Igor Petrishenko was quoted as saying by state media.
“We recommend effective measures to ensure a quick resolution of this crisis.”