Sokolka, Poland – When foreigners approach Poland’s border with Belarus, they automatically receive – as this reporter did – a simple and clear text message on their phones.
‘The Polish border is sealed. BLR authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk! “The text message refers to Belarus.
The text also contains a warning not to take any “pills” from Belarusian soldiers; there have been unverified reports that Belarusian border guards have given people tablets containing methadone to “survive” the dangerous passage to the other side.
The message has been sent to the thousands of refugees and migrants who have been trying to cross the border and enter Poland from Belarus in recent weeks, people who rights groups say are being used as tools in a months-long conflict between the West and Russia. Allies Minsk.
The crisis worsened this week as hundreds were heading for the border in scenes that some observers say are similar to those from the early stages of the 2015 European refugee crisis.
Poland has responded by strengthening its border to repel the growing number arriving from Belarus, with Warsaw and its allies accusing President Alexander Lukashenko’s administration – and Russian leader Vladimir Putin – of encouraging people to embark on the perilous journey towards Central Europe. .
According to them, Minsk is acting as revenge and trying to destabilize Europe in return for Western sanctions against Belarus after last year’s controversial election, which gave Lukashenko a sixth term – and the subsequent crackdown on dissent.
The escalating conflict has attracted leaders from across the EU, NATO and the United States.
‘Difficult situation at the border’
In September, Poland imposed a state of emergency in the zone bordering Belarus.
Journalists and relief workers are prevented from accessing the area, which is 3 km (about 2 miles) from Belarus and covers about 200 sleepy towns and villages. Only those who can prove that they are local residents can pass one of the many roadblocks that have been set up.
On a foggy stretch of road near Poland’s Kuznica border crossing with Belarus, a group of Polish border guards stop in fluorescent vests to check every car passing in both directions.
“There is a difficult situation at the border,” said one guard. “You have to turn around.”
He shakes his head to emphasize the point – no one can continue to the border area, where thousands have gathered in hopes of seeking asylum on EU territory.
At another checkpoint further down the border, guards stop another car and search the trunk before returning the driver.
Temperatures are icy cold in the quiet border town of Sokolka.
Police cars and military trucks roll along the streets with Polish flags to celebrate Polish National Independence Day on 11 November.
A 15-minute drive away, a humanitarian crisis unfolds at the barbed wire fences on the Polish-Belarusian border, while crowds, including families with young children, are trapped in the geopolitical tug of war at the EU border.
This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Russia – Belarus’s main ally – to intervene, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen raised the crisis at a meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC.
“We need to protect our democracies from this kind of cynical game of geopolitical power,” she told White House reporters.
The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, on Wednesday proposed for the first time that the EU could legally fund a border barrier, breaking with a long tradition of refusals by EU officials to provide any form of funding for border walls.
Meanwhile, as political tensions simmer without signs of dissolution, refugees face the bleak prospect of another night in the cold with the risk of starvation and hypothermia.
Crystal van Leuwen, a medical emergency manager for Poland / Belarus / Lithuania’s Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) program, which has teams on all sides of the border, told Al Jazeera that the group had not been able to gain access. to the blockade zone in Poland despite repeated requests.
Some people treated by MSF have reported extreme violence from EU border guards, van Leuwen said.
“People have described, in their own words, as being hit with the pistol and kicked in the ribs,” she said.
“One person described that they had been electrocuted in the neck with physical injuries similar to what a Taser would leave behind. We have also treated people with severe dehydration and hypothermia and significant mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as people who have tried suicide as a result of not knowing how to cope with the situation in which they find themselves. ”
At the time of publication, EU officials had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on these allegations.
Van Leuwen said that the current narrative about the so-called arming of people on the go is distracting from serious medical problems on the spot.
“These are people, these are individuals, and seeking asylum is not a crime. They have the right to a fair trial and to be treated with dignity and respect. “
Van Leuwen also noted that, contrary to reports suggesting that it was mainly young, single men at the border, their teams had met people of all ages, including families, pregnant women and children.