For months, the government of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has accelerated the number of visas it grants migrants seeking refuge from war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and beyond.
But the visas aren't being issued with the intention of letting the migrants stay in Belarus. Officials in European Union countries say Lukashenko is doing this as a ploy to send large numbers of migrants to Poland and other EU members that border Belarus in retaliation for the bloc's economic sanctions.
The EU has hit the Lukashenko regime with several rounds of sanctions since last year, accusing him of stealing his country's 2020 election as well as ordering violent crackdowns on his opponents and other rights abuses of citizens.
After securing what are typically seven-day visas and paying agencies from $3,000 to $6,000 for passage they are told will take them to the European Union, migrants have boarded flights to the Belarusian capital of Minsk, where they're escorted to the Belarusian border with Poland. Once there, Belarusian soldiers have helped migrants climb over the razor-wire fence that marks the border.
In response to thousands of migrants traveling this route, Poland has declared a state of emergency and has sent more than 20,000 security personnel to its border with Belarus.
Thousands of migrants are living in tent villages on the Belarusian border with Poland. They're trapped between Belarusian soldiers encouraging them to enter Poland and Polish soldiers pushing them back to Belarus.
Poland's Defense Ministry said Tuesday that migrants stranded on the Belarusian side of the border threw stones at Polish soldiers, who responded with tear gas and water canons. Migrants have reported physical abuse from security forces on both sides of the border.
United Nations agencies have called on authorities to respect the rights of migrants and refugees under international human rights and refugee laws.
Several migrants have died from sleeping in the freezing conditions of the forests and wetlands that make up the border region, and several humanitarian groups have tried to provide water, food and legal advice to them.
Now, the EU is preparing its fifth round of sanctions on officials in the Lukashenko regime as well as the airlines that have provided travel to migrants.
In response to the threat, several carriers, including Turkish Airlines, have refused to provide travel for Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis on its flights to Belarus.
International correspondent Rob Schmitz reported from Poland and Germany; photo editor Marco Storel edited the images.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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