Poland says Belarus border crisis may be prelude to “something worse”

By Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Andrius Sytas

WARSAW/VILNIUS (Reuters) -Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned on Sunday that the migrant crisis on the Belarus border may be a prelude to “something much worse,” and Poland’s border guard said Belarusian forces were still ferrying migrants to the frontier.

The European Union accuses Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into EU and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, in response to European sanctions.

Minsk, which denies fomenting the crisis, cleared a migrant camp near the border on Thursday and started to repatriate some people to Iraq, while Poland and Lithuania reported lower numbers of attempts to cross their borders in recent days.

But Morawiecki warned the crisis was far from over as he toured Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia on Sunday to discuss the situation.

A poll published by Poland’s Rzeczpospolita daily on Sunday said 55% of Poles are worried the crisis on the border could escalate into an armed conflict.

“I think that the things that unfold before our eyes, these dramatic events, may only be a prelude to something much worse,” Morawiecki said in Vilnius.

He pointed to increased Russian military presence close to Ukraine, as well as in Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave which borders Poland and Lithuania, as “an instrument which could be used directly for a direct attack”.

The situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover “may be used as the next stage of the migration crisis,” said Morawiecki.

CALLS FOR SUPPORT

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte warned European partners to not ignore Belarus’ neighbors, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel twice called Lukashenko looking for solution of the humanitarian crisis.

“For us, it is very important that any talks (with Belarus) are coordinated with Lithuania, Poland and Latvia, which are at the forefront of the hybrid attack, and no decisions are taken which do not solve the situation fundamentally”, she said after meeting with Morawiecki on Sunday.

France’s foreign minister said on Sunday that Russia had to exert pressure on its ally, Belarus, to end the migrant crisis.

FORCIBLY BROUGHT TO BORDER

Poland says Minsk continues to truck hundreds of foreigners to the frontier, where about 10 migrants are believed to have died with a frigid winter setting in.

“On Saturday … a group of about 100 very aggressive foreigners, brought to the border by Belarusian servicemen, tried to enter Poland by force,” the border guard said on Twitter on Sunday.

A dozen migrants from Iraq, speaking with Lithuanian news portal DELFI over the border with Belarus on Saturday, said they were forcibly brought there in military trucks by Belarus officials, who ignored their wish to go back to Iraq.

Hundreds of Poles took part in protests on Saturday to demand help for the migrants. The Catholic church organized a fundraiser on Sunday to collect money for those in need at the border and support the integration of refugees who will stay in Poland.

(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Poland says Belarus ferries migrants back to border after clearing camps

By Yara Abi Nader and Kacper Pempel

BIELSK PODLASKI, Poland/BRUZGI, Belarus (Reuters) -Poland accused Belarus on Friday of trucking hundreds of migrants back to the border and pushing them to attempt to cross illegally, only hours after clearing camps at a frontier that has become the focus of an escalating East-West crisis.

The accusation by Poland suggests the crisis has not been resolved by an apparent change of tack by Minsk, which on Thursday had cleared the main camps by the border and allowed the first repatriation flight to Iraq in months.

European governments accuse Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to illegally cross the EU border, where several people have died in the freezing woods. Belarus denies fomenting the crisis.

Polish Border Guard spokesperson Anna Michalska said that by Thursday evening, just hours after clearing the camps, Belarus authorities were already trucking hundreds back and forcing them to try to cross in darkness.

“(The Belarusians) were bringing more migrants to the place where there was a forced attempt to cross,” Michalska said. “At the beginning there were 100 people, but then the Belarusian side brought more people in trucks. Then there were 500 people.”

When the migrants tried to cross the border, Belarusian troops blinded Polish guards with lasers, she told a news conference. Some migrants had thrown logs and four guards sustained minor injuries.

Access to the border on the Polish side is restricted by a state of emergency, making it difficult to verify her account.

‘NIGHTMARE’

In an interview with the BBC, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko repeated denials that he had orchestrated the crisis but, asked if Belarus was helping migrants try and cross into Poland, he said: “I think that’s absolutely possible. We’re Slavs. We have hearts. Our troops know the migrants are going to Germany. Maybe someone helped them. I won’t even look into this.”

The migrants from the camp on the Belarus side were taken on Thursday to a huge, crowded warehouse and journalists were permitted to film them. Children ran about on Friday morning, and men played cards while one dangled a toddler on his lap.

“This is not a life but this is not permanent, this should be just temporary until they decide our destiny: to take us to Europe or bring us back to our countries,” said 23-year-old electrician Mohammed Noor.

“What I wish for myself, I wish it for others too – to go to Europe and live a stable life.”

Meanwhile in a hospital in Bielsk Podlaski, on the Polish side, two migrants who had been caught after crossing were given treatment before being taken away by Polish border guards.

Before he was taken away, Mansour Nassar, 42, a father-of-six from Aleppo, in Syria, who had travelled to Belarus from Lebanon, described his ordeal during five days in the forest.

“The Belarusian army told us: ‘If you come back, we will kill you’,” he said, in tears in his hospital bed. “We drank from ponds… Our people are always oppressed.”

Kassam Shahadah, a Syrian refugee doctor living in Poland who helps out in another hospital, said patients were terrified of being forcibly returned to Belarus.

“What they have seen, what they have lived through on that side is a nightmare for them,” he said.

EXTREME SUFFERING

Human rights groups say Poland has exacerbated the suffering by sending back those who try to cross. Poland says this is necessary to stop more people from coming.

“I have personally listened to the appalling accounts of extreme suffering from desperate people – among whom many families, children and elderly – who spent weeks or even months in squalid and extreme conditions in the cold and wet woods due to these pushbacks,” Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović said after a four-day mission to Poland.

“I have witnessed clear signs of their painful ordeal: wounds, frostbite, exposure to extreme cold, exhaustion and stress,” she said. “I have no doubt that returning any of these people to the border will lead to more extreme human suffering and more deaths.”

The Polish border guards have recorded seven deaths at the border. Rights groups say more than 10 people have died.

‘CYNICAL AND INHUMANE’

Europeans have shunned Lukashenko since a disputed election last year, but reached out cautiously this week, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking to Lukashenko twice by phone.

However, on Thursday the European Commission and Germany rejected a proposal that Minsk said Lukashenko had made to Merkel, under which EU countries would take in 2,000 migrants, while 5,000 others would be sent back home..

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday that the situation on the borders remained deeply concerning.

“Lukashenko’s regime’s use of vulnerable people as a means to put pressure on other countries is cynical and inhumane,” he said. “NATO stands in full solidarity with all affected allies.”

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Pawel Florkiewicz, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Leon Malherbe, Yara Abi Nader, Kacper Pempel, Stephan Schepers, Andrius Sytas; Writing by Joanna Plucinska and Ingrid Melander; Editing by Peter Graff and Alex Richardson)

Poland blames Belarus as migrants try to force their way across border

By Matthias Williams and Joanna Plucinska

KYIV (Reuters) -Poland accused Belarus of trying to spark a major confrontation on Monday as video clips showed hundreds of migrants walking towards the Polish border and some trying to breach the fence using spades and other implements.

Warsaw said it had deployed additional soldiers, border guards and police, while neighboring Lithuania said it might introduce a state of emergency on its border with Belarus.

The European Union, to which Poland and Lithuania both belong, accuses Minsk of encouraging migrants from the Middle East and Africa to cross into the EU via Belarus, as a form of hybrid warfare in revenge for Western sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko’s government over human rights abuses.

Poland said it had withstood the first attempts on Monday by the migrants to force their way across the border.

A video distributed by Polish authorities showed one man cutting part of a barbed wire fence, another attacking the fence with a spade, while a Polish soldier sprayed an unidentified substance from a can.

In an earlier video, shared by the Belarusian blogging service NEXTA, migrants carrying rucksacks and wearing winter clothing were seen walking on the side of a highway. Other videos showed large groups of migrants sitting by the road and being escorted by armed men dressed in khaki.

“Belarus wants to cause a major incident, preferably with shots fired and casualties. According to media reports, they are preparing a major provocation near Kuznica Bialostocka, that there will be an attempt at a mass border crossing,” Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk told Polish public radio.

Lithuania said it also was moving additional troops to the border to prepare for a possible surge in migrant crossings. Latvia said the situation was “alarming.”

‘INHUMAN ATTITUDE’

Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied manufacturing a migrant crisis, blaming the West for the crossings and treatment of migrants.

The Belarusian state border committee confirmed on Monday that many refugees were moving towards the Polish border, but said Warsaw was taking an “inhumane attitude.”

Poland has stationed more than 12,000 troops at the border, its defense minister said, while sharing aerial footage of migrants clustered on the Belarusian side.

“They throw tree trunks on the fence so as to reduce the height of this fence to breach it,” said Katarzyna Zdanowicz, spokeswoman for Polish border guards in the area.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged a strong response from the EU and United Nations.

“Belarus’ regime escalates the border crisis – migrants are pushed to EU border by armed men,” she tweeted. “The migrant smuggling, violence & ill-treatment must stop.”

The EU, the United States and Britain imposed sanctions on Belarus after Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on mass protests following a disputed election last year.

“Lukashenko’s regime is putting the lives and health of migrants at risk, using them to escalate the border crisis and provoke Poland,” said Bix Aliu, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Warsaw. “Hostile actions by Belarus are exacerbating the situation on the border with the EU and NATO dangerously and must end immediately.”

Lukashenko has defied opposition calls to resign, buttressed by money and diplomatic support from traditional ally Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday defended Minsk’s handling of the migrant issue, saying Belarus was taking all necessary measures to act legally.

Charities say the migrants face freezing weather conditions and a lack of food and medical attention.

Poland said seven migrants had been found dead on its side of the border, with reports of more deaths in Belarus.

Humanitarian groups accuse Poland’s ruling nationalists of violating the international right to asylum by pushing migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Poland says its actions are legal.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Facebook: “The Polish border is not just a line on a map. The border is sacred – Polish blood has been spilled for it!”.

(Reporting by Matthias Williams in Kyiv, Joanna Plucinska and Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw; Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv, Dmitry Antonov in Moscow and Christian Kraemer in Berlin; writing by Matthias Williams, editing by Ed Osmond and Gareth Jones)

Poland’s push-back policy leaves migrants facing an uncertain future as winter looms

By Joanna Plucinska and Kacper Pempel

Near SIEMIANOWKA, Poland (Reuters) – Somali migrant Abdi Fitah’s bid to cross into Poland from Belarus ended with him barefoot and freezing after he lost his shoes in a river and wandered for days in the woods along the border.

The 23-year-old is one of thousands of people, including children, from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan who have tried to enter Poland from Belarus in recent weeks, with charities saying they face harrowing conditions on the border.

Jakub Sieczko, a medical doctor and coordinator of the Medycy na Granicy (Medics on the Border) aid group, said he feared there would be more deaths as temperatures drop.

“There are more and more people who are hungry and dehydrated…The conditions are getting worse,” Sieczko told Reuters, adding that many migrants are from warm countries and unprepared for the cold.

Ibrahim, who said he left Somalia 15 days ago, thought he was having a heart attack while walking through the woods with a group of fellow migrants, before receiving medical help for hypothermia at the border.

“The conditions are very cold, (we’re) not wearing shoes,” he said, explaining how he lost his shoes in the river. “The leg is a big problem. I’m not wearing (enough) clothes…(or) shoes.”

He crossed the border with six other Somalis. Three of them ended up in an ambulance due to their health problems, which included a sprained ankle and symptoms of hypothermia.

Four were driven off in a border guard truck. It’s unclear if they went to a detention center or were pushed back to the border.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said Poland is in breach of international law in its efforts to force migrants back into Belarus instead of offering them asylum.

Poland says it is respecting its international obligations while trying to stem the flow of migrants who, it says, often do not want asylum in Poland but rather in western Europe.

The European Union accuses Belarus of orchestrating the flow to put pressure on the bloc in retaliation for sanctions slapped on Minsk over human rights abuses.

MORE AND MORE MIGRANTS

Polish authorities say more than 15,000 attempts to cross the border have been made since early August, mostly by Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian nationals. The attempts have become more frequent and now exceed 500 a day.

Under EU rules, migrants should in principle apply for asylum in the first country they enter, but the bloc is planning reforms to ensure asylum obligations are more evenly spread.

Franek Sterczewski, a Polish parliamentary deputy with leading opposition group Civic Coalition, said more migrants were being turned back by border guards into the woods.

“(The Somali migrants) were sent back to the border seven times,” he said. “They’ve been wandering the forest for weeks, the temperature at night is around zero degrees, it’s raining and it’s very cold. Pushing them back will put their health and life at risk.”

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Kacper Pempel; Writing by Michael Kahn; Editing by Mike Harrison)

Four dead as hurricane-force winds batter Poland

WARSAW (Reuters) – Four people were killed and 18 injured in a storm that battered Poland with hurricane-force winds on Thursday night, authorities said, damaging properties and felling trees across western and central areas of the country.

Fire services reported more than 10,000 incidents and 930 buildings were damaged, private broadcaster TVN24 reported, with the western region of Lubuskie and the central Lodzkie region hardest hit.

“The storm was terrible, it broke the sheet metal and took it from one part of the roof to the other side of the house,” Krzysztof Kolczynski, whose house in the village of Maszkowice in central Poland was damaged in the storm, told TVN24.

“It’s good that there were chimneys, otherwise it would have torn off the entire roof.”

In the south-western city of Wroclaw, police said that two people were killed when a tree fell on their car.

“Wroclaw police received a report about a tree that fell on a moving vehicle,” said police officer Pawel Noga. “Unfortunately, it was confirmed on the spot that two people in the car were killed in the incident.”

The Polish meteorological office issued fresh storm warnings for Friday evening, with the north of the country expected to face the strongest winds.

(Writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Night crossings: Germany braces as Belarus route swells migrant flows

By Thomas Escritt

EISENHUETTENSTADT, Germany (Reuters) – Zhina ran in the dead of night through a forest near the Belarusian-Polish border. Crucifix clenched in her pocket, she slipped with her mother and younger sister through a hole cut in the wire fence by men she believed were Belarusian police.

Last week, the 17-year-old from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan arrived at a rapidly swelling refugee camp in eastern Germany, a few km (miles) from the Polish frontier. She was one of more than 100 refugees arriving each day as news of the Belarus corridor to Europe spreads around the Middle East.

Authorities in Brandenburg, the eastern German state that is housing most of the new arrivals, are calling for tougher action against what they see as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s hybrid war against the European Union – allowing migrants to filter through Belarusian borders into Poland or neighboring Baltic states in retaliation for EU sanctions.

“We are just managing the symptoms here,” said Michael Stuebgen, Brandenburg’s interior minister. “The actual problem is the people smuggling organized by the Belarus regime.”

All Iraqis now know about the Belarusian route to the EU, said Zhina’s mother Nihaya, who paid traffickers $15,000 to arrange the journey for herself and her daughters.

Facing crippling sanctions over his violent crackdown on protests over his disputed re-election victory last year, Lukashenko has opened his country’s borders to much of the Middle East and Africa, knowing that many will use the opportunity to pass through into the EU, starting with Poland.

In August, Stuebgen said, 200 arrived from Belarus at the camp in Eisenhuettenstadt, on Germany’s border with Poland. Now, 100-150 are arriving daily. Many are in a bad way – of 120 who arrived on Wednesday, seven tested positive for COVID-19.

Poland and Lithuania have erected fences along their border with Belarus, but few refugees want to stop in either country.

DESTINATION: GERMANY VIA POLAND

Under EU asylum rules, they have to stay in the first EU country they are registered in – so refugees wanting to live in affluent Germany – the most desirable destination for many EU-bound migrants – to dodge the authorities on the way there.

“Everything happened after midnight: it was too dangerous during the day,” said Zhina, describing how men, whom she believed to be Belarusian policemen, had trucked her and dozens of other migrants to the border and cut a hole through the fence to let them into Poland.

The three sneaked through forest on the Polish side of the border, dodging border guards flashing torches, hitching rides or getting driven by smugglers across Poland, thereby avoiding registration there, before reaching Germany.

The crucifix, a gift from her mother, was safely stowed in her pocket out of fear its chain would snag on a branch.

Her mother dreams of settling in Hamburg, where Zhina wants to study engineering at university. If successful, she and her 12-year-old sister Zhino will join the million or so migrants who settled in Germany in 2015, many of whom are now thriving.

But Brandenburg, which has the headache of settling the hundreds of new arrivals in a former police barracks that it has tripled in size with the aid of heated tents, is calling for firmer action from the German government and the EU.

Stuebgen called for “a landing ban in all of Europe for all airlines that contribute to this human trafficking” – which could include Belarus’s Belavia, which flew Zhina from Istanbul to Minsk, but also Gulf airlines, officials said.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Poland refuses to halt disputed coal mine despite EU court penalty

By Foo Yun Chee and Anna Koper

BRUSSELS/WARSAW (Reuters) -Poland vowed to keep its disputed Turow coal mine running on Monday despite being hit with a order to pay a 500,000 euro ($585,550) daily penalty to the European Commission for defying an earlier court ruling to halt operations.

Europe’s top court, the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), ordered the penalty on Monday.

It followed a request from the Czech Republic, which is locked in a dragging dispute with Poland over the Turow open-pit mine that sits next to their shared border. The Czech government says the mine is damaging its communities.

The mine, which produces lignite, or brown coal, has been operating for more than a century, but has recently expanded further towards the Czech border.

The penalty order could pressure Warsaw to seek a resolution with Prague after bilateral talks started in June over technical upgrades and measures to limit damage to water levels and noise and air conditions. A deal should end any legal disputes.

The Polish government said the EU court’s penalty on Monday undermined those talks, and said Turow, a major source of jobs and electricity in its region, would continue operations.

“The fine mentioned by the Court of Justice of the European Union is disproportionate to the situation and is not justified by facts,” Poland’s government said in a statement.

“It undermines the ongoing process of reaching an amicable settlement.”

The court’s order comes amid other disputes Warsaw faces with the European Union, largely over the rule of law.

The Czech Republic has taken its grievance over Turow to the Commission, which last year started legal proceedings, saying Warsaw had breached EU law when extending the mine’s life.

The country also took its case to the CJEU, and won judges’ backing for a temporary order to stop Turow’s operations until a final judgment.

“JUDICIAL ROBBERY”

When Warsaw rejected a halt, Prague asked for a daily penalty payment of 5 million euros to be levied.

The court on Monday agreed but set the fine much lower.

“Such a measure appears necessary in order to strengthen the effectiveness of the interim measures decided upon in the order of 21 May 2021 and to deter that member state from delaying bringing its conduct into line with that order,” judges said.

Prague welcomed the penalty but said it still wanted to reach an agreement in an amicable way.

Some Polish officials strongly rejected the order.

“The CJEU demands half a million daily fines from Poland for the fact that Poland did not leave its citizens without energy and did not close the mines overnight,” deputy justice minister Marcin Romanowski said on Twitter.

“It is judicial robbery and theft in broad daylight. You won’t get a cent.”

($1 = 0.8539 euros)

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee in Brussels and Anna Koper in Warsaw; additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw and Jason Hovet in Prague; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Mark Porter and Jan Harvey)

Poland declares state of emergency on Belarus border

WARSAW (Reuters) -Poland’s president has declared a state of emergency in parts of two regions bordering Belarus, his spokesman said on Thursday, an unprecedented move in the country’s post-communist history that follows a surge in illegal migration.

The European Union has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a “hybrid war” designed to put pressure on the bloc over sanctions it has imposed on Minsk.

Poland has been trying to improve security along its frontier by building a fence and deploying troops.

“The situation on the border with Belarus is difficult and dangerous,” presidential spokesman Blazej Spychalski told a news conference. “Today, we as Poland, being responsible for our own borders, but also for the borders of the European Union, must take measures to ensure the security of Poland and the (EU).”

The Polish Border Guard said on Wednesday there had been around 3,500 attempts to illegally cross the border in August alone, 2,500 of which it had managed to thwart.

The government has also said it needs to be prepared for “provocations” that could transpire during military exercises organized by the Russian army that will be held on Russian and Belarusian territory near Poland from Sept. 10.

The “West-2021” drills will involve thousands of servicemen, including those from Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led defense bloc, as well as tanks, artillery and aircraft.

“The second reason for bringing in the state of emergency in this area is the military exercises…that will take place on our border,” Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said. “We must be prepared for every scenario.”

The state of emergency, which will restrict the movement of people and ban mass gatherings, is to apply to a 3-km-(1.9-mile)-deep swathe along the border for 30 days.

NGOs have sharply criticized the government’s approach to the issue and have said Warsaw must provide more humanitarian aid to migrants stranded on the border.

“This state of emergency is a nuclear solution that is to move us away from this border, not only us but also the media, and make sure that no one…will document what is happening there,” said Marianna Wartecka of the Ocalenie Foundation refugee charity.

Poland says the migrants are the responsibility of Belarus and it has also accused Minsk of refusing a convoy of humanitarian aid meant for them.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish, Pawel Florkiewicz, Alicja Ptak and Anna Koper; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

UN refugee agency presses Poland to help migrants on Belarus border

WARSAW (Reuters) -The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and rights groups urged Poland on Tuesday to offer medical and legal support and shelter to migrants camping on the border with Belarus, a day after Warsaw said it would build a fence to prevent migrants crossing.

Poland and fellow EU states Lithuania and Latvia have reported sharp increases in migrants from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan trying to cross their frontiers. The EU says Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is waging “hybrid warfare” with migrants to exert pressure on the bloc.

“While we acknowledge the challenges posed by recent arrivals to Poland, we call on the Polish authorities to provide access to territory, immediate medical assistance, legal advice, and psychosocial support to these people,” said Christine Goyer, the UNHCR’s representative in Poland.

On Monday, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said that a new 2.5-metre-(8.2-foot)-high solid fence would be built along the border with Belarus.

“States have the legitimate right to manage their borders in accordance with international law. However, they must also respect human rights, including the right to seek asylum,” the UNHCR said in a statement.

Poland’s Foreign Ministry said it fully applies provisions of national and international law with respect to asylum.

“Poland fully respects the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and complies with its provisions in the current situation. At the same time, we expect that Belarus, as a party to the Convention, to fulfill its obligations and will provide appropriate care to people in its territory,” a ministry statement said.

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights said on Tuesday it has requested the European Court of Human Rights take temporary measures to ensure Poland ensures the migrants’ safety, and offer them food, water and shelter at a refugee center.

The Polish Human Rights Ombudsman said Poland’s Border Guard had violated the Geneva Convention by not accepting verbal declarations from some of the migrants that they wanted to apply for international protection in Poland.

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Additional reporting by Anna Koper; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Mark Heinrich)

Poland, Lithuania call for EU help with migration surge at Belarusian border

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland and Lithuania on Friday called on European institutions to help them deal with a surge in illegal migration from Belarus over their borders, as tensions between EU countries and Minsk continues to grow.

On Thursday Poland accused Belarus of sending a growing number of migrants over the border in retaliation for Warsaw’s decision this week to give refuge to Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a Belarusian athlete who refused to return home from the Tokyo Olympics.

“We condemn the weaponization of irregular migration by the Lukashenko regime with a goal of exerting political pressure on the EU and its individual Member States,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonytr said in a joint statement.

In the past two days alone 133 illegal migrants were stopped at the Belarusian border with Poland, compared to 122 during the whole of last year, a spokesperson for the Poland Border Guard said.

In recent weeks, Lithuania has also reported a surge in illegal border crossings from Belarus and said Minsk was flying in migrants from abroad and dispatching them into the EU.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday accused Lithuania and Poland of fueling the migrant issue on the border.

In the statement, Poland and Lithuania appealed to the European Commission, Frontex, EASO, other EU member states, and partners outside the EU for political and practical support and called to strengthen EU migration and asylum policy.

“We firmly believe that the protection of external Schengen borders is not just the duty of individual member states but also the common responsibility of the EU,” the statement says.

European Union home affairs ministers and representatives of the EU border agency Frontex and Europol are set to discuss the issue on Aug. 18, a letter by Slovenia to EU diplomats seen by Reuters showed.

(Reporting by Alicja Ptak and Anna Wlodarczak-semczuk; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Raissa Kasolowsky)