On November 30, Poland announced it would be extending the emergency measures it has imposed at the border with Belarus, after thousands of migrants arrived at the border, hoping to cross into the EU.
On Tuesday, November 30, the Polish government voted to extend its emergency restrictions at the Belarus border until at least March 2022.
The border restrictions in Poland stop all non-residents, including journalists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), from coming within 15 kilometers of the border with Belarus. Since their inception, they have been highly criticized because it means independent observers, NGOs which are trying to help migrants, and reporters are not able to ascertain what is going on inside the border region, or independently assess it.
Poland’s Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski announced that after the lower house of parliament voted to extend the restrictions, and the president approved the amended law, the ban on access to the area would take effect from December 1.
Extension begins immediately
In fact, the lower house has rejected the changes proposed by Poland’s upper house, the Senate. Previously, they had asked that the new regulations allow journalists to be granted access to the restricted areas, but this request was refused.
As of December 1, journalists will need to apply for permission to enter the restricted zone from the Border Guard, reported the news agency Associated Press (AP.) Belarus has been allowing journalists on to its side of the border but no one has been able to independently report on what is or isn’t going on on the Polish side apart from official press releases, statements and videos from the Border Guard themselves.
According to AP, the continuing restriction of access was in order to allow the authorities to begin construction of a 5.5 meter tall barrier along the 400 kilometer border with Belarus, which is already dominated by barbed wire fencing and thousands of soldiers.
Opposition shouts 'cover up'
Opposition parties in Poland, report the news agency Reuters, have said the law is being used to "cover up rights abuses." The opposition had convinced the upper house to ease the restrictions on Friday but the governing right-wing party dominates the lower house. Poland’s Human Rights Ombudsman has also criticized the new law.
According to Reuters, the extension of restrictions will give the interior minister the "right to limit freedom of movement and to limit access to information about what is happening on the border indefinitely."
At least 12 people have died on both sides of the border since the dispute between Belarus and the EU escalated in the summer. On November 24, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report in which it accused both Poland and Belarus of "serious human rights violations" at its border.
Also read: At the border, Belarusian soldiers only know three words: 'Go to Poland'
'Die here or go to Poland'
The HRW report, entitled "'Die here or go to Poland': Belarus' and Poland’s shared responsibility for border abuses," said that migrants had told them they had been pushed back from the Polish border "sometimes violently, by Polish border guards… despite pleading for asylum."
Accounts of "violence, inhuman and degrading treatment and coercion by Belarusian border guards were commonplace," the report noted.
Lydia Gall, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at HRW acknowledged that "while Belarus manufactured this situation without regard for the human consequences, Poland shares responsibility for the acute suffering in the border area."
Gall said that "men, women and children have been ping-ponged across the border for days or weeks in freezing weather, desperately needing humanitarian assistance that is being blocked on both sides."
Lukashenko accuses Lithuania of 'killing migrants'
On Monday, the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, widely known as "Europe’s last dictator," accused neighboring Lithuania of "killing migrants," after reports emerged of another death at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border.
According to the German news agency dpa, Lukashenko told representatives of the country’s defense ministry that "migrants are being brought to the Belarusian border 'dead or maybe half dead' from the EU side and dumped there."
His claims came after the Belarusian border guard announced that they had found a dead man on the border with Lithuania. This death followed shortly after another person was found dead at the weekend.
Partly because of the laws restricting access to the borders on the EU side, journalists have not been able to independently verify these deaths. According to the International Red Cross, more than 10 people have died in the border area since the start of the crisis.
Also read: In pictures: What's the situation at the Belarus border?
Pope calls for end to suffering
Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, has also repeatedly spoken out about the treatment of migrants. In a letter to the UN Migration Agency (IOM) on Monday, the Pope said that migrants were being used like "pawns on a chessboard."
Pope Francis asked: "How can suffering and despair be exploited like this to defend or push through one’s political agenda?"
The Polish Border guard told Reuters that on Monday there had been 134 attempts to cross over from Belarus. Some attempts, say Polish officials, are orchestrated by Belarusian guards who allegedly use wire cutters and lasers to break through the fencing, pushing migrants across to the other side.
Also read: 'Lies, lies, lies!': For migrants trapped on the Belarus-Polish border, no easy way back to Minsk
With AP, Reuters and dpa