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Since July 2021 thousands of migrants, primarily from conflict-affected states such as Iraq and Syria, have attempted to cross the Belarusian border into its EU neighbours Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. 

All three countries have declared states of emergency at their borders and deployed the military. Border crossings with Belarus have been closed and fences have been erected to prevent illegal crossings.

The EU has accused Belarus of facilitating their arrival at the border and then helping, or in some cases forcing, those migrants to illegally enter the EU. Belarus denies the allegations.

The Polish border

The situation has been particularly tense on the Polish border with Belarus, and around the Kuznica border crossing, where migrants have been amassing in their thousands. Clashes have broken out between migrants and Polish border forces, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. Poland and Lithuania have also been criticised for “pushing back” migrants, in contravention of international law.

Thousands of migrants have subsequently been stranded in makeshift camps at the border between Belarus and the EU, in freezing conditions and with few basic supplies. UN agencies have called for immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to the border zone. Thirteen people are reported to have died at the time of publication.

The EU’s response

The EU has called Belarus’s actions an “act of hybrid warfare” and has agreed to impose further sanctions.

Diplomatic efforts are underway to defuse the crisis. The EU has been working with the countries that the migrants have come from, and the major transit destinations, to try and restrict their departure.

The EU is also working to repatriate migrants who are currently stranded in Belarus.

Lukashenko’s response

Belarus has denied any involvement in the influx of migrants at its EU borders. President, Alexandr Lukashenko, has instead blamed organised crime networks operating within the EU and suggested that previous Western interventions in Iraq, Syria and Libya are responsible for creating the conditions that had prompted this mass migration in the first place.  The Belarusian Ministry of Defence has denied any active involvement in helping, or forcing, migrants over the border.

In a sign that Belarus is willing to work to defuse the crisis, the regime has recently cleared the camps along the Polish border and moved several thousand migrants to temporary accommodation facilities, where humanitarian aid is being distributed.

The Belarusian Government has also said that Belarus is working to return migrants, although suggested that few want to leave due to the conditions in their own countries.

The European Commission has started technical talks with UN agencies (UNHCR and IOM) and Belarusian counterparts at a working level to facilitate repatriations of migrants from Belarusian territory.

In the longer term, it is unclear what will happen to those migrants who refuse repatriation and are also currently being denied entry to the EU.

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