Belarus

France says Belarus 'seeking to destabilise EU' by allowing migrant crisis

Migrants gather near a barbed wire fence in the Grodno region of Belarus on the border with Poland
Migrants gather near a barbed wire fence in the Grodno region of Belarus on the border with Poland via REUTERS - BelTA

France has accused Belarus of trying to destabilise the EU by allowing thousands of migrants to gather on the Polish border, adding that it may consider tougher sanctions against the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.

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"This regime is seeking to destabilise the European Union by encouraging migrant trafficking," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday as hundreds of desperate migrants were trapped in freezing weather on the border. 

Critics of Lukashenko's authoritarian regime have for months said the Belarus strongman is luring migrants from the Middle East to his country to send them across the border into Poland in retaliation for European sanctions.

Belarus denies the claim and accuses Poland of violating human rights by refusing to allow the migrants in. The tense situation has raised fears of a confrontation on the border, where armed troops from both Poland and Belarus are deployed.

Lukashenko said Tuesday he did not want an armed confrontation but "will not kneel" in the stand-off. "We are not seeking a fight," he said, warning that any conflict would draw in Belarus's ally Russia. 

"I am not a madman, I understand perfectly well where it can lead ... We understand, we know our place," Lukashenko said in an interview released by state news agency Belta.

Up to 4,000 people in camps

Poland and Belarus said Tuesday that between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants were now in an improvised camp on the border near the Polish village of Kuznica. 

The Belarusian border guard service said they were mostly Kurds who physical and mental condition was "extremely poor". A large number of pregnant women and children were reportedly among the refugees, it said. 

Journalists have been blocked from the area, but videos released by Belarusian and Polish authorities showed the migrants massed along the razor-wire, huddling by fires and in tents as temperatures slumped to near freezing. 

The UN refugee agency said it was "very alarmed" by the situation and had offered its help.

Migrants tried to cut barbed wire fences on the Polish/Belarus border on Monday.
Migrants tried to cut barbed wire fences on the Polish/Belarus border on Monday. AP - Leonid Shcheglov

Extending sanctions

France said that it was prepared to examine a "reinforcement" of existing sanctions – applied following Lukashenko's crackdown on the opposition last year – at an EU foreign ministers meeting on 15 November.

EU diplomats in Brussels said the bloc was already working on moves to expand sanctions to include those involved in trafficking migrants, which could extend to airlines and travel agencies.

The bloc is also pressing more than a dozen countries to prevent their nationals leaving for Belarus.

It has already successfully leaned on Iraq to halt flights from Baghdad to capital Minsk, and is now expanding that "outreach" to include 13 countries that are, or potentially could be, sources of migrants for Belarus to instrumentalise.

The countries are Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Egypt, Georgia, Guinea, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkey.

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