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This week, thousands of refugees from across the developing world tried to enter Poland by crossing its border with Belarus, its neighbor to the east. But the European Union says this is not only a case of desperate families fleeing their homes, but is a hybrid attack by Alexander Lukashenko, considered Europe’s last dictator, against his enemies by using people as weapons. Nick Schifrin reports.
This week, thousands of refugees from across the developing world tried to enter Poland by crossing its border with Belarus, its neighbor to the east.
But the European Union says this is more than simply a case of the desperate journeys of families fleeing their homes, but is meant to be an attack against the European adversaries of the leader of Belarus, the man considered Europe's last dictator.
Nick Schifrin reports.
Along the Poland-Belarus border, a standoff, on one side, polish soldiers, on the other, refugees hoping for better lives.
Don't have water, don't have food. How many time we're waiting?
How did you close the border?
Thousands of families from Iraq and the developing world hope to get to Poland and, therefore, the European Union. They trekked for weeks through forests, swamps, and freezing streams, through water so cold, Mohamud got frostbite.
From the water?
Daiud Mohamud, Migrant:
I was walking for more than 14 or 15 days.
Just a few feet away, Somali migrant Ibrahim did the two-week walk without any shoes.
Lydia Gall, Human Rights Watch:
There's a shared responsibility on the part of Poland and Belarus for what can only be described currently as a humanitarian disaster.
Lydia Gall is a research for Human Rights Watch who just left the Poland/Belarus border.
These people are completely unprepared for what is in store for them. They come with normal suitcases, clearly not aware of the fact that they will spend days, if not weeks, trekking. And then, by the time they get to the border area, they're being unlawfully pushed back by Polish border guards.
That's what happened to Mohammed, who said Polish soldiers pretended they were going to help, and instead pushed them back into Belarus.
He told us he will bring us to the U.N. camp. So, they lied to us. We go with them, and they directly pushed us inside the border. Go, go. And then they take our phones. They break our SIM cards.
But, back in Belarus, the migrants are treated even worse.
They can be kept there for days and days and days, without food, without water, being subject to violence, theft, robbery by the Belarusian border guards, extortion, death threats.
One man told me that, basically, they were told, you have a choice. You either die here or you go to Poland. That is the choice you have.
Their desperation is genuine, but their presence on this border is manufactured. Much of this footage is released by Belarusian and Russian state TV. European leaders say this crisis was created by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who's using people as political pawns to pressure his European Union neighbors.
Arnoldas Pranckevicius, Vice Foreign Minister of Lithuania: We have indeed reached now a very dangerous level of this hybrid attack. It is a very sophisticated scheme which has the elements of deniability.
Arnoldas Pranckevicius is the vice foreign minister of Lithuania, another European Union country, and Belarusian target. In one month, 4,000 migrants tried to cross from Belarus into Lithuania, compared to 81 in total last year.
There is ample evidence that suggests that the Belarusian authorities have been facilitating this new illegal migratory route.
It is really the highest level of cynicism to really accuse the victim, in this case, the European Union, and indeed, the migrants, who have become the victim of this hybrid operation.
He says the operation begins online. Belarusian government authorities team up with Middle Eastern intermediaries, whose Facebook pages offer visas to Belarus, direct flights from Damascus, Syria, to Minsk, Belarus, and hotel reservations for one week. Another post shows Belarusian visas in Syrian passports.
There are agencies in Belarus who work in cahoots with travel — so-called travel agencies all across the Middle East. And that's how they entice people: We take you to the border, we make sure that we give you great GPS coordinates. We even help you to cut the wire into Poland.
Many migrants are vulnerable to the pitch. In Northern Iraq, in semiautonomous Kurdistan, Halkaft Mohammed says his son fled in September and reached Germany through Belarus.
Halkaft Mohammed, Father of Refugee (through translator): We have no other choice. We are worried for our youth. Our villages are besieged. I have no money. If I had money, I would go with all my children, because we are very scared.
This week, Lukashenko denied creating the crisis, but did admit in an interview that aired on Russian TV he wanted to punish Europe.
Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus (through translator): You imposed sanctions against me, against Belarusians. You went for a hybrid war against Belarus. And you, bastards, madmen, want me to protect you from migrants?
But it is Belarusians whom the European Union says it's trying to protect from their own government. Last year, Lukashenko launched an unprecedented crackdown on pro-democracy activists and declared himself the winner of an election widely deemed fraudulent.
In May, the government forced a Lithuania-bound plane to land in Minsk in order to arrest an opposition journalist. The E.U. and U.S. have punished Lukashenko with multiple rounds of sanctions.
And, at the White House today, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said they plan more sanctions on Belarus and airlines carrying migrants.
Ursula von der Leyen, President, European Commission:
This is not a migration crisis. This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize its democratic neighbors.
Today, E.U. and Polish officials tried to show a united front. But, for years, migration has threatened to rip the European Union apart, and today's crisis is designed to exacerbate internal tensions.
Such type of a hybrid activity, one can create big tensions within societies, could also undermine governments from within. The only language that probably he would understand is indeed the more pressure and more sanctions.
But, so far, there's no sign Lukashenko, backed by his main ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, will respond to more sanctions. And, as the politics play out, innocent refugees are the victims.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Ali Rogin is a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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