Thousands of desperate migrants have been trapped in freezing weather on the Poland-Belarus border as the presence of troops from both sides raises fears of an armed escalation.
An estimate of 3,000 to 4,000 migrants have been confined to an improvised camp at the border near the Polish village of Kuznica amid growing tensions between Poland and Belarus.
The migrants, including many women and children, crossed Belarus’ Bruzgi border point in Grodno earlier this week, heading to the Polish border, where thousands of troops blocked their bid to enter the country.
They have been staying in makeshift tents in woods and facing freezing weather conditions, a lack of food and medical attention, hoping to cross into the European Union.
Poland said seven migrants had been found dead on its side of the border, with reports of more deaths in Belarus.
"The situation is aggravated by a large number of pregnant women and infants among the refugees, who must spend the night on the ground in negative temperatures," the Belarusian border guard service said.
Here we take a closer look at the unfolding crisis along the EU's eastern border that has been simmering for months.
Why are they gathering on the Poland-Belarus border?
The Poland-Belarus border falls within one of the main migratory routes to the European Union, according to the Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.
The Eastern land border route includes the EU’s 6 000-kilometre-long land border between Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, the Russian Federation and its eastern member states.
People fleeing from conflicts, famine and poverty try to immigrate to wealthy European countries from western Balkan and Mediterranean routes.
However, the eastern route seems to be a comparatively new road line to the immigrants' bloc.
At least 6,571 illegal border crossings have been reported on the Eastern land borders from January to October this year, the agency’s website shows.
Kuźnica: próba sforsowania polskiej granicy pic.twitter.com/kqCkLPdsiK— Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej 🇵🇱 (@MON_GOV_PL) November 8, 2021
Where are the migrants coming from?
The migrants are mostly people from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan, who have seized on the opening of a new migration route to enter Europe.
According to Frontex's figures, the top 5 migrants' countries of origin are Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Congo and Russia.
They often seek to reach family members who have already immigrated to countries in western Europe.
How do they reach Poland?
There are several ways immigrants used to travel to the region. Many of them fly to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on tourist visas, and from there travel by taxi to the border with Poland.
Although direct flights from Iraq to Minsk were suspended in August, migrants have been flying into Belarus via commercial and chartered flights from Syria, the United Arab Emirates and even Russia, according to recent internal EU migration reports seen by The Associated Press.
In addition to direct flights, smugglers have advertised transportation from Belarus to Germany by car on social media.
Drivers smuggling people across the Polish-German border were mainly from non-EU countries, according to the reports, although there were also EU nationals involved.
The EU is seeking to pressure airlines not to facilitate illegal migration.
Is this a manufactured crisis?
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki blamed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for an attack that threatened the security of the entire EU, while Belarus denied the charge, accusing Warsaw of "deliberately" escalating tensions.
The EU says Lukashenko has encouraged the migrant flow in retaliation for existing EU sanctions imposed over a heavy crackdown on the opposition after a disputed election last year.
"They've put people on planes and literally pushed them towards our borders," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said.
"It is a hybrid attack to destabilise Europe. We will never tolerate that," she said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed Western military "adventures" in the Middle East for prompting migrants to flee the region.
Is Russia behind the standoff?
Polish PM Morawiecki on Tuesday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the wave of migrants.
"This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow, the mastermind is President Putin," he told the Polish parliament.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday it was "irresponsible" to blame Russia for the migrant crisis.
"Claims from the Polish prime minister that Russia is responsible for the situation are completely irresponsible and unacceptable," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
"This is nothing other than further attempts to actually strangle Belarus," he said.
Moscow is Minsk's strongest ally, and its backing helped President Lukashenko survive mass protests against his rule last year after the disputed election.
Thus, the latest phase of the crisis has given Moscow an opportunity to double down on its support for Belarus and criticise the EU.
The US State Department said on Monday that the United States would continue to stand by Poland and all its partners in Europe who are threatened by Belarus’ unacceptable actions.