Children are seen at a refugee camp near the Belarusian-Polish border in Belarus, Nov. 14, 2021. (Photo by Henadz Zhinkov/Xinhua)
by Xinhua writers Xu Feng, Zhang Zhang and Shi Hao
LONDON/WARSAW/MINSK, Nov. 17 (Xinhua) -- It is a heart-breaking scene with no clear end in sight at the border between Poland and Belarus: thousands of migrants try to warm themselves by building small fires out in the open in the freezing winter as hypothermia, hunger and exhaustion continue to prey on them.
Stranded at the border without the prospect of entering Poland, their gateway to the European Union (EU), these refugees, mostly from the war-torn Middle East, are holding their ground, determined to leave hardships at home behind.
More than 10 refugees have died since the crisis started in August. On Tuesday, fresh clashes erupted. The Polish Border Guard agency posted a video on Twitter showing them turning a water cannon on a group of migrants in a makeshift camp. The border forces said this was done in response to attacks by migrants with stones.
As the months-long standoff on the EU's eastern border is expected to drag on, the international community is urging an early and responsible settlement to prevent the situation from descending into a humanitarian catastrophe.
The EU, still reeling from the 2015 refugee crisis largely fueled by the wars in Syria and Libya, has made its reluctance to receive more migrants publicly known this time.
Accusing Belarus of sending migrants over the border to spark another refugee crisis in revenge for existing EU sanctions, the EU on Monday decided to move ahead with imposing further sanctions on Belarus.
Josep Borrell, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, underlined after a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday that the full responsibility lies with Belarus for "artificially creating the migrants' flow." He said the EU would work with international organizations such as the United Nations in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance is provided to those in need.
"By expanding the scope of the sanctions, we will be able to target those responsible for exploiting vulnerable migrants and for facilitating illegal border crossing into the EU," Borrell said.
Minsk denied the accusation and said it has been helping to solve the issue by actively repatriating the migrants.
So far, 166 individuals and 15 entities have been subjected to the EU's sanctions on Belarus. According to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the sanctions have dented his country's ability to tackle the ongoing refugee crisis.
Lukashenko said last week that the Western countries didn't just simply stir up trouble in the Middle East, they destroyed the statehood that existed there.
The actions of the Western states had not improved life in the countries they had invaded, Lukashenko said, noting that migrants were invited to go to Europe by high-ranking European government leaders, who are guilty of destroying their homes.
The West is using refugees to fulfill its own political ambitions, Aleksei Avdonin, an analyst at the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Research, told the Belarus 1 TV channel.
According to him, the situation at the Poland-Belarus border is an opportunity for the EU to justify a possibility of new sanctions against Belarus and Russia.
"We see how hard the European media are trying to put the blame for it on Belarus and even Russia and are calling for sanctions on these two states," Avdonin said.
Belarusian journalist Vadim Elfimov said: "I can advise the European Union one thing: calculate your steps in advance. When you entered Iraq, when you destroyed Libya, Afghanistan, other countries, you had to think that sooner or later these consequences would come to you."
"We cannot solve its migration problems for the European Union," Elfimov said.
The border standoff has added to the migrants' ordeal and left local people weary.
Stanislaw Zaryn, spokesperson of Poland's minister-special services coordinator, told Xinhua on Wednesday that about 4,000 migrants are estimated to be currently at the Poland-Belarus border, almost all of them are camping or moving on the Belarusian side.
Hundreds of refugees are stuck on the Belarus side of the border near the Polish village of Kuznica alone, Polish military sources said. The Polish government has denied them entry and created a no-go zone within three km from the border in September. Only the authorities and local inhabitants can enter and leave freely.
Up to 15,000 Polish soldiers aided by police and border guards are currently stationed at the border to keep out the refugees.
However, some migrants have managed to cross the border through the heavily forested areas that straddle the two countries, often spending nights in the open in freezing temperatures which are continuing dropping further.
Local inhabitants are frightened by the situation, while expressing sympathy for the migrants' humanitarian plight. "I am afraid to go out at night," says Martyna Biaous, a 16-year-old who lives in Kuznica and works outside of the no-go zone.
"You know they are hungry and cold and you know they are desperate. I really feel for those people, but you don't know what they can do." One morning, Biaous said, her grandmother found traces of people in her backyard. "And one of my friends once found some sheltering in her family's greenhouse."
Maria Zlonkiewicz, a worker for the non-governmental organization (NGO) Bread of Salt Initiative, recounted the suffering of a group of migrants, who had been at the border for over two weeks, but were not allowed to apply (for international protection) even though they asked for it.
"They have already been handled by the Polish Border Guard eight times. Accompaying these young children is a woman who is unable to move by herself and in this cold weather, they were thrown back and forth through that barbed wire, sometimes by the Polish services, sometimes by the Belarusian services," she said.
Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said on Wednesday that the migrant crisis on the border with Belarus "will not be resolved quickly."
"We have to prepare for months, if not years," he told a local radio station.
CALLS FOR EARLY SOLUTION
There have been growing calls to set aside the differences and settle the refugee crisis so that migrants won't need to suffer more in the freezing cold.
Visiting areas near the border on the Polish side on Tuesday, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said the situation was "extremely dangerous."
"We need to find a way to de-escalate, to make sure the focus is really on stopping the suffering," she told reporters.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday during her weekly briefing: "It is just necessary to sit down at the negotiating table. The parties need to establish contacts perhaps even in a virtual format and do everything so that the situation will somehow be resolved, so that it doesn't escalate further."
"There is only one way out of this situation -- negotiations, contacts, dialogue with those countries that are now at the forefront," she said.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, said at a press conference on Tuesday: "We hope that the relevant sides will, on the basis of equality and mutual respect, properly handle the issue through dialogue and consultation following the humanitarian principle."
"China opposes the wanton use or threat of unilateral sanctions in international affairs," Zhao added.
The first flight to repatriate around 300 Iraqi migrants from Belarus will leave the country on Thursday, Iraq's Consul in Russia Majid al-Kilani told Sputnik on Wednesday. Enditem
(Xinhua correspondents Lu Jinbo, Lin Hao and Li Jizhi contributed to the story.)