Clashes erupt at Belarus-Poland border as refugee crisis unfolds

Polish forces sprayed tear gas and water cannon on refugees who allegedly threw stones at border guards.

Sokolka, Poland – Clashes have erupted at the Polish-Belarusian border between stranded refugees and Polish border guards.

The chaos unfolded late morning on Tuesday, with refugees stranded at the Kuźnica border crossing reportedly throwing stones at Polish guards.

The guards responded by using water cannon and tear gas against those who have been trying to cross the border, according to Poland’s ministry of defence.

“The use of force [by Poland] is completely unjustifiable because there are legal procedures which should be used from the very beginning,” said Marta Szymanderska from Grupa Granica, a coalition of NGOs which are responding humanitarian crisis at the border. “The actions of the Polish forces are not only illegal but also inhuman,” she told Al Jazeera.

Poland’s defence ministry said: “The migrants attacked our soldiers and guards with stones and are trying to force the fence to get to the Polish territory.

“Our forces used tear gas to thwart the aggression of migrants.”

It was unclear if there were any injuries among refugees, while at least one policeman was wounded.

The Polish Border Guard said: “Illegal migrants have been gathering at the border crossing in Kuźnica, at the Belarusian side. New groups, which so far have been squatting at the border, are joining them. An attempt to forcefully cross the border is being prepared. Everything is taking place under the supervision of Belarusian forces.”

Earlier on Tuesday, more Polish police and security forces arrived at the border to prevent what Polish authorities claimed was an illegal attempt by migrants to cross into Polish – and EU – territory.

Video footage posted on social media showed people near the border running away after being sprayed with water cannon.

Thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded between the Polish and Belarusian borders as a result of an East-West geopolitical crisis between Warsaw and its allies and Minsk and Moscow.

According to international law, people looking for asylum have the right to claim it at official border crossings.

However, Polish border guards have been denying that right to many asylum seekers who have attempted to cross the border.

Since the crisis unfolded in August, Polish guards have been reportedly pushing back people who managed to cross into the Polish territory from Belarus.

Many refugees are spending weeks in the woodlands which cover the border, trying to leave the border zone and seek asylum.

Polish authorities passed a law which effectively legalises pushbacks, although the practice remains dubious under international law.

Moreover, the border area has been marked as a state of emergency which means that it is inaccessible to media and NGOs who cannot gather information nor provide migrants with humanitarian assistance.

The international community holds Belarus responsible for the crisis.

Earlier this year, Minsk removed visas for citizens of a number of Middle Eastern and African states and opened numerous tourist agencies offering an easy and cheap way to get to Europe.

Critics of Belarus say the move might an act of revenge against Poland, which supported last year’s protests against longtime ruler President Alexander Lukashenko.

Activists on the ground in Poland, who are providing refugees with food, water and sleeping bags, are alarmed by the developments.

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