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Poland is trying to curb an influx of migrants being assisted by Belarus

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Poland has closed one of its main border crossings with its neighbor, Belarus, after thousands of migrants arrived in the area seeking to cross into the European Union. It's the latest step to try and curb an influx of migrants who are getting assistance from the Belarusian regime. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now to talk about all this. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just paint us a picture here? What's been happening at the border?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, we've gotten a lot of videos recently from the Belarusian border with Poland, and it's showing - the latest video shows hundreds of migrants attempting to destroy the razor wire fence separating the two countries by throwing cut-down trees on top of it, cutting it and then when some of them make it across, they're pushed back by Polish soldiers.

CHANG: Wait, so can you just explain why is Belarus pushing migrants into Poland?

SCHMITZ: Well, this started after the EU placed sanctions on Belarus over its crackdown on protests against Lukashenko's claim that he won last year's election. International observers say the election was rigged. Lukashenko's government responded by issuing visas to thousands of people from war-torn and impoverished countries in the Middle East, Africa and beyond, and then arranging travel for them. After they arrived, migrants are typically bussed to the border, where soldiers help them cross illegally into Poland.

CHANG: And you were just there recently. How is Poland's government reacting to all of this?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, Poland's government and the EU say Lukashenko's regime is attempting to destabilize Europe by weaponizing migrants. This has put Poland in a very difficult position. Most of these people are seeking asylum, and humanitarian groups say Poland is legally bound to hold asylum applicants while they process their requests. But instead, when Polish soldiers catch groups of migrants who've made it to Poland, they drive them back to the border and release them on the Belarusian side. But as we've seen in recent weeks, Belarusian soldiers are becoming more violent towards those who returned from Poland, often beating them and sending them back to Poland in what for many has become this vicious and deadly cycle. Several people have died.

CHANG: Wow, this sounds absolutely terrifying for the migrants caught in the middle of all this. What have you heard from them directly?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I've heard awful stories of people walking for days through freezing swamps, living off of river water and raw corn from frozen farm fields, only to be caught and then sent back where soldiers beat people with batons. And there are many families who are trying to make this journey with young children. I met a Syrian family whose children nearly died of hypothermia before they were found. You know, this border area is filled with forests, swamps, and it's freezing. And the people crossing are from temperate climates. They are not prepared for this type of wilderness.

CHANG: Well, meanwhile, I understand that Germany's government urged the EU today to do more to help Poland secure its border with Belarus. I mean, beyond that, what more can be done here?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, Russia's government, which financially backs Lukashenko and his regime, came out today and suggested the EU provide financial assistance to Lukashenko in return for stopping this migration flow. But this has only made the EU angrier. They've likened this request to gangster behavior, and they're now threatening even more sanctions. Poland's parliament has voted to build an 18-foot-high wall along the border that would be completed by next summer.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "BAHIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.