WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish officials on Thursday reported a change in migration patterns across the country’s border with Belarus, with Africans who first traveled to Russia making up most of those seeking to enter Poland illegally by that route instead of people from the Mideast.
The government said the African migrants include individuals passing through Russia, a close ally and another neighbor of Belarus, as well as people who were in Russia for a longer period.
In an emailed statement to The Associated Press, the Polish government described the migration as part of a “hybrid operation aimed at destabilizing the NATO eastern flank.”
Migrants and asylum-seekers have tried to cross from Belarus into Poland and Lithuania, and to a lesser extent Latvia, since last summer. The three nations are in the east of both European Union and NATO territory.
The countries have sought to discourage the attempted crossings, detaining migrants and pushing them back into Belarus. Poland recently completed a tall steel wall along 186 kilometers (115 miles) of its land frontier with Belarus.
Human rights organizations have criticized Poland and Lithuania, saying the migrants include people fleeing persecution who have the right under international law to request asylum.
European leaders accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of creating a new and artificial migration route in order to destabilize the EU. The government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said it believes Russia bears some responsibility too, given its alliance with Lukashenko.
Early on, most of the people who tried to enter the EU from Belarus were Afghans, Syrians, Kurds from Iraq and others from the Middle East. After the arrival of large numbers last summer, the EU intervened, including by getting Iraq to stop the flights, and the migration flow slowed.
It never stopped altogether, but the situation became overshadowed by the far larger numbers of Ukrainian refugees who were welcomed in Poland after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
The National Security Department within the prime minister’s office told the AP that current Border Guard statistics show that the vast majority of migrants who seek to illegally cross at the Poland-Belarus border now come from Sub-Saharan Africa.
They “possess Russian visas and it is via Russia that they reach Belarus,” it said.
“(They) have visas issued for studies or work, but according to testimonies acquired by the Border Guard, they have never had such plans and they used visas only to get through the migratory route. Simultaneously, the Russian administration facilitates the procedure of obtaining the visas,” the government said. “Among migrants, there are also people who have been in Russia for a longer period of time.”
“The actions undertaken by Russia and Belarus confirm that the artificially created migratory route is controlled and coordinated by these two regimes and in future we should expect that the hybrid operation aimed at destabilizing NATO’s eastern flank will only intensify,” it added.
Border Guard data shows that there were 914 attempts to cross illegally from Belarus into Poland in July.
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration