Pictures of migrants huddled near barbed wire on the Belarusian-Polish border on Wednesday shed light on the escalating humanitarian and political crisis in Eastern Europe.
In scenes reminiscent of the European refugee crisis of 2015, we see some migrants huddling around fire and hugging small children wrapped in layers of clothing falling temperatures. Others are sitting in tents just a few meters from the border fence in the north-western Grodno region in Belarus, the eastern edge of the 27-nation European Union.
Polish officials said some in the crowd tried to force their way across the border as the stalemate worsened this week.
Reports from migrants themselves are difficult to come by, as independent journalists can only report to a limited extent in autocratic Belarus, while the state of emergency in Poland also prevents reporters from entering a zone along the border.
The migrants – mainly from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa – are caught in the midst of a long simmering political confrontation between Russia-allied Belarus and the EU
Poland and other EU member states accuse Belarus of using migrants as pawns to create a new wave of mass migration into the bloc. At least 8 have died, according to the Associated Press.
Belarus is encouraging migrants to enter the EU illegally in retaliation for the sanctions imposed on the mass protests and broader human rights violations last year over the violent crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko, European officials say.
Autocrat Lukashenko, whose government is backed by the Kremlin, denies manipulating the crisis and instead blames the West.
In response, Poland’s right-wing government increased the number of soldiers stationed at the border from 12,000 to 15,000.
The country’s Ministry of Defense shared a video on Twitter pretending to be showing the Belarusian side “intimidating” migrants by firing shots when people heard screaming near the barbed wire fence. It was not clear how the ministry got the video, when it was shot, or if anyone was injured.
NBC News was unable to independently verify the video and has asked the Belarusian Defense Ministry for comment.
Pictures also surfaced showing migrant injuries. A photo shared by Reuters shows Youssef Atallah, a migrant from Syria, who had obvious facial injuries after he said he was beaten by Belarusian border officials.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian State Border Committee published videos and photos is supposed to show Kurdish migrants who were allegedly beaten and injured by Polish security forces. The Polish Ministry of Defense told NBC News in an email that this was a “provocation” and part of a “disinformation campaign” aimed at discrediting the Polish armed forces. NBC News did not review the videos or photos.
Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pointed his finger directly at Lukashenko on Wednesday and accused the Belarusian head of state of “ruthlessly taking people seeking refuge as hostages for his cynical power play”.
Maas called the images that popped up from the Belarusian border “appalling”.
“We will not abandon anyone who is in need,” he said.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR demanded an end on the “instrumentalization of migrants and refugees” to achieve political goals on Tuesday and described the situation as “deplorable”.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the rights of migrants should be paramount.
“These hundreds of men, women and children must not be forced to spend another night in freezing weather without adequate accommodation, food, water and medical care,” she said in a opinion On Wednesday.
Andy Eckardt, Reuters, Associated press and Alan Kaytukov contributed.