Poland has started building a wall along its frontier with Belarus aimed at preventing asylum seekers from entering the country, but which cuts through a protected forest and Unesco world heritage site.
The Polish border guard said the barrier would measure 186km (115 miles), almost half the length of the border shared by the two countries, reach up to 5.5 meters (18ft) and cost €353m (£293m). It will be equipped with motion detectors and thermal cameras.
Poland has accused Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, of deliberately provoking a new refugee crisis in Europe by organizing the movement of people from the Middle East to Minsk and promising them a safe passage to the EU in revenge for the sanctions Brussels has imposed on his authoritarian regime.
Thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and Afghanistan, were caught attempting to cross the frontier and were violently pushed back to Belarus by Poland’s border guards, and hundreds of families were trapped in the forest between the two countries in the midst of a frigid winter.
At least 19 people have died since the beginning of the border standoff between Poland and Belarus. Most of them frozen to death.
The humanitarian emergency reached its peak in November when Belarusian authorities escorted thousands of asylum seekers to the Polish border. Dozens of refugees told the Guardian how Belarusian troops gathered groups of up to 50 people and cut the barbed wire with shears to allow them to cross.
“The construction of the barrier on the Polish-Belarusian border has started,” said a statement from the Polish border guard on Twitter. “It is the largest construction investment in the history of the border guard.”
The cost is approximately 10 times the entire budget of Poland’s migration department this year.
The news has raised human rights concerns among aid workers and charities worried that refugees fleeing conflicts and starvation will not be able to apply for asylum, and there are also environmental concerns. “This money could be used to build and launch [an] effective and humane migration, reception and asylum policy,” said a spokesperson for Ocalenie Foundation, which supports refugees living in Poland. “No wall in the history of the world stopped migration. Also, it would be a disaster for the nature in Białowieża area.”
the Białowieża forest world heritage site, on the border between Poland and Belarus, is an immense range of primary forest including conifers and broadleaved trees. It is home to the largest population of European bison.
Anna Alboth, of Minority Rights Group and a member of Grupa Granica, a Polish network of NGOs monitoring the situation on the border, said: “Walls are dividing, not protecting. The decision about building such a wall on the Polish-Belarusian border is not only lawless but also brings a risk of irreversible harm to the environment, in one of the most rich natural places of Poland and the whole of Europe.
“Instead of spending money on walls and private companies, it should be spending on developing a migration policy that prioritizes human rights and safety of the people on the move, local people, animals and nature.”
A border guard spokesperson, Anna Michalska, told Poland’s PAP news agency that the “intention is for the damage to be as small as possible”. She said: “Tree felling will be limited to the minimum required. The wall itself will be built along the border road.” Contractors would only make use of existing roads, she said.
Last year Warsaw’s rightwing government quadrupled the presence of border guards and military personnel in the area, creating a two-mile deep militarized zone, and built a razor-wire fence, in a show of force unknown in the country since the end of the cold war. Dozens of checkpoints were placed along the perimeter of the so-called red zone, which is inaccessible to aid workers and journalists.
Last week Poland’s supreme court condemned the government for preventing reporters from accessing the area. Judges in Warsaw said the ban was incompatible with Polish law and that “there is no justification for admitting that this particular professional group represents a threat to steps taken”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism