The standoff at the border between Belarus and Poland, where thousands of migrants were stuck in a cold forest, is different from the other migrant crises we've witnessed in recent years. Images of migrants — mainly from the Middle East, who travelled to the Kuznica-Bruzhi border crossing via Belarus, trying to force their way into Poland and being deterred by water hoses — have gained international attention.
On 16 November, clashes erupted between stranded refugees and Polish border guards at the border with the troops firing water cannons and tear gas to quell them.
According to Poland's Ministry of National Defence (MOD), refugees at the Kuznica border crossing trying to cross into Poland reportedly threw stones at Polish guards.
Is it an orchestrated migrant crisis?
The crisis appears to be orchestrated by Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus's autocratic ruler, to cause trouble for the European Union in retaliation for a series of sanctions against his government. Lukashenko, however, denied the allegations.
In recent months he has allowed in thousands of visitors who want to reach the freer, wealthier countries of Western and Northern Europe. This would mean allowing them to first enter one of the EU member countries that border Belarus — Poland, Lithuania or Latvia.
Although Lukashenko and his government have denied deliberately using migrants to unsettle the EU, the country's liberal granting of visas to people with one-way airline tickets to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, reeked of dubious intent.
For example, flightradar24.com, which monitors global air traffic, reported 27 flights from Beirut to Minsk from August to November 2021, compared to only five in the whole of 2020.
What is going on at the Belarus-Polish border?
The influx of migrants to Belarus from the Middle East began in early summer 2021. The number of people flowing through Belarus grew sharply in August, most of them Afghans. It surged in the past month with people from Iraq and Syria, many of them ethnic Kurds, seeking refuge.
The situation took a grim turn on 8 November when thousands of new arrivals showed up at the Belarus-Poland border and tried to break through makeshift fences on the border, with the goal to cross into the European Union.
Some migrants were reportedly being taken to the EU borders by Belarusian authorities, who urged — or even forced — them to cross. They said the authorities gave them wire cutters to breach fences, helped tear down barriers and prevented them from returning to the cities.
Polish officials have vowed to prevent anyone from crossing the border. Many of those trying to enter Poland want to travel on to Germany.
What is the background to the crisis?
The actions of the Belarusian government appear to be in retaliation for economic sanctions imposed by the international community in response to Lukashenko's increasingly autocratic rule. In August 2020, Belarusian authorities cracked down on protesters demanding the resignation of Lukashenko following a "rigged" election. Opposition leaders say as many as 30,000 people were detained in efforts to suppress demonstrations.
The United States and the European Union refused to recognise Lukashenko's legitimacy as president and, in September 2020, imposed a series of sanctions targeting Belarusian officials with asset freezes and travel bans. The EU followed that up with two further rounds of sanctions in November and December of that year.
The fourth packet of EU sanctions came after Belarus intercepted a Ryanair flight carrying Raman Pratasevich, a dissident journalist and a former editor-in-chief of the Telegram Nexta news channel, along with 132 other passengers in May 2021. Belarusian authorities arrested the journalist and his partner before allowing the plane to continue to its destination. In June 2021, Pratasevich was moved under house arrest.
The EU called it air piracy and barred Belarusian carriers from its skies and cut imports of the country's top commodities, including petroleum products and potash, an ingredient in fertilizer.
A furious Lukashenko shot back by saying he would no longer abide by an agreement to stem illegal migration, arguing that the EU sanctions deprived his government of funds needed to contain flows of migrants.
Planes carrying migrants from Iraq, Syria and other countries began arriving in Belarus, and they soon headed for the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The EU accused Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns in a "hybrid attack" against the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for the sanctions.
How did EU nations respond?
During the summer, Lithuania introduced a state of emergency to deal with an influx of migrants and strengthen its border with Belarus. It set up tent camps to accommodate the growing number of migrants.
Authorities in Warsaw estimated the crowds at about 3,000-4,000 and said they prevented hundreds of people from entering the country. Poland deployed riot police and other forces to bolster the border guards. Eight deaths have been confirmed at the Belarus-Poland border, and temperatures have fallen below freezing at night.
The EU has made a strong show of solidarity with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. EU officials are expected to discuss another round of sanctions against Belarus, and European Council President Charles Michel said for the first time that the bloc would consider the possibility of financing "physical infrastructure" such as barriers or fences on the border.``
What comes next?
The EU, meanwhile, has announced plans for more sanctions against Belarus. But it has also held out the possibility of negotiations on resolving the migration crisis.
Lukashenko and Germany's acting Chancellor Angela Merkel have held two phone calls since the escalation of the border crisis on 8 November. They represented Lukashenko's first conversations with a European leader since the 2020 presidential election.
The phone calls happened after Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Lukashenko and the Belarusian regime, called on EU leaders to talk directly with Lukashenko.
Some observers expect Lukashenko to escalate the crisis and pressure the EU to ease sanctions.
"As a minimum, Lukashenko wants to take revenge against the EU, and as a maximum he aims to soften the European sanctions that have dealt a painful blow to key Belarusian industries," said independent analyst Valery Karbalevich. "Belarusian authorities have tried unsuccessfully to persuade the EU to engage in talks and bargaining, and migrants are just an instrument in a hybrid attack by Minsk."
"Lukashenko has nothing to lose," he added saying, "He's no longer worried about his reputation."
With inputs from agencies