The European Commission has accused Belarus’ authoritarian leader of luring immigrants under the false promise of easy entry into the EU as part of an “inhumane, gangster-style approach”.
At least 2,000 migrants are now on the Belarusian border with Poland.
“Upon arrival, they are pushed to the border and forced to enter the European Union illegally,” said Commission spokesman Peter Stano.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko denies having orchestrated the problem.
Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, members of the EU and NATO, have seen an increase in the number of people trying to enter their countries illegally from Belarus in recent months. Many are young men, but include women and children, mainly from the Middle East and Asia.
Poland has been the country with the most arrivals, especially around its main border crossing in Kuznica.
The migrants have described how Belarusian authorities confiscated their phones and pushed them towards the border fence. Nighttime temperatures at the border have plummeted below freezing and several people have already died in recent weeks.
“Nobody lets us in anywhere, Belarus or Poland,” Shwan Kurd, 33, of Iraq, told the BBC by video call.
He described how he had come to Minsk from Baghdad in early November and was now in a makeshift camp a few meters from Poland’s barbed wire fence.
“There is no way to escape,” he said. “Poland won’t let us in. Helicopters fly every night. They won’t let us sleep. We are very hungry. There is no water or food here. There are small children, the elderly and families.”
Poland has deployed additional troops after desperate crowds tried to cut through the border fence on Monday. The border guard said there had been more than 300 attempts to cross illegally. The government warned of a possible “armed” escalation on its border with Belarus, fearing that its neighbor would try to provoke an incident.
The head of Poland’s national security department, Stanislaw Zaryn, said the migrants were under the control of Belarusian armed units. “Belarus wants to provoke a major incident, preferably with gunshots and casualties,” Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk said on Monday.
The EU, NATO and the US say that Belarus is orchestrating the problem. Brussels accuses Belarus’ disputed leader of provoking the influx in retaliation against EU sanctions, imposed after his widely discredited re-election and subsequent crackdown on mass protests.
The Belarusian Defense Ministry rejected the Polish statements as unfounded and unsubstantiated, and accused Warsaw of violating the agreements by moving thousands of troops to the border.
Belarus insists that migrants arrive there legally and that it simply acts “like a hospitable country.”
Russia has praised its ally’s “responsible” handling of the border row and said it is watching the situation closely.
Activists say migrants are being used as pawns in a political game between non-EU Belarus and its neighbors. Poland has also been accused of pushing migrants back across the border, contrary to international asylum standards.
The spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, Shabia Mantoo, said she was very concerned about the last scenes: “The use of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants for political ends is unacceptable and must stop.”
READ MORE: How Belarus is helping “tourists” break into the EU
BBC correspondent Nick Beake, who is located near the border, says Polish authorities are strictly enforcing a state of emergency in the area. He means that it is difficult to independently verify what is happening in this growing immigration crisis, he says.
The European Commission is now looking to extend the sanctions to include “third country airlines” involved in the transport of migrants to Belarus. He said he was looking for flights to Minsk from various countries, including Syria, Iran and Qatar, as well as Russia and several North African states.
Germany on Tuesday urged the EU to “take action” to help Poland secure its borders. Lithuania has also moved troops to its border with Belarus to prepare for a possible influx of migrants.