Poland builds wall on Belarus border

Poland on Tuesday began construction of a new fence on its border with Belarus to block the entry of illegal migrants, which sparked a crisis between Warsaw and Minsk last year.

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“The sites were handed over to the drivers on Tuesday,” border guard spokeswoman Captain Krystyna Jakimik-Jarosz told AFP.

She declined to specify the location of the work. “Belarusian services are just waiting for this to send groups of migrants there, so for security reasons, we do not indicate the specific locations,” she said.

About 186 km long, almost half of the total border length of 418 km, the metal barrier will be five and a half meters high, she said.

The wall will be equipped in particular with cameras and motion detectors, to help border guards prevent fraudulent crossings, said Captain Jakimik-Jarosz.

It will be very useful, she says. “The temporary fence (barbed wire) has already helped us a lot, because it gave us time to prepare ourselves while a group of migrants were preparing to attack, to open a passage, the time to mobilize enough means and personnel to prevent it,” she explained.

The wall will cost some 353 million euros and is due to be completed in June.

The project has raised concerns from human rights and environmental activists. The former fear that migrants fleeing conflict situations will not be able to apply for asylum, and the latter of the harmful effects for the fauna and flora of the forest zone at the border.

“We will do everything so that damage to the environment and animals is reduced as much as possible,” said the spokesperson for the border guards.

The European Union supported Poland and strongly criticized Belarus. For its part, the Polish government has declined Brussels’ proposal to involve the European agency Frontex in border surveillance. And he passed a law that allows illegal migrants to be turned back without waiting for them to apply for asylum.

Special area and barbed wire

Thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, including Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, but also from Afghanistan, tried last year to cross the Polish border to reach EU territory. Some made it through and more often than not they continued their journey to Western Europe.

Poland and Western countries have accused the Belarusian regime of encouraging, even orchestrating and helping this flow of migrants by promising them easy entry into the EU.

The government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has rejected these accusations and blamed Poland for inhumane treatment of migrants.

At the height of the crisis, Poland created a special zone at the border closed to humanitarian NGOs and the media, built barbed wire barriers and sent several thousand soldiers to help border guards.

The latter were ordered to push the migrants back into Belarusian territory.

These measures, and the death from cold or starvation of a dozen migrants in Polish forests, have sparked a lively debate in Poland between supporters of the defense of the national border, which is also that of the EU, and human rights defenders.

The latter claim for migrants the right to request asylum and not to be turned back while waiting for this request to be examined.

The number of smuggling attempts has decreased in recent months. On Tuesday, border guards said they had recorded 17 illegal entries in the past 24 hours.

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