Safety concerns grow for thousands of migrants trapped at the Belarus-Poland border
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Thousands of migrants remain trapped on the border between Belarus and Poland, enduring frigid temperatures in makeshift camps. Some have already died, and there are fears for the safety of the rest as bitter winter conditions settle in. Meanwhile, the European Union has imposed sanctions against Belarus in response to the crisis. On the line with us now from Oslo is Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Good morning.
JAN EGELAND: Good morning.
MARTÍNEZ: As I mentioned, Europe is now threatening new sanctions against Belarus, and Belarus is threatening to cut off gas supplies to Europe. Jan, these migrants are essentially just stuck right there in between. Who should be taking responsibility for them?
EGELAND: Both sides of this abject power play should take responsibility for these migrants who are vulnerable people. They are men, women and children that have now come in some kind of a political crossfire. The European Union and Poland are obligated to hear the case of asylum-seekers. That's international law. And Belarus and Russia have to stop this using them as pawns on some kind of a chessboard. They are human beings. They have a right to be humanely treated and not used for power play.
MARTÍNEZ: Is the number of migrants there may be too much for the countries to handle?
EGELAND: It's not a high number. I mean, that's what we're trying to convince. I mean, Europe is a big place. Russia-Belarus is a big place. There are more people coming over the border from Afghanistan to Iran, where I just visited, every day than the accumulated number of people on the EU border of Poland. Why is Europe working themselves up in a hysteria for a small group of migrants? This is every day for many of poorer nations in the rest of the world.
MARTÍNEZ: Poland is building up its troop and police presence at the border, and authorities sent out text messages that migrants cannot cross over. But should Poland just open the border?
EGELAND: Well, they should have a mechanism, ideally together with the U.N., to orderly and nicely hear the cases of people who apply for protection and then reject those who have no - who are not individually persecuted. That's the law. Many would have to return, but now it seems like at gunpoint from both Poland and from Belarus. People are no man's land, and they are now potentially forcefully sent back to Iraq and other places where they may have big, big problems ahead of them.
MARTÍNEZ: What signal would that maybe send to Minsk? Europe blames Belarus for orchestrating the crisis by directing migrants toward the Polish border, and they're calling it hybrid warfare.
EGELAND: Yeah, I mean, Belarus is cynically using people. That - we seem to have evidence of that. They send them to the border with wire cutters, and then they say at gunpoint, stay there until you get over on the other side where they cannot come over. So it is - it has to be a lesson learned for the whole world. People have to get hope where they are, whether that is in Afghanistan, where there is no hope at the moment, or in the neighboring countries like Iran, where the facilities are overwhelmed, or in Iraq and elsewhere. That's No. 1. The second one - get procedures to hear cases for people who are applying for individual asylum. And that is up to both Belarus and Poland to work together on. It will be one of the migrant routes this winter because it's looking so desperate in so many places, including in Afghanistan.
MARTÍNEZ: Well, let's talk about that for a second. Let's - we can take a step back for a moment. The catalyst - what's been the catalyst for this rush of migrants at the border in the first place?
EGELAND: The catalyst is desperation. I mean, nobody goes on such a journey because they would like to be tourists. They go because they are desperate where they are, whether that is Kurds in Iraq or there are the Afghans that I heard in Iran, Afghan refugees who are already in Iran, say all our relatives and friends are now amassing at the border. They want to get over to Iran. And many want to wander west through Turkey or through Belarus. They want to go to Europe because there is no hope in Afghanistan. So, please, let's try to get assistance and economy, things working for the 40 million Afghans that were left behind when NATO went for the door in August.
MARTÍNEZ: There has been a push, though, amongst many EU countries for tighter border controls. They say their asylum systems are already overburdened and exhausted. Does that argument hold water? Do they have a point?
EGELAND: No, they do - Europe now takes very few refugees. They take a few asylum-seekers. There was an overwhelming incident in 2015 when a million people came - not so anymore.
MARTÍNEZ: Jan Egeland is secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Thank you very much.
EGELAND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.