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Migrants entering Poland from Belarus face sub-zero temperatures and military patrols

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes taking stock of a dramatic standoff unfolding in Eastern Europe on the border between Belarus and Poland. On the Belarus side, thousands of people are massed - mostly migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. They are trying to gain access to the European Union - on the Polish side, soldiers dispatched to seal the area and stop those migrants. One sign of the stakes in play here - today, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko threatened to disrupt the flow of natural gas through his country to Western Europe.

Well, journalist Matthew Luxmoore was just at that border area last week. He wrote about what he saw for Radio Free Europe. And he joins us now from his base in Moscow. Matthew, welcome.

MATTHEW LUXMOORE: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: All right. So tell us what you saw. Describe this border area. Just paint us a picture of what's happening.

LUXMOORE: So it's a very forested area, and it's a very militarized zone at the moment. The town I was in very close to the border had military trucks and hardware passing through it on a regular basis. But if you walked into the forest, you occasionally saw people who had clearly undergone rather dire conditions in the forest, sometimes slept there for very long after crossing into Poland from Belarus.

KELLY: And what did they tell you?

LUXMOORE: Well, many of them had paid large amounts of money to Belarusian tour companies, which are allegedly tied to the government of Alexander Lukashenko. They simply flew to Minsk, where they received visas at the airport. They flew from countries like Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. Then they were transported to the border with Poland and with the help of Belarusian border guards, who, according to numerous accounts I've heard not only from the migrants but also other journalists, they caught the concertina wire on the border, and they let select groups of migrants through.

KELLY: The allegation from the EU is that Belarus might be doing this in retaliation for sanctions. But they're - these are, you know, real people. These are human beings who are stacked up at the border. And I'm following with interest comments from European leaders, from Poland's prime minister and others talking about humans being used as ammunition, that migrants are being weaponized. Are those statements accurate? Are they fair?

LUXMOORE: Well, I think it's worth noting that many of these people come from war-torn countries. The migrants I spoke to - I profiled one Syrian family that had made this arduous trek. They lost relatives to the war. So it's difficult to say to what extent we can speak of Lukashenko weaponizing these people. But I think it is probably fair to say that these people are desperate and probably can be manipulated to some extent if they're desperate to leave the country and they're seeking for any opportunity to do that. So if that's his tactic, then he, I think, is exploiting that desperation.

KELLY: What can the European Union, what can NATO do about this?

LUXMOORE: Well, the talk so far has been of further sanctions on Lukashenko's regime. And he has responded very aggressively to this talk of new sanctions. And perhaps an element we'll speak of in a minute is, obviously, Russia's backing of Lukashenko.

KELLY: I was going to ask since you're speaking to us from Moscow, what is Russia's hand in this? And we should note that Russia says this has nothing to do with us. But is that credible? - because Russia and Belarus are allies.

LUXMOORE: So I will note that I've seen no evidence so far that Russia is behind this. But Russia has, for the past year, been an ardent backer of Lukashenko. And senior Russian officials have made statements that suggest that Europe is hypocritical because it sends troops, including Poland - sent troops to shore up U.S.-led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is now not letting people in from the countries that, as Belarus and Russia say, was destabilized by these campaigns. So it's really just as much a war of words as a standoff on the border.

KELLY: That is journalist Matthew Luxmoore. Thank you very much.

LUXMOORE: It was a pleasure to speak to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.