Catholic bishops across Europe have demanded a resolution to the migrant and refugee crisis on Poland’s border with Belarus, while backing Polish church calls for urgent humanitarian aid.
The Commission of European Union Bishops Conferences (Comece) urged EU member states to show “practical solidarity”, adding that stranded migrants, especially children and the elderly and vulnerable, deserved “full respect for their dignity and fundamental rights, no matter what their legal status is”.
In its weekend appeal, Comece said steps should also be taken to prevent attempts to “take advantage and instrumentalise” their despair.
The president of the Council of Catholic Episcopates of Europe (CCEE), Lithuanian Archbishop Gintaras Grušas, whose country also faces a mass influx from Belarus, told Italy’s Servizio Informazione Religiosa (SIR) he had spoken to refugees at the border, many of whom had “experienced the horrors of war”.
He added that they included young Africans and others who were unaware they were being “manipulated” with promises of admission to the EU, and said international action was needed to end an “unconventional military action” by Belarus.
“These migrants and refugees are being exploited by the government – smuggled in for political purposes and used as human shields in a bid to destabilise the situation of the European Union’s borders”, the Vilnius-based archbishop told SIR.
“It isn’t just migrants who are being used in Belarus – the country’s own citizens are being held hostage, with many innocent people tortured, persecuted and imprisoned there. This is happening on the border of Europe to people fighting for Western values and liberties.”
A border state of emergency has been in operation in Poland since September, amid claims by EU officials that President Alexander Lukashenko’s discredited regime had flown refugees from at least 20 countries to Belarus aboard Russian and Turkish state airlines, and transported them to the border in retaliation for EU sanctions over its human rights abuses.
Aid agencies have accused Poland of blocking proper asylum procedures and contributing to refugee deaths from hypothermia and exhaustion, after it deployed 15,000 troops with razor wire and teargas, and announced plans for a 65-mile border wall.
Tension escalated on Saturday, amid reports that Belarusian troops had helped tear down border defences and donated teargas to migrants, while using lasers to distract Polish security forces, whose efforts were being backed by a contingent of British troops.
The Polish Church’s Caritas charity said on Saturday it was seeking to help the migrants via seven border parishes, but added that most were stuck in woods on the Belarusian side and had been unable to access its “tents of hope”, set up for those who crossed the border.
Lithuania’s Caritas network said it was providing food and clothing to some 1,500 migrants in Vilnius archdiocese, but was unable to help the majority stuck on the border. “We are trying to find a balance between securing the frontier and helping people,” the charity’s director, Arunas Kucikas, told Poland’s Catholic information agency, KAI.
“But we can only help those already on Lithuanian territory, not those in the border grey zone.”
In Poland, where a nationwide church collection will be held for the migrants and refugees on 21 November, bishops’ conference president, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, appealed again on Thursday for help for “victims of ruthless political action and the greed of a smuggling mafia”. The Vatican’s nuncio to Minsk, Archbishop Ante Jozic, said Rome was “closely monitoring” events.
Vatican foreign secretary Archbishop Paul Gallagher, visited Moscow on 8 November and met Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Asked about the migrant crisis, Gallagher said nations must “assume their responsibilities”.