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EU leaders consider sanctions on Belarus for migrant crisis at Poland's border

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

At the border between Poland and Belarus, thousands of migrants, many of them families with children, are trapped in freezing conditions. They're caught between troops trying to push the migrants out of Belarus and border guards trying to prevent them from entering EU countries. The EU Council president has called the action a hybrid attack. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz is covering the story. Rob, the EU has threatened further sanctions in its attempts to stop the regime in Minsk. What form could that take?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, according to EU diplomats, these sanctions could be placed on Belarus as early as next week. And they target within the regime - people within the regime of Alexander Lukashenko who've been handing out visas to thousands of migrants from mostly Iraq and Syria. They'd also target the airlines facilitating travel for them. That would include Belarusian airline Belavia, and it could include more well-known carriers like Turkish Airlines and Flydubai. Both have transported migrants to Belarus as part of this crisis. I spoke to Wojciech Kononczuk, deputy director of the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, about this. Here's what he said.

WOJCIECH KONONCZUK: Before the migration crisis, these airlines were quite recognized and respected. But now they are taking part in a dirty business. Without these airlines, there would be no illegal migrants on the EU eastern border.

SCHMITZ: And Kononczuk says there are now eight direct flights a day to Minsk from Istanbul, Dubai, Damascus and Beirut. Most of these routes were added after the Lukashenko regime began making visas more widely available in that region. So hundreds of migrants are flying to Belarus each day. They're then escorted to the border, where Belarusian soldiers help them cross a barrier of razor wire into the European Union.

MARTINEZ: What's going on right now at the border?

SCHMITZ: Well, on the Belarusian side, there are hundreds of migrants sleeping in tent villages, chopping down trees for firewood, and they're waiting for the right time to cross. On the Polish side, there are more than 20,000 troops along the border who are trying to stop these crossings. In between are migrants, and they're being pushed from one side to the other.

MARTINEZ: German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russia's leader Vladimir Putin to help end the crisis. How did that call go?

SCHMITZ: Merkel's office told us that she told Putin the exploitation of these migrants is inhuman and unacceptable. She asked Putin to exert his influence with Lukashenko to put a stop to this. She's worried because Germany is the favored destination for most of these migrants. And Putin is a big financial and political backer of Lukashenko and his regime, and Russia is not even hiding its involvement in this crisis. This week, Russia's foreign minister came out and said if the EU provided financial assistance to Belarus, this whole migration crisis could go away.

MARTINEZ: Rob, we're hearing reports that at least some of these migrants are going days without food, without water or shelter. I mean, is there anyone trying to help them?

SCHMITZ: You know, last month, when I was reporting along the border, I spent time with humanitarian groups who deliver food, water and blankets to the migrants who make it across. You know, this border region is heavily forested. It's filled with swamps, and at night, the temperatures are well below freezing. So some migrants, many children actually, are suffering from hypothermia. These groups also offer legal advice, helping migrants apply for asylum. Poland's government is supposed to hold asylum applicants while they process these requests, but for the most part, Polish soldiers are sending the migrants they catch back to Belarus, where they're typically threatened or, in some cases, beaten and told to go back to Poland. It's a vicious cycle, and the conditions are only getting worse.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Rob, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.