Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

A deadly crisis in Kuznica
Sensemaker audio

A deadly crisis in Kuznica

A deadly crisis in Kuznica

Trapped between Polish guards on one side and Belarusian guards on the other, migrants trapped on Europe’s frontier find themselves caught in a lethal geopolitical game.

Nimo Omer, narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo, and this is the Sensemaker. 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today, how migrants are being used as pawns in a showdown between East and West.


“The situation at the border is desperate and is getting worse… there needs to be unfettered, unconditional humanitarian access granted to these people… trapped in a cold, damp, dark forest, and desperately in need of assistance.”

Kyle McNally, Médecins Sans Frontières

That’s Kyle McNally speaking.

“The longer people stay there the more the situation will deteriorate.”

Kyle McNally, Médecins Sans Frontières

He’s an aid worker for MSF, a humanitarian organisation also known as Doctors without Borders. 

“MSF is calling on European authorities to allow for humanitarian organisations such as MSF to reach these people so that we can understand their needs and respond accordingly.”

Kyle McNally, Médecins Sans Frontières

And he’s seen what’s happening to migrants – many from Syria and Iraq – who are stranded at the border between Poland and Belarus.  They want a life in Europe – but they’re now caught in the middle of a confrontation between East and West.

“Now the row over the surge of migrants at the Belarus-Poland border is escalating, the European Union is threatening to blacklist airlines it believes are trafficking migrants to Minsk while the Belarusian president is threatening to cut off gas supplies to Europe.”

BBC News

The migrants –  there are up to 4,000 of them – are stuck.  First, they were encouraged to travel by Belarus but then they were halted. 

Poland won’t let them through.   

It’s stationed around 15,000 troops, border guards and police along its Eastern border.  They’re armed with machine guns, night-vision goggles and radios.  

And they’re refusing to allow aid workers and even doctors anywhere near the frontier. 

Poland’s Border Force guards claim their Belarusian counterparts are giving migran ts instructions – as well as tear gas – to help them force their way into the EU.   

So, what explains the crisis?  And why are people like Kyle McNally being prevented from assisting those in need?


“Well the European Union claims Alexander Lukashenko, who’s Belarus’s authoritarian leader, is taking revenge for EU sanctions over rights abuses by offering migrants tourist visas and then helping them to the border.”

BBC News

The stand off goes back to May when the authoritarian leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, said he would no longer stop migrants crossing into the EU.  

This was in response to EU sanctions that were imposed when he was reappointed president in an election, the result of which was disputed – and that’s putting it mildly.  

“The foreign secretary Dominic Raab says the UK doesn’t recognise the result of what he called the fraudulent re-election of the president of Belarus.”

BBC News

The Belarusian leader hounded political opponents and he was blamed when a RyanAir jet was diverted to the capital, Minsk, so an opposition journalist could be arrested.

“There’s been a chorus of condemnation across Europe tonight after a RyanAir plane flying from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk in Belarus and a dissident Belarusian journalist onboard was detained. State media in Belarus said the plane was forced to land because of a bomb scare…”

BBC News

Consequently, the EU banned businesses from importing goods or doing business with Belarusian counterparts in sectors like banking and oil. 

In “revenge”, Belarus began to offer package deals to “tourists” from countries in the Middle East.


Migrants no longer needed to take perilous journeys by boat across the Mediterranean.  Instead, through a network of travel firms working with smugglers, they could fly directly to Belarus and then drive to the EU’s border before crossing on foot into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. 

They were given other incentives: seven-day tourist visas and promises of hotel accommodation and even health insurance.

But, according to Kyle McNally, once they reached the border, they were stranded in a politically created no-man’s land.

“… and conditions on the Polish border are dire. Temperatures are freezing and many migrants are running out of food and water… overnight Poland said it found the bodies of seven migrants on its side of the border, Belarus is also reporting deaths on its side.”

BBC News

So, how is the West responding?


Last week the UN Security Council accused Belarus of masterminding the crisis.

“We condemn the orchestrated instrumentalisation of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus, with the objective of destabilising neighbouring countries

UN Security Council

And it’s thought the EU will hit Belarus with fresh sanctions.

But now Russia has joined in. 

It has deployed military aircraft and paratroopers and exercises have been carried out close to the frontier. 

 It’s not subtle but its show of support wasn’t designed to be.  

Here’s Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy.

“Frankly I started to suspect that maybe our Estonian, French and other colleagues… they have some kind of masochist inclinations because to raise this topic which are total shame for the EU in front of us would be very brave…”

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN

Poland has called on NATO to take “concrete steps” to resolve the migrant crisis at the border.  But NATO’s involvement would only raise the temperature further.   

And paying the price?  Thousands of stranded migrants being held hostage, caught up in a power play between East and West.

This story was written and produced by Imy Harper.