Members of a group of some 30 migrants seeking asylum...

Members of a group of some 30 migrants seeking asylum are seen in Bialowieza, Poland, on May 28, 2023. Refugee rights activists on Monday May 13, 2024 criticized Poland's pro-European Union government for plans to toughen measures along the border with Belarus and for continuing a policy initiated by the previous populist government of pushing migrants back across the border there. Credit: AP/Agnieszka Sadowska

WARSAW, Poland — Refugee rights activists on Monday criticized Poland's pro-European Union government for plans to tighten security at the border with Belarus and for continuing a policy initiated by predecessors of pushing migrants back across the border there.

The activists organized an online news conference after Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk made his first visit to the border area since he took office in December. Tusk met Saturday in that eastern region with border guards, soldiers and police, and vowed that Poland would spare no expense to strengthen security.

Tusk said Belarus was escalating a “hybrid war” against the EU, using migrants to put pressure on the border. He cited Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine as another reason for further fortifying the border between NATO member Poland and Belarus, a repressive state allied with Russia.

“During the press conference, he didn’t mention people or human lives at all,” said Anna Alboth with Grupa Granica, a Polish group that has been helping migrants in eastern Poland.

Migrants, most of them from the Middle East and Africa, began arriving in 2021 to the border, which is part of the EU's external frontier as they seek entry into the bloc. Polish authorities attempted to keep them out, pushing them back, something activists say violates international law.

EU authorities accused authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of luring migrants there to create a migration crisis that would destabilize the EU. Once the new route opened, many other migrants continued to follow the path, finding it an easier entry point than more dangerous routes across the Mediterranean Sea.

It is “probably the safest, cheapest and fastest way to Europe,” Alboth said.

Still, some migrants have died, with some buried in Muslim and Christian cemeteries in Poland. Bartek Rumienczyk, another activist with Grupa Granica, said the group knows of more than 60 deaths of migrants who have died since 2021.

“But we are all aware that the number is probably way higher,” he said.

Poland's previous populist government, which clashed with the EU over rule of law issues, built the steel wall that runs along the 187 kilometers (116 miles) of land border between Poland and Belarus. The Bug River separates the countries along part of the border.

Poland's former government, led by the Law and Justice party, was strongly anti-migrant and constructed the wall and launched a policy of pushing irregular migrants back across the border.

Activists hoped that the policy would change under Tusk, who is more socially liberal and shuns language denigrating migrants and refugees. However, he is also taking a strong stance against irregular migration.

The activists say it's harder for them to get their message out now because of the popularity and respect that Tusk enjoys abroad.

“Thanks to the fact that the government changed into a better government, it’s also much more difficult to talk about what is happening,” she said. “People have no idea that pushbacks are still happening.”

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