Polish contractors began work on Tuesday on a new 353-million euro ($407 million) wall along the Belarus border aimed at deterring migrant crossings following a crisis in the area last year.
The 5.5-metre high wall will run along 186 kilometres of the border — almost half the total length — and is to be completed in June.
The construction has raised human rights concerns over how migrants will be able to seek asylum as well as environmental worries about the effect on wildlife along the mostly forested border.
“Our intention is for the damage to be as small as possible,” border guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska told Poland’s PAP news agency on Tuesday.
“Tree felling will be limited to the minimum required. The wall itself will be built along the border road,” she said, adding that contractors would only make use of existing roads.
Thousands of migrants — mostly from the Middle East — crossed or attempted to cross the border from Belarus into Poland last year.
The West blamed the influx on the Belarusian regime, saying it had encouraged would-be migrants to fly to Belarus with the promise of an easy journey on foot into the European Union.
– ‘Hybrid attack –
Poland branded the migrant crisis a “hybrid” attack from Belarus and its main ally Russia, referring to a type of warfare using non-military tactics.
Belarus has denied this and has accused Poland of inhumane treatment of the migrants.
It has since repatriated thousands of migrants to Iraq — the main country of origin.
At the height of the crisis last year, Poland sent thousands of troops and police officers to the border to reinforce border guards patrols.
It also built a razor wire fence along much of the border and closed off the border area to media and human rights groups, as well as approving a new law allowing migrants to be forced back into Belarus.
While the number of crossings has fallen sharply since then, some still attempt the increasingly perilous crossing despite the freezing conditions.
The border guard service on Tuesday said on Twitter that there were 17 crossings in the past 24 hours.
A group of 14 people — 11 Iranians, two Lebanese and one Syrian — who “cut the razor wire fence and crossed into Poland”, border guards said.
They were detained, the border guards said, along with a separate group of three people from Ghana who crossed over in a different part of the border.