Poland on Tuesday started the construction of a fence along its border with Belarus to block the entry of illegal migrants.
The fence will be five and a half metres high, measure 186 kilometres and cost €350 million to build, the Polish Border Guard agency has announced.
Poland and Belarus share a 418 km border.
A border guard spokeswoman, Captain Krystyna Jakimik-Jarosz, declined to specify the location of the construction sites, arguing that "the Belarusian services are just waiting for this to send groups of migrants there, so for security reasons we don't indicate the precise locations."
The new fence will be equipped with cameras and motion detectors, among other things, to help border guards prevent smuggling, Jakimik-Jarosz said.
"The temporary fence (made of barbed wire) has already helped us a lot because it gave us time to prepare while a group of migrants was about to attack, to open a passage, time to mobilise enough means and personnel to prevent it," she explained.
The construction is expected to be completed in June.
The project has raised concerns among human rights and environmental activists. The former fear that migrants fleeing conflict situations will not be able to apply for asylum, and the latter fear the adverse effects on the wildlife of the forest area on the border.
"We will do everything to ensure that the damage to the environment and animals is reduced as much as possible," Jakimik-Jarosz said.
The European Union has accused Belarus of facilitating illegal immigration into the bloc in retaliation of sanctions imposed against the regime over the August 2020 presidential election, deemed fraudulent by the West, subsequent crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests and the hijacking of a commercial plane to arrest a prominent opposition journalist.
Minsk rejects the accusation.
Thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, including Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, but also from Afghanistan, tried to cross the Polish border into the EU last year. Some of them managed to cross and most of them continued their journey to Western Europe.
The EU's border agency, Frontex detected nearly 8,000 illegal entries into member states bordering Belarus — Poland, Lithuania, Latvia — in 2021, an increase of 1,069% on the previous year.
Warsaw and Minsk have both been harshly criticised for their treatment of migrants and accused of carrying out illegal pushbacks, leaving large groups of migrants stuck at the border in perilous conditions with little access to food or equipment to ward off freezing temperatures.
About a dozen migrants have now died at the border.
Poland imposed a state of emergency at its border, restricting access to the area to journalists and NGOs, weakening oversight of the unfolding crisis.