Over 70 Estonian citizens trapped on Polish-German border

Minister of Foreign Affair Urmas Reinsalu.
Minister of Foreign Affair Urmas Reinsalu. Source: ERR

Estonian citizens hoping to pass through Poland en route home following a deal between the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Polish authorities late on Sunday were reportedly trapped for an entire day on Monday, and are still hemmed in close to the border with Germany.

The Estonians, 73 of them officially registered, say they were misled by information from the foreign ministry that an escorted column would be allowed from the German-Polish border to the Polish-Lithuanian border.

While Estonia and Latvia both planned to close their Schengen Zone border and install checks overnight Monday to Tuesday, the Polish government made a similar move earlier, on Sunday.

The deal was struck late on Sunday night and those wishing to join the convoy had until 8.00 a.m. to register with the foreign ministry via email.

According to ERR's online Estonian news, the column was not allowed unhindered transit; now the foreign ministers of all three Baltic States are trying to resolve the situation, evern suggesting the trapped citizens return to Germany to then come home via Sweden.

Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) told ERR Monday night that he has tried to resolve the situation with his authorities in the Baltic States. Attempts continued through the night though the foreign minister could not say when a breakthrough might be achieved.

Foreign minister: Conversations ongoing

"I have talked with my colleagues, the Estonian president, and the Estonian prime minister has talked with my Polish colleagues. Last night (i.e. Sunday-ed.), Poland officially announced that if the three Baltic States submit their citizens' list, they will be able to travel through Polish territory today in a humanitarian convoy. Unfortunately, this has not materialized. Poland has given its own terms, and this evening the ambassadors in Warsaw discussed it with the Polish authorities and heads of the Ministry of the Interior," Reinsalu said.

"As of today (late on Monday-ed.), I have given orders that these families be contacted this evening; the information that we have at the disposal … today is that we will undoubtedly continue to work with the other Baltic authorities and in some sense with the Polish authorities to find a positive decision for us. While I have to also say that this power is undoubtedly at our disposal, it is the Polish authorities who have the authority to make that decision. We have also informed those on the border of the possibilities of leaving the country by sea, that is, heading from Germany to Sweden. This situation is undoubtedly extremely intolerable and one of the central tasks of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today is to work on these solutions."

"From Warsaw, we evacuated Estonian people in Poland who did not have public transport facilities by minibus today. We are currently moving them towards the Polish-Lithuanian border," Reinsalu went on.

Estonians can't go forward or backwards

As to the question of how the Estonian citizens could extricate themselves from the convoy in order to turn back to Germany and then travel to Sweden, the foreign minister noted the difficulties here.

"Yes, this problem is extremely serious right now. Undoubtedly our plan A, which would be the most ideal, is that this column had materialized in the way that the Polish authorities announced [Sunday] night. Unfortunately, this is not the case at the moment. The Polish authorities have provided justifications in terms of the protection of their public health. So this makes it an extremely difficult situation and we will continue to make every effort we have with the authorities to find this solution."

"As to the question of whether we can provide an answer today, it is the case that our task, which we are carrying out a hundred percent, is to act with good will towards the Polish authorities … but that decision is actually up to the Polish authorities [themselves]."

As to the question of whether the moves by the Polish authorities, which included the reported use of armed officials, was in-line with EU norms, Reinsalu said that all law enforcement measures should be in proportion, and if a question of the use of disproportionate force by Polish authorities on Estonian citizens arose, consular assistance would be provided.

Human rights violations?

The situation had got to the stage where attention should be drawn to the humanitarian situation of those stuck in the convoy, including their "bodily needs," Reinsalu said.

The foreign minister stopped short of saying the Estonian citizens' human rights had been violated, though noted the physical hardships of being on the ground in the besieged convoy.

"If there is any way to alleviate this situation, we certainly call for and are ready to work with the Polish authorities to assist their citizens," Reinsalu said.

Estonian citizen trapped on border: Foreign ministry gave inaccurate information

ERR was also able to speak to an Estonian citizen, Aare Saal trapped close to the German Polish border on a bridge, on Monday night.

Saal said that there were Estonian citizens in 10 cars, around two to three people per car. They had rushed across western Europe early on Monday morning following the announcement by Reinsalu and the foreign ministry late Sunday night about transit via Poland.

The deadline of 8.00 a.m. Monday morning saw a last-minute rush to the Germany-Poland border, with Estonian citizens making a bee-line from several western European countries, including Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, and Germany itself, Saal said.

While a trip by boat from Germany to Sweden might have been the better option, Saal said, the individuals were following the foreign ministry's guidance.

"We jumped through hoops because we were told we could get through Poland. People would have done it a lot differently [had they known]," Saal said. 

"It turned out later that Mr Reisalu had probably misunderstood things."

Saal said his company had been on the highway bridge since early Monday.

"We're still on the highway. There's just concrete surrounding us, and trucks, but no toilets, nothing. The funniest thing is we can't get out of here, we're basically imprisoned," Saal said. 

"On one side is concrete, on the other side an iron fence. The whole column is 40 kilometers long. We are one kilometer from the border; they say there are 39 kilometers of vehicles behind us."

Polish authorities allegedly use rubber truncheons on Lithuanian citizens

Saal also said that Lithuanian citizens had got into the same difficulties in trying to return to their home country, which borders with Poland, as the latter's authorities were only permitting buses carrying above seven people through, but thousands of Lithuanian citizens were in their cars.

"A lot of Lithuanian people have come from England and the Netherlands, where they work. Women, cars containing children. [The Polish authorities] blocked the road to cars ... The Lithuanians have already been drinking [alcohol],… then the Poles came in buses, [armed with] rubber truncheons," Saal said, noting that no Estonians had got involved in the ruckus.

Incorrect information about boat tickets

Saal said the order to muster at the German-Polish border for safe transit was not the only misleading information they received from the foreign ministry. Another order was issued which also turned out to be incorrect, Saal said.

"There was a message from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to contact [tourism firm] Estravel, who had booked ferry tickets from Germany to Klaipeda (in Lithuania-ed.) for all. Now we should drive 500 kilometers to Kiel harbor, right? They [Estravel] had never spoken to the Foreign Ministry," hall said.

"We would all have rushed to the port of Kiel to get home with Estravel, but fortunately it turned out that the foreign ministry was lying and there was no booking for us."

Saal added that some of the Estonian contingent now planned to cross via bridge from Denmark, which the Estonian foreign ministry says are still open, but others were skeptical about this.

Saal said the foreign ministry had made no attempt to contact them.

"The sad thing is that we know nothing. I would very much like to eat and wash already. We have all been without sleep. The Lithuanians were fighting there, and they don't know where the end is in sight. Had we known, we would have gone by Swedish ship, and arrived home safely from there. But here we are, because the foreign ministry organized this way, then did the same with the supposed ship tickets."

Saal said he hoped the border would eventually be opened to allow the convoy non-stop travel across Poland.

"Thousands of people are piled up on top of each other … There's no point in holding us here like that, with this type of tactic," Saal went on.

According to ERR's online news in Estonian, as dawn broke on Tuesday, the Estonians trapped at the border were still hoping to leave Germany for Sweden.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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