‘It’s a Humanitarian Crisis’The Asylum Seekers Slipping Out of Sight on the Polish Border
As Russia masses troops in Belarus, and the Polish Government declares war on asylum seekers, Linda Mannheim speaks to local campaigners trying to help vulnerable refugees
Anna Alboth describes the asylum seekers she encountered in the no man’s land on the Poland-Belarus border: the man who broke his leg and couldn’t get help, the Afghan interpreters who worked with the Polish military until the Taliban took power, the woman who miscarried and wasn’t even able to shower.
Prevented from entering Poland by law enforcement, unable to return to Belarus on the other side of the border, and often facing violence from both sides, the asylum seekers are trapped. And since the Polish Government barred humanitarian aid workers and journalists from the area in September 2021, Polish activists and local people have been left to provide information and aid.
“I have visited almost all of the European borders”, says Alboth, a staff member of Minority Rights Group International. “I’ve been to difficult places… But this is something else. This is just another level of cruelty”.
Alboth is part of Grupa Granica (‘Border Group’), a collective of Polish NGOs that began monitoring the humanitarian crisis on the border in August 2021, shortly after Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, suggested that he would allow migrants arriving in Belarus to enter the EU – payback for the sanctions imposed on Belarus by the bloc.
“Most migrants come from countries ravaged by armed conflicts and human rights violations”, Grupa Granica has found. “Upon their arrival in Minsk, they are transported by trucks, buses or taxis to the EU’s eastern border where they are forced by Belarusian officers to make irregular entry into Poland outside the official border checkpoints”.
Many have been told that the EU is an easy walk from the Belarus border – unaware of the peril they face. “The border guards would say to our face: ‘Yes, of course we are taking people to the refugee shelter,’ before putting people in a car and drive them in the opposite direction”, recounts Alboth.
Polish authorities describe the asylum seekers as security risks. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has spoken of “a new type of war, a war in which migrants are weapons”. The once sleepy border villages are now patrolled by army personnel, military vehicles, and drones. And in communities where almost everyone knows a border guard, the villagers have forced to make a moral choice.
“We went door-to-door to talk with local people”, Alboth explains, “not to tell them what to do, but rather to answer their questions [about the people crossing the border]. There were people calling me saying: ‘I’ve never seen refugees in my life. Can you please tell me [what to do], because I have five of them at the back of my house? Can I give them water? Can I give them food? Is it legal? Am I risking anything if I do it?’ That was August, before the zone was closed – when we could talk with people”.
Despite the efforts of the Polish Government, these villages are still giving help to those in need.
“Those who were calling border guards immediately if they [saw a migrant] on the street, stopped doing it”, says Alboth. “Now… a lot of people really help. A lot of people are hiding refugees at home, giving them food and letting them warm up before they go further”.
A Battle Over Bodies
At least 21 deaths have been reported on the Polish side of the border since the crisis began, but the actual number of deaths is believed to be higher.
Humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontière, repeatedly prevented from entering the area by Polish authorities, cannot provide healthcare to migrants who are injured, coping with hypothermia or malnutrition in isolated and difficult terrain.
Journalists (who were excluded from the zone entirely until December) can only enter if they are “embedded” in a unit of Polish border guards who follow a fixed route.
While an estimated 2,000 migrants in Belarus accepted repatriation to Iran in November, many (primarily from Afghanistan and Syria as well as Iraq) remain in Belarus, while those still trapped in the no man’s land – because of the exclusion of press and NGOs – have slipped out of sight.
“I was meeting people in extreme conditions who couldn’t move anymore, but those were the lucky ones – because they could still make contact with us”, Alboth says. “We were walking in the forest with thermal vision glasses so we could find people who didn’t have contact with anyone anymore. But… the border is very long. This forest is very dense”.
The pushbacks by Poland are in violation of international and EU law. Anyone seeking protection, no matter how they have entered a country, must have their claim heard in the country where they have requested asylum.
“Nobody on the border can judge if this person is from ethnic or religious minority, if he or she is facing persecution in their country”, says Alboth. “From our estimation, there are maybe around 1,000 people on the Belarusian side and in Polish forests. There is enough space in the [Polish refugee] centres for them”.
Other places in Europe, for example the city of Munich, have already volunteered to host some of these asylum seekers, once they are allowed entry to the EU.
Pushing people back without knowing who they are or why they are entering poses a greater threat to state security than complying with the established asylum process, Grupa Granica argues. “People crossing the border should be stopped, their identity established, their fingerprints taken; they should be registered and assessed as to whether or not they can safely return to their own country”, the collective says.
Following this process also means that vulnerable people – children and victims of violence or human trafficking – can be identified and protected.
In January, Polish contractors began building a 186 kilometre wall along the border. Meanwhile, the activists trying to aid the asylum seekers face harassment and threats.
Yet, the local people providing food and shelter for the asylum seekers are “the real heroes” Alboth says. “If they get involved or not… they have to live with consequences of this decision. And I think when we talk in Europe about migration, we should always talk about those people, those on the edges of Europe, for whom this is everyday life.
“The Polish Government wants to present it as a migration crisis: it’s not a migration crisis, it’s a humanitarian crisis right now”, she says, which can only be resolved through international pressure.
“So, we cannot stop talking about it”.
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