Lifelines in limbo: Refugees face harrowing injustice at Poland-Belarus border
A message left on a piece of paper on the border between Belarus and Poland reads: “People are dying, help us.” Meanwhile, a text sent from the first-aid camp of Kabeliai in the Polish district of Varena says, ” We are crying because of the cold, it is unbearable.”
These are just some of the many calls for help received by the volunteers in Poland who are trying to ease the inhuman conditions migrants face at the shared border with Belarus.
The Eastern country has suddenly become the new hotspot of the migrant route to enter Europe by migrants from the Middle East and Central Asia.
[Refugees have] become a tool for a political game between Brussels and Minsk, who see the latter using migrants as a tool to push the EU to make concessions and ease sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime
According to Polish sources, the Belarus government inaugurated a campaign in different countries offering a visa and a safe passage to Europe through its territory. Many Syrians, Iraqi Kurds, Afghans were lured into the ex-soviet country with the hope to conjunct with relatives already in the EU and have the possibility to start a brand-new life.
However, the reality is that they have become a tool for a political game between Brussels and Minsk, who see the latter using migrants as a tool to push the EU to make concessions and ease sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime.
Last September, Warsaw declared a state of emergency at its border with Belarus to stop the increasing flow of migrants who illegally crossed into its territory, while the European Union accused Minsk of facilitating illegal immigration to the EU.
According to Brussels, Belarus is retaliating against the sanctions instituted from the bloc over the suspicious result of the August 2020 election and violent crackdown on protesters.
Thousands of migrants are waiting, or have already crossed the border, hiding in the woods without any assistance and in severe weather to get a chance to enter Poland and move to other European countries.
“The migrants I encounter in the closed zone scream when they see me. They believe they are about to be beaten up. We are dealing with a process that questions the entire heritage of our civilisation as European Union,” says a resident who lives close to the border between Poland and Belarus and prefer not to be named.
"The European Union, although disputed the decision by the Polish government, hasn’t taken any step to set a shared front to deal with the current situation. A vacuum that seems it won’t be fulfilled anytime soon"
“People die here. I often discuss with the border police, these policemen are here permanently, so I can talk to them. And I acknowledge that they do not have any order to transfer refugees to centres. Those people who come here, if caught, go immediately back to the Belarus border. There – I know it from those people but I cannot verify – sometimes migrants get shot from the Belarusian side,” he added.
“A group of 32 Afghans have been stuck since August in a no man’s land zone without any choice but to stay still and try to survive. They live in tents and are suffering from hunger and hypothermia. In the last week, the temperature has constantly been below zero. I do not know how long they can last,” says Kalina Czwarnóg, board member of Fundacja Ocalenie to The New Arab.
“Although we can’t get into the red zone, which span over three kilometres from the Belarus border and which is severely guarded by police, we are able to provide warm clothes, food, and what they need every time we receive a call from them or we found them wandering. We monitor, in concert with other organisations, their health and let them stay in contact with their relatives in Europe,” says Czwanóg.
According to local reports, there have been at least four cases of hypothermia resulting in the deaths of migrants. But the number is expected to be higher. The emergency state in the area prohibited any access to journalists and NGO’s and make it difficult to assess the situation and if human rights violations are ongoing.
“In the last few weeks, we have supported several groups who have been in the forests, including children. We deal with cases of hypothermia, dehydration, hunger. After many days of hiking, they have numerous wounds on their legs that without medical attention could get infected,” said Jakub Sieczko, doctor and coordinator of the Medycy na Granicy Initiative, an organisation of health professionals who help refugees at the border.
“Some people endure an exacerbation of chronic diseases, which hasn’t been properly monitored during their stay in the forest. We help them and provide the medications they need,” Sieckzo added.
During a meeting in Rome over the weekend, Polish MP Urszula Zielińska delivered a letter on the situation of migrants to Pope Francis, along with photos of children pushed back by the Polish security to the Belarusian border guards.
“In the letter, I informed the Pope that for weeks the external border of the European Union has been crossed by hundreds of refugees in search of security. I noted that the Belarusian regime treats refugees as a living weapon. Nevertheless, our moral duty is to help. Unfortunately, many politicians remain indifferent to this appeal,” Zielinska wrote on her Facebook account.
The European Union, although disputed the decision by the Polish government, hasn’t taken any step to set a shared front to deal with the current situation. A vacuum that seems it won’t be fulfilled anytime soon.
“I was left alone after the police took my companions. I got lost in the woods without knowing how to use GPS," reads a text from a Syrian migrant to the international activist Nawal Soufi.
"I am cold, and I have not eaten for four days. I need a solution, I feel like I’m living a nightmare. I do not want to die here.”
Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is the editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis on the Middle East.