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29 October 2021

Dispatch: Migrants freeze as Belarus pursues its cold war with the EU

The Polish border is the setting for a dangerous game of brinkmanship, and migrants are paying the price.

By Ido Vock

At Poland’s border with Belarus, nobody knows how many are dead. Officially, eight migrants have died crossing the swampland and forests into the EU, but with hundreds more attempting the journey every day and temperatures rapidly dropping as winter sets in, migrants’ rights activists believe many more have perished along the way.

“The true death toll is much higher,” Helena, a volunteer with Grupa Granica, a Polish NGO delivering aid to migrants, told me. “We’re seeing people who have almost frozen to death, as well as people going without water or food for days – even pregnant women.”

Since this summer, Belarus has established itself as one of the main routes into the EU for migrants coming from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Facilitated by decrees signed by President Alexander Lukashenko granting visa-free access to dozens of nationalities, migrants fly to Minsk before heading to the EU’s borders, either on their own or accompanied by officials. Once there, they are pointed in the direction of the EU and told to walk by Belarusian border guards. At first, they headed to Lithuania, before that country erected a wall on its border. Now, they go to Poland.

The EU accuses the Belarusian government of instrumentalising migrants to wage “hybrid warfare” against the bloc, in retaliation for its support of the democratic opposition and sanctions on the Lukashenko regime. “This is Lukashenko’s way of trying to force the EU to talk to him because he doesn’t like the sanctions we’ve imposed on him – and he’s also making money on the smuggling,” Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister, told me.

During the warm summer months, while the border was largely unpoliced and temperatures were high, the “Belarus route” was a relatively safe option. Migrants crossed the unmarked border and waited to apply for asylum in Lithuania or Poland or, more commonly, to hitch a ride to Germany. Today, though, the game has changed. In response to the influx, Poland has beefed up its border defences, building a razor wire wall on much of its northern stretch and deploying around 10,000 troops to secure it.

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The nationalist Polish government also passed a law legalising pushbacks of migrants to Belarus, a tactic illegal under international law and condemned by Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights. Dozens or hundreds are pushed back a day, according to NGOs. Belarus refuses to take the migrants back, leaving them stuck in no-man’s land without food or shelter, often for days.

Ali, from Iraqi Kurdistan, holds up a written plea for asylum after crossing from Belarus. (Photo by Ido Vock)

Reliable information from independent sources from the most critical part of the border is scarce, as Poland has also declared a state of emergency banning NGOs and journalists from operating around 3 kilometres from Belarus. 

“Even though I live 1,600 metres from the border, I can’t get close to it because there are so many soldiers,” Mateusz Wodzinski, a resident of Łapicze, a town within the closed military zone, told me. Migrants who make it across the closed area tell of coming across dead bodies, accounts that are impossible to verify as entry is strictly controlled and outsiders are not allowed in.

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On a recent intervention in late October, volunteers from Grupa Granica were called to deliver aid to a family of seven who had been found just a few hundred metres outside the restricted zone, close to the town of Narewka. The group, which included two very young children and two women, had spent ten days in the forest after being pushed back by Polish border guards. They said they had paid $5,000 to fly to Minsk with the aim of getting to Germany.

“The Polish guards pushed us back into no-man’s land when we first crossed,” Ali, from Iraqi Kurdistan, told me. “Later, the Belarusians drove us to another part of the border and cut open the fence. Then they told us to walk.”

Conditions were dire in the forest, Ali said. The group was beaten by both Belarusian and Polish border guards. They had little food and no clean water, he said, pointing to a plastic bottle of yellowing water the group, including the babies, had been drinking. Temperatures dipped below freezing at night. One woman, wrapped in a glimmering emergency blanket provided by volunteers, appeared to be in the early stages of hypothermia.

Polish police help a woman suffering from hypothermia. (Photo by Ido Vock)

The Grupa Granica activists explained to Ali that they could choose either to apply for asylum in Poland or try to make their way west to Germany. Seeking asylum in Poland would, though, require alerting the border guards, who have the power to return migrants back to Belarus. “There is always a risk you will be pushed back,” Robert, a volunteer, told a visibly terrified Ali, who was now having second thoughts about seeking asylum in Poland.

The choice was soon made for them. Police, who had apparently been alerted by a passerby, arrived, bringing with them border guards. Ali’s sister Noura, the mother of the two young children, broke down in tears as officials in unmarked uniforms tried gently to direct them towards their vehicle, in which the authorities said they would be brought to a border post before they would be allowed to apply for asylum. An ambulance was called for the woman who required medical assistance.

The activists present said the border guards were likely only acting with relative compassion because of the presence of several international media outlets, including German TV reporters. When the media is not present, immediate pushbacks without due legal procedure are common, they said, even of refugees who say they want to apply for asylum or with serious health problems.

As security at the northern section of Poland’s border with Belarus tightens, migrants are increasingly heading south. One increasingly popular route appears to be crossing from Belarus into Ukraine, where the border with Poland is still relatively unsecured. 

Although there are some signs that Lukashenko may be tightening the taps – one travel agency reported this month that nationals of seven countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, would no longer be eligible for visa-free entry to Belarus – the policy of using migrants to needle the EU looks likely to continue.

Facing a government actively hostile to their activities, the activists offering a little help to the migrants often find themselves demoralised. They can only offer limited help to most migrants they find or they will risk charges of people smuggling. Most work only a few days before returning home to recover. “Getting a call from someone in the restricted zone saying they are close to freezing to death and having to tell them we cannot help them… it’s impossible,” said Anna Alboth of Minority Rights Group International, an NGO, while recuperating at her home in Berlin.

Demand for crossings may drop over the coming months, as more would-be migrants are made aware of the risks facing them in winter and the beefed-up measures at the border. However, it is unlikely to disappear completely without the cooperation of the Belarusian government. “Many people from the Middle East and Africa still want to come and don’t really care that it’s difficult. They just think: ‘It’s still better than what we have at home,’” Wodzinski said.

If the Polish government does not alter its policy of pushing migrants back to no-man’s land, activists fear many more deaths. As winter sets in, conditions will become far more unforgiving, with temperatures dropping to as low as -20°C some nights. “The cold is now the main problem we are dealing with,” said Tomasz Musiuk, a doctor at Hajnówka hospital, where some migrants with severe health problems are brought. “When the weather conditions were good, few needed our help.”

Poland is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with Belarus. If one side does not blink, the EU faces a looming humanitarian catastrophe on its eastern border.

[See also: Why Afghan refugees in the US deserve more]

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