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People are dying as Belarus and Poland play border politics

Jack Parrock
October 14, 2021

Migrants and asylum-seekers in eastern Poland say they have been illegally pushed back to neighboring Belarus multiple times without due asylum process. DW reports on the humanitarian crisis from the border region.

people in coats gathered on the ground, faces blurred
Desperate migrants in Poland are drinking from puddled water amid freezing temperatures — and the locals wanting to help them can only do so in secrecyImage: Jack Parrock/DW

Migrants stuck in cold at EU border

Neda and her husband Abozar sit under a tree in a remote field in Poland, freezing, starving and losing hope.

"I tumbled six days ago and fell down," Neda tells DW. "I bled and now I am no longer pregnant."

The Iranian couple left the Belarusian capital of Minsk 10 days ago and say they have now been pushed back and forth by border guards in the region multiple times.

"The Belarusian police took all the money we gave them to buy us food and to activate our prepaid SIM cards — but they never brought us anything," Abozar says.

"They emptied our pockets and at night they took us by force to the border. We have now spent three days in the forest."

DW found the couple through local activists in eastern Poland who have created a network that asylum-seekers can contact for help if they are in need.

The intervention with the Iranian couple happened in the early hours — and communication proved to be a challenge. The couple speaks Farsi and broken English, so translation apps on smartphones were used to speak with them. 

Local support — but undercover

Kasia, a local woman who had left her children in bed to rush to help the couple, told us that when the couple was first found, they were in an "absolutely hopeless situation."

She spends all her spare time rushing to emergency calls such as this, which are organized by the network. People involved communicate through protected messaging platforms, fearing repercussions from authorities and from within the local community.

"For us, it's like watching a tsunami coming in — and we just catch the drops and try to help the drops, which are human beings so we cannot ignore them. But we cannot stop that tsunami," Kasia tells DW.

"The people that are in power are able — should be able — to stop that."

The activists say the people they frequently encounter have no food and are left with no option but to drink water from puddles on the forest floor.

At least five people have died in the forest.

Kasia and another activist who is with her tell the Iranian couple they should apply for asylum in Poland, as it is their legal right under international law.

Poland denies pushing migrants back to Belarus

Asylum in Poland

The activists check their documents, help them fill out forms and get the couple to repeat after them these words: "I want asylum in Poland."

"You must not tell the border guards you are trying to get to Germany or they will push you back to Belarus," the activists tell them.

Most of the people arriving in Poland had been told they will be in Germany within 10 days after leaving Minsk; it is the destination of choice.

Once the activists are sure they can say the statement clearly and have their paperwork in order, they call the border guards and instruct them to come and collect the couple.

Guards do arrive shortly after 7 a.m., and do not respond when DW asks whether the couple will be guaranteed the right to apply for asylum in Poland.

Forcing migrants and asylum-seekers back over a border, known as "pushbacks," is illegal under international law. 

The couple is taken away in a border guard's car, and the activists move on to their next intervention.

Children 'freezing'

Earlier that day, DW was in contact with an Iraqi family of nine people, including three children.

Didar Ali Ibrahim sent us videos of himself and his family lying on the freezing ground and begging for aid. They hold up plastic bottles full of dirty water and say they are freezing — and fear that their children will die.

DW was put in contact with the family through Renata Jaworska, a guesthouse owner who lives near the town of Narewka, just inside Poland's government-mandated exclusion zone — an area that forbids entry to all except residents.

She said she found the family in the forest while she was walking her dog and took them back to her house to give them food and warmth.

The details of how the family left are hard to glean. Jaworska told DW, "I was afraid of penalties. But as a human being, I have the right to help other people, to help another person, right?"

She becomes visibly upset when we tell her the family sent us their geolocation by phone, which suggests they are back over the border with Belarus.

uniformed officers surround people
Polish border guards stand next to migrants believed to be from Afghanistan in the small village of Usnarz Gorny, located near the border with Belarus, on August 20Image: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

Border wall

Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, who declared himself president after a disputed election, began sending migrants and refugees over the Polish border in retaliation to EU sanctions imposed over his brutal crackdown on opposition protesters.

Poland declared a state of emergency over the migration row and set up the border exclusion zone on 2 September this year.

The zone is 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) wide and runs along the entire 418-kilometer (260-mile) frontier.

Polish border guards have been tweeting videos they say show Lukashenko is preparing to release more people across the border.

They say they have prevented 18,300 illegal crossings since the start of 2021.

The Polish parliament has just approved €300 million ($348 million) to be used to build a border wall.

The populist right-wing Polish government says it is protecting the EU's external border. Up to now, EU officials who have visited have not publicly raised concerns — although none entered the exclusion zone.

Journalists and nongovernmental organizations are also barred from entering, so details of the conditions within the zone go largely unreported.

European Commissioner Ylva Johannsen announced an emergency meeting with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia — the three countries that border Belarus — tweeting: "I'm very concerned about reports of people including children stuck in forests in dire situation at external EU borders with #Belarus."