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Medical teams leave Poland without reaching migrants

January 6, 2022

Doctors Without Borders removed its team on the Belarus-Poland border after Warsaw blocked access to migrants trying to enter the European Union. Camped in harsh conditions, several people have died on the EU's doorstep.

Snow at a Polish checkpoint on the border to Belarus
Doctors Without Borders said its team had not been allowed access to people at Poland's frontier with BelarusImage: Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo/picture alliance

Despite knowing people along the Belarus-Poland border were "in desperate need of medical and humanitarian assistance," the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it withdrew its emergency response team from the region.

"Since October, MSF has repeatedly requested access to the restricted area and the border guard posts in Poland, but without success," Frauke Ossig, the charity's emergency coordinator for Poland and Lithuania, said on Thursday.

"We know that there are still people crossing the border and hiding in the forest, in need of support, but while we are committed to assisting people on the move wherever they may be, we have not been able to reach them in Poland," Ossig added.

MSF said it was concerned that restricting access to major aid organizations could result in more deaths and such policies were "another example of the EU deliberately creating unsafe conditions for people to seek asylum at its borders."

While many of the migrants received shelter in a logistics center, a number of people are reported to have died in the freezing, harsh conditions along the border.

People and beds in the scaffolding of a Belarusian logistics center near Poland
Belarus houses many migrants and asylum-seekers trying to reach the EU in a logistics center near PolandImage: Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS

Why can't aid groups reach migrants and asylum-seekers?

On December 1, Poland's Interior Ministry extended a state of emergency that prohibits all non-residents, including journalists and non-governmental aid groups, from the border area.

"People are being attacked and beaten at the hands of border guards, and yet state officials continue to allow the practice of pushing people between borders knowing that such maltreatment continues," MSF said.

EU migrants at the Polish border

With thousands of people on the Belarusian side of the 400-kilometer (250-mile) stretch, Poland built a barbed-wire fence that it intends to replace with a permanent barrier and sent thousands of soldiers to the border, leaving the migrants stuck in camps in no man's land and unable to apply for asylum in the European Union.

Polish border guards accused of illegal 'pushbacks'

Polish border guards have been accused of forcibly pushing migrants and asylum-seekers back into Belarus — a move that breaches international law. At least 21 people have lost their lives in the attempt in 2021, MSF reported.

In December, the Polish civil society group Salam Lab reported that five Syrian and one Palestinian who managed to find their way outside Poland's exclusion zone said they had been pushed back to Belarus several times by Polish authorities.

EU nations Latvia and Lithuania, which also share borders with Belarus, have also reinforced their border security and declared a state of emergency. MSF said it had not received access to migrants at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border.

Barbed-wire on a fence along the Polish side of the Poland-Belarus border
Poland plans to build a permanent barrier to replace barbed-wire along the border to BelarusImage: Sefa Karacan/AA/picture alliance

The European Union has accused Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East to attempt to enter the EU through Belarus.

Belarus denies this and has urged the EU to take in the migrants.

"The current situation is unacceptable and inhumane," Ossig said. "People have the right to seek safety and asylum and should not be illegitimately pushed back to Belarus."

sms/jsi (AFP, Reuters, AP)