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Afghan refugees remain in limbo at EU border

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
September 3, 2021

For over three weeks, 32 Afghans have been stranded at the frontier between Poland and Belarus. The Polish government has now declared a state of emergency. Activists and opposition politicians say this is absurd.

Heavily armed soldiers on the border with Belarus
Polish authorities have dispatched a huge number of guards to police the borderImage: Irina Polina/TASS/dpa/picture alliance/dpa

People look at the camera from afar, with heavily armed soldiers separating them and the photographer. Some of the people in the photos seem to be waving, but few are smiling. They don't look particularly serious, but they do seem desperate.

These are rare pictures of the 32 Afghans who have been waiting at the border between Poland and Belarus for over three weeks now. The black-and-white photos were taken by Anna Maria Biniecka from Testigo Documentary, a Polish collective of multimedia journalists that reports on political and social themes that receive little attention in the mainstream media.

Among other places, the pictures have been posted to the Facebook page of the Ocalenie (Rescue) Foundation, which supports migrants and refugees living in Poland. Its activists on the ground have criticized the Polish authorities' failure to act and help the refugees at the border.

"They watch Mohammad, a tailor, who has promised to sew all the helpers in our camp a nice coat as soon as he comes out of this hell. Sayyed, a chef who wants to cook us his best dish, qabuli [rice with carrots and raisins]. Abdul, an electrical engineer. Mohsen, a smith. Mohammad, a carpet weaver:" short descriptions accompany the photos on social media.

The activists explain that with the help of a megaphone and a translator they were able to conduct short conversations with the Afghans and find out what jobs they were doing before they were forced to leave their homes.

The information is precious because NGOs and doctors have been complaining for days that they have been unable to gain access to the people at the border. And the situation is likely to worsen now that authorities have declared a state of emergency for 30 days in 183 places along the border. Mass gatherings are banned, as is the photographing and filming of "border objects" as well as soldiers, police officers and border guards. Journalists can also no longer access the frontier area.

A barbed wire fence and two soldiers on the border between Poland and Belarus
Poland has erected a fence to stop migrants coming from BelarusImage: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/picture alliance

State of emergency is 'absurd'

The Polish Parliament could technically nullify the emergency order, but there does not currently seem to be a majority in favor of doing this, despite the many critics.

Former Polish Interior Minister Marek Biernacki said on television that the state of emergency was "absurd." "These are usually introduced when a situation is critical and the authorities can no longer act normally and on the basis of existing laws," he said. The opposition has also wondered whether it is appropriate to declare a state of emergency over 32 refugees.

The current interior minister, Mariusz Kaminski, has insisted that the state of emergency makes sense, and said the situation on the border would stabilize as a result. "This problem does not only concern 30 people on the other side of the border. This is the tip of the iceberg that Lukashenko wants to give us," he said, referring to the president of neighboring Belarus. "We will not allow Poland to become another route for illegal mass immigration into the European Union."

Kaminski also referred to upcoming Russian military drills behind Poland's eastern border. "Part of these important maneuvers will take place in Belarus, directly on our border," he stated. "We have to be prepared for every scenario, for every provocation on the border."

Mariusz Kaminski
Kaminski said the government would not allow the 'safety of citizens' to be endangeredImage: Wojciech Olkusnik/PAP/picture alliance

'It is against the law'

For activists and helpers in the border area, the state of emergency means they have to dismantle their tents and leave. Paulina Bownik, a doctor and activist who has been helping refugees for years, told DW a few days ago that she had been able to get within a few meters of the Afghans at first, but then she was told to keep at a greater distance.

"The people who turn me away don't even want to identify themselves," she said. "A person fainted the day before yesterday; we could see him lying on the ground. Other refugees gathered around and asked for a doctor. You could see that the Polish and Belarusian soldiers didn't know what to do. But the police, or more precisely their so-called crisis-prevention forces, would not let me through."

Polish doctor and activist Paulina Bownik
Paulina Bownik has been helping refugees for yearsImage: Privat

Police officers told Bownik that because they were there to support the border guards and not taking their "own" actions, they did not have to identify themselves. "The refugees are clearly signalizing that they are cold, that someone is unconscious, and we cannot help them because the police is barring access. It is against the law, and this is happening on Polish soil," she said.

The 32 Afghans, who are in fact officially still on Belarusian territory or in no-man's land, have been camping there for over three weeks now. The Polish government has accused Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko of purposely bringing them and other refugees to the EU's external border. At the end of May, Lukashenko announced that he would no longer prevent people from crossing the country to get to the EU in response to tougher sanctions imposed on Belarus by the West. Poland's interior minister said Lukashenko obviously wanted to provoke another refugee crisis like the one of 2015.

According to official Polish figures, some 3,500 people tried to enter illegally from Belarus in August but were prevented in 2,500 cases. Bownik estimates that the real numbers are probably three times higher. "It is important to help these people," she said. "People will keep trying to cross the border despite the state of emergency."

Paulina Bownik and two other activists sitting on grass confronted by soldiers
Bownik and other activists from the Ocalenie Foundation have been stopped from helping by soldiersImage: Monika Sieradzka/DW

Geneva regulations ignored

Rafal Kostrzynski from the UNHCR in Poland told DW it was necessary to minimize humanitarian costs. "Every state has the right to protect its borders, but these should be open for people who want to apply for refugee status and who very likely need international protection," he said.

But in this case, he pointed out, the border guards were refusing to accept any applications whatever reasons were presented. "There is no doubt in international and Polish law that a person who arrives at a border and requests refugee status is not committing a crime regardless of whether they have documents or are trying to cross a border not meant for this purpose," he insisted, adding that he did not understand why certain regulations were being ignored. He pointed out that Poland had signed the Geneva Convention on refugees 30 years ago.

The head of the UNHCR in Poland, Christine Goyer, wrote in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita: "I would like to believe that Poland will stay true to these values and will protect refugees at least another 30 years."

This article has been translated from German