Migrants turned away at Belarus-Poland border: 'We see families and people with disabilities'
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Since March, several humanitarian organisations have been concerned about new cases of violence and migrants being pushed back at the border between Poland and Belarus. Last year, thousands of people from Afghanistan, the Middle East and central Africa tried to reach the European Union by illegally entering Poland. Warsaw accused the regime in Minsk of orchestrating this influx of migrants.
On April 19, a man from Iraqi Kurdistan sent activists a video appeal for help: "It's four in the morning. As you can see, they have pushed us back to Belarus, we are wet". It is dark and the group is in the middle of the forest.
"We have a baby with us," says the man filming. He shows his fellow travellers trying to illuminate the area with a flashlight and light a fire to keep warm.
The Grupa Granica group of associations received nearly 150 alerts in the week between April 18 and 24. According to Polish border guards, 977 attempts to cross the border were recorded in April and nearly 4,280 since the beginning of 2022.
This is far fewer than last November, when between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants gathered along the border in just a few days. But the policy of Poland, which launched the construction of a border wall in January, has not changed: These people, even those seeking asylum, must be deported to Belarus.
>> Read more on The Observers: Videos, voice notes and GPS coordinates: A helpline for migrants in distress
'We are seeing a lot of families with children, a lot of people with different disabilities'
Monika Matus, an activist with Grupa Granica, is concerned about the health of migrants crossing the border in recent weeks:
In the fall, some of the flights directly into Belarus were suspended. So we've seen quite a few people coming from African countries and it seems they were in Russia and then were taken by land to go to Poland and the EU.
We also know that there have been quite a few people who stayed over the winter in Minsk and Grodno and now that it got a little bit warmer, they are trying to cross these days.
And also I think quite some people are trying to cross because the Polish side is building a wall on the Polish-Belarusian border and it is supposed to be finished, I think, in the summer.
📣 Trwa budowa bariery na granicy polsko-białoruskiej 🇵🇱 🇧🇾— Straż Graniczna (@Straz_Graniczna) April 22, 2022
Prace prowadzone są na kilku odcinkach granicy, https://t.co/0z0iwvjWyT.: na terenie podległym Placówkom Straży Granicznej w Kuźnicy, Narewce, Michałowie i Białowieży 👍 pic.twitter.com/6lSE0uuPZH
'We had, for example, a quadriplegic person'
And of course, the wall is not such a big obstacle. It's just really a metal fence. But once it will be equipped, like many European borders, with all of the technical gear, technical solutions to survey the wall, I think it's going to be much more difficult to cross.
Then we also had a lot of people, a few hundred people who stayed the winter in temporary shelters that Belarus organised in November last year. And they were pushed to the border in March. The people who stayed till the very end there were the weakest ones or the ones with disabilities.
We are, unfortunately, seeing a lot of people, a lot of families with children, a lot of people with different disabilities, elderly people, people with mental disabilities as well.
And this is quite tragic because, no matter what state they are in, all of them are still being pushed back in a huge majority by Polish border guards multiple times. And they are forced to cross the border again by the Belarusian soldiers or guards.
We had, for example, a quadriplegic person, a person who was completely paralysed. He was with his whole family. And they were actually carrying him through the forest.
On March 20, Belarusian authorities removed "close to 700 refugees and migrants, including many families with young children and people suffering from severe illnesses and disabilities" from the Bruzgi warehouse near the Polish border, according to a report by Amnesty International. These people then found themselves "stranded in the forest", going on to "experience daily abuse from the Belarusian border guards", the organisation said.
Of the migrants who were in the centre in November and December 2021, many were sent back to their countries. In January, for example, the Iraqi foreign ministry announced the repatriation of nearly 4,000 Iraqis from Belarus.
>> Watch on The Observers: Migrants in Belarus faced with two choices: Cross the border or go home
'It's still almost impossible to provide humanitarian aid'
Poland, on the other hand, has maintained a state of emergency and a three-kilometre exclusion zone along the border, and is still keeping humanitarian organisations away. According to Matus, it remains extremely complicated for associations to provide humanitarian aid:
It's still almost impossible to provide humanitarian aid. It's mostly falling on the shoulders of local people, especially in the emergency zone. We are fewer volunteers: no one can continue to do this for months. Especially when activists are harassed by police and border guards.
Although activists have been trying to raise awareness of the migrants' situation online to prevent them from being turned back, they know that the fate of the few who finally manage to enter Poland to seek asylum is extremely uncertain.
Amnesty International says that asylum seekers are routinely detained for "prolonged and indefinite periods" in closed centres where they are subjected to abuse and humiliation.
‼️(1/2) W Strzeżonym Ośrodku dla Uchodźców w Lesznowoli rozpoczął się strajk głodowy. 5 Syryjczyków protestuje przeciw przetrzymywaniu ich w zamknięciu, mimo udokumentowanego złego stanu zdrowia oraz nielegalności trzymania w zamknięciu osób z doświadczeniem przemocy wojennej. pic.twitter.com/LazMJqMmZT— Grupa Granica (@GrupaGranica) April 20, 2022
'Some of them spend eight months in a closed camp'
Sanna Figlarowicz is a volunteer for the organisation Hope&Humanity Poland. She is in contact with several people in these closed centres:
Conditions are different in different camps but people are in detention, like in prison. They cannot have a mobile phone with a camera. They cannot have shoelaces.
Some of them spend eight months in a closed camp. For the people I'm in contact with, many of them have a problem with access to lawyers, and many of them have been refused asylum.
So many of these people are just depressed. They also frequently ask us to deliver them clothes and food because many of them say they don’t have any or that it's not enough.
And they also keep people in detention who are not supposed to be there, people who have problems with mental health or other problems with health.
According to Polish border guards, 39,700 illegal entry attempts from Belarus were recorded over the course of 2021, including nearly 17,000 in October alone.
Since the war in Ukraine began on February 24, Poland has faced another humanitarian crisis on its borders. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed into the country.
"We are extremely happy that the refugees from Ukraine have received such a warm welcome," adds Monika Matus of Grupa Granica. But she regrets the difference in treatment of asylum seekers from Belarus, which she says illustrates a tendency observed throughout Europe to accept "only a certain type of refugee".