Humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border

December 1, 2021 | Reports
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Report by Grupa Granica

The humanitarian crisis that we have been witnessing for the past three months on the Polish-Belarusian border (as well as on Belarus’ borders with Latvia and Lithuania) is unprecedented in Europe. No country has ever attempted what is people smuggling on such a large scale. Orchestrating migration has become the Belarusian regime’s tool to inflict vengeance on the European Union — including on Poland — for their political decisions.

We wish to emphasise that what is happening on the border between Poland and Belarus is not amigration crisis. The situation was not caused by any war, natural disaster or a sudden power shift within a region. People were brought to the border area by the Belarusian regime precisely to cause confusion and to generate polarisation and conflict within the Polish society.

From this perspective, we can say that Alexander Lukashenko has achieved his goal — the Poles have never been so divided. However, it is emphatically not a migration crisis — such crises usually involvemillions of people. A few thousand people brought to the Polish border roughly correspond to two fully booked auditoriums of a large theatre — or the VIP seats of the National Sports Stadium. Meeting the needs of these people certainly does not exceed the possibilities and resources of our country.

However, the Belarusian authorities have easily managed to lead Poland into taking a series of radical steps: introducing the state of emergency, restricting freedom of media, banning activists from entering the border area, without exception for those providing medical and humanitarian aid. There has been a change in Polish legislation, which further affected human rights and the standards of human life protection.

Following the influx of large numbers of migrants into Europe between 2014 and 2016, addressing migration-related issues has become particularly difficult. They tend to generate heated discussions and polarise societies. Alexander Lukashenko exploits such feelings, while we allow him to do so.

The Belarusian authorities have acted like a well-organised network of smugglers. They have cynically exploited pathologies of the European visa system, which prevents most people seeking safe haven or family reunification from obtaining visas to EU countries. Migrants have been lured by Lukashenko with the promise of easy and safe access to Europe, and then put in a deadly situation. Upon arrival, they met with brutality and violence and were then forced to cross the EU border in unauthorised places. They have been deliberately put in life- and health-threatening situations, denied access to water, food and other forms of basic assistance.

Belarus claims that this migration is spontaneous and that their country has merely stopped preventing migrants from going westwards across the Belarusian territory. This claim is outright false. There are specific airlines that are known to have been assisting in bringing migrants to Belarus — a practice that has only currently been curbed.

In this context, it is quite clear there is no migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. The current dramatic situation of the people stranded in the forests near the border results not from a migration crisis but from a humanitarian one, which is due to a strategy that the Polish government decided to adopt in response to Alexander Lukashenko’s actions towards forced migrants who have already crossed the Polish border. The strategy consists in pushing people who have crossed the border back to Belarus as quickly as possible and at all costs.

Given the nature of the terrain (dense woods, primeval forests, swamps and rivers) and the fact that temperatures are now frequently falling below zero, this strategy could not be — and is not — fully effective. This is a clear conclusion, backed not only by data published by the Border Guard on the number of people arrested (and pushed back) after having crossed the border but also by information on people who, after making an irregular entry into Poland, were later stopped on the Polish- German border.

The Polish authorities have focused on the effects of Belarus’ strategy instead of thinking about its root causes. As a result, the Polish services have implicated themselves in an angry showdown with the Belarusian authorities, one in which human lives are at stake. Poland has abandoned ensuring standards of human rights protection, protection of refugees and the basic principles of humanity. Even though the situation on the border has been orchestrated by Belarus, it is also the result of decisions and choices made by Polish politicians.

From the migrants’ point of view, the actions of Polish and Belarusian services are almost identical: neither respects the dignity and rights of these people. People who make irregular entry are stopped by the Polish officers and forcibly pushed back to the Belarusian side, where they are brutally forced by the Belarusian border guards to re-enter Poland. Even those who have by now realised that they are trapped and would like to return to their countries of origin are unable to do so. As a result of actions undertaken by officers of both countries, female and male migrants spend weeks stranded in the forests near the border, exposed to cold and rain, without access to food, clean water and medical assistance.

The policy pursued by Belarus is directed against the European Union, although the centre stage of events are now primarily countries sharing the border with Belarus, namely Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Germany has become an increasingly important actor, as those who have managed to break out of the border standoff start arriving there. According to data collected by the end of October 2021, nearly 9,000 people have now crossed the German border arriving through Belarus and Poland.

Our report focuses on the situation of migrant women and men in the Polish-Belarusian border region. It is based on information and data collected by activists from Grupa Granica (GG) who have been working in the border area since mid-August, 2021, with the primary aim to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants and support them in accessing relevant legal procedures, with an additional objective of monitoring and documenting law and human rights violations.

In the report, we present various data. Some are information published by the Polish Border Guard, which we try to interpret and explain. We also used data collected during fieldwork directly from migrants, activists, residents of border areas, as well as representatives of NGOs that are part of Grupa Granica and other organisations, such as Fundacja Ocalenie and Klub Inteligencji Katolickiej. In the black text boxes, we present short stories describing the assistance provided to people trapped in the border area — we report them as they were passed on to us by activists providing direct assistance (though anonymised and slightly edited).

A certain level of generality in the report is because we have been forced to work with limited access to public information and under restrictions imposed on access to the ‘state of emergency’ zone.

Finally, we wish to add two more terminological caveats. We use the term “male and female migrants” to refer to persons trapped on the border as forced migrants. This, in our view, is the most adequate way to describe the situation of migrants whose legal status could not be established so far, as in the vast majority of cases they were subject to no legal procedure. We also wish to stress that these people are currently not free to choose their migration paths — whether and where they will cross the EU border, whether they will be sent back to Belarus or return to their country of origin. All these decisions are taken by the institutions of various countries, and migrants themselves have been dehumanised and treated as objects — pawns on a chessboard.

Also, we must take into account the social and political situation in the countries of origin of persons currently stranded within the Polish-Belarusian border area. These countries include Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Iran. Very likely, a significant percentage of migrants are persons having the intention and the grounds to apply for international protection in the European Union. Therefore, there are certainly also refugees among the people now stranded in the border area.

In the report, we also use the term “expulsion” (Pol. wywózka). In this way, we wish to communicate the actual meaning of actions by the Polish services. Although the English term “push-back” has also been used in this context, in our view, we are witnessing something more, i.e. mass and illegal expulsions of people rounded up in the forests.

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