‘Unacceptable’: migrants face ‘desperate situation’ at Poland-Belarus border

Children and families among those being warned to ‘go back to Minsk’ as police hostility and humanitarian crisis worsens

For two days the same looped recording has been blaring out from speakers on the Polish border: “Attention! Attention! Crossing the Polish border is legal only at border crossings.”

The ominous warning is directed at the thousands of asylum seekers massed in Belarus on the opposite side of the barbed wire running between the two countries.

According to Poland, Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, is deliberately provoking a new refugee crisis in Europe by organising the movement of migrants from the Middle East to Minsk and promising them a safe passage to the EU in revenge for the sanctions Brussels has imposed on his authoritarian regime.

A family from Duhok, Iraq stuck near the border after crossing from Belarus.
A family from Duhok, Iraq, stuck near the border after crossing from Belarus. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Nearly 20,000 Polish border police, flanked by military support, are now deployed in a show of force unknown in the country since the end of the cold war.

Until a few days ago, most migrants were violently pushed back, though some managed to make it to Warsaw after hiding out in the dense forests.

Since Belarusian authorities on Monday began escorting thousands of migrants to the Polish border in a dramatic escalation of an already deadly crisis, crossing the frontier has become even more difficult.

In the forests between the two countries, where night-time temperatures fall below zero, it is the thousands of Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan families who are now paying the price, scapegoats trapped between the violence of the Polish authorities and the false promises of the Belarus.

They live in small tents hidden between the trees, trying to keep warm in damp sleeping bags. At least eight people have died.

The Guardian met a group of three Iraqi Kurdish families from Duhok, including at least eight children, who had just crossed the border from Belarus.

Volunteers from Grupa Granica, a Polish Network of NGOs monitoring the situation on the border, reached them in the woods near Narewka before the Polish border police and – with the help of asylum lawyers – have so far prevented them from being pushed back to Belarus.

“We travelled for three days by car to Istanbul,” said a 40-year-old man, who said he had to leave the Iraqi governorate of Duhok for fear of retaliation by former Islamic State members in nearby villages.

He told an interpreter that from the Turkish city, they took a flight to Minsk, and once they reached the Polish border “the Belarusian police cut the barbed wire and let us through”.

The families had attempted to cross the border nine times before, being pushed back each time.

“Upon their arrival, the Polish border guards took them into a car and transferred them to the border patrol station,” said Anna Alboth from Minority Rights Group, an NGO.

“We try to monitor the situation, because from our past experiences the Polish police pushed back migrants even after taking them to a police station.”

Narewka, Poland. Nearly twenty thousand Polish border police, flanked by military support, are now deployed in a show of force at the Belarus border.
Narewka, Poland. Nearly 20,000 Polish border police, flanked by military support, are now deployed in a show of force at the Belarus border. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Warsaw’s rightwing government has quadrupled the presence of border guards and military personnel in the area, creating a two-mile deep militarised zone and building a razor-wire fence.

There are dozens of checkpoints along the entire perimeter of the area. The soldiers stop every single car, to ask for documents and for the driver to open the boot.

In the streets around Sokòlka, about 12 miles from the border with Belarus, police trucks regularly whizz towards the secure zone, sirens blaring, while multiple helicopters monitor the scene from above.

“The situation is desperate and it’s getting worse,” said Kyle McNally, humanitarian affairs adviser for Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

“I have seen first-hand the injuries people experienced when assaulted by border guards from both Poland and Lithuania.

“People have described being beaten with the butt of a gun, kicked in the ribs, electrocuted in the neck, and have had all their belongings taken or destroyed by European border guards. This is unacceptable and must end now.”

The families had attempted to cross the border nine times before, being pushed back all nine times.
The families had attempted to cross the border nine times before, being pushed back all nine times. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

According to MSF, one Syrian family slept in the forest on the Polish side of the border for 21 days before they were forced back.

The only assistance they received was by kind locals, at risk of their own safety. But the Polish authorities forced them back into Belarus where they now await an uncertain fate.

A text message sent by the Polish government to the phones of recently arrived travellers, warns that “The Polish border is sealed”, “Belarus told you lies” and “Go back to Minsk”.

The message – directed at asylum seekers, but being sent to most travellers in Poland who have recently completed a locator form – contains a link to a mysterious warning for the asylum seekers: “Do not take any pills or medications given to you in Belarus. You may be poisoned!”

Anna Chmielewska, from Ocalenie Foundation and coordinator of Help Center for Foreigners, based in Warsaw, said: “In early October, the Polish government told the press that the migrants were behaving strangely and that they believed they had been drugged or poisoned by the Belarus officers.

“We have no more information about this story, but to me, it sounds like fake news to make migrants look dangerous and Belarus look bad.”


Lorenzo Tondo in Sokòlka

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Poland-Belarus crisis volunteers: ‘Border police can be very aggressive’
Grupa Granica strives to bring supplies to stranded migrants and help them deal with border officers

Lorenzo Tondo in Sokolka

10, Nov, 2021 @7:20 PM

Article image
Germany urges unity as crisis worsens for migrants at Poland-Belarus border
German interior minister says Poland needs support to deal with ‘hybrid threat’ of politically organised migration

Andrew Roth in Moscow with agencies

09, Nov, 2021 @10:45 AM

Article image
‘People treated like weapons’: more deaths feared at Poland-Belarus border
Médecins Sans Frontières manager says migrants being pushed back are often dangerously weak

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

31, Oct, 2021 @12:28 PM

Article image
Fears grow for Afghan refugees stuck in ‘Kafkaesque’ Poland-Belarus standoff
Lukashenko accused of encouraging refugees to come to Belarus in retaliation for Brussels sanctions

Lizzy Davies

29, Aug, 2021 @10:19 AM

Article image
Concerns grow over Poland’s treatment of migrants stuck at Belarus border
Warsaw defies critics to extend state of emergency as it seeks to portray migrants as dangerous

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

01, Oct, 2021 @1:39 PM

Article image
Poland criticised over stranded migrants after seventh death at border
Identity documents suggest latest person to die was 24-year-old Syrian who arrived in Belarus last month

Jon Henley

15, Oct, 2021 @2:01 PM

Article image
Belarus escorts 1,000 migrants towards Polish border
Column of people including children led by border guards in escalation of deadly crisis

Andrew Roth in Moscow

08, Nov, 2021 @7:46 PM

Article image
Belarus state airline denies it is involved in trafficking migrants
Belavia responds to suggestion it may be implicated in crisis on Belarus-Poland border

Lisa O'Carroll in Dublin and Andrew Roth in Moscow

10, Nov, 2021 @8:09 PM

Article image
EU agrees new sanctions against Belarus over border crisis
Sanctions to target ‘people, airlines, travel agencies and everyone involved in this illegal push of migrants’

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Andrew Roth in Moscow

15, Nov, 2021 @5:22 PM

Article image
‘My grandmother hid Jewish children’: Poland’s underground refugee network
As thousands attempt to cross the Belarus-Poland border seeking asylum in Europe, local activists are trying to help

Lorenzo Tondo in Hajnówka and Narewka; photographs by Alessio Mamo

24, Dec, 2021 @7:00 AM