Refugees on the Polish border

Alena Ivanova on solidarity acts for thousands trapped in hostile environments in Eastern Europe

The end of 2021 brought a series of horrific stories for those of us working on migrants’ rights. We may never know the names of all who have lost their lives in the freezing waters of the English Channel. But while we are rightfully focused on the Tory policies and the damage they do to all who try to build a new life in the UK, the situation on Europe’s external borders belies policy failures and cruelty by the EU as well.

The situation at the Belarus border is ongoing, but it escalated this spring when Belarus’s leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, forced a Ryanair flight to land and apprehended opposition voice Roman Protasevich. The EU retaliated with sanctions, but the regime used the bloc’s paranoia over migration as leverage by proclaiming they will no longer prevent attempts to cross the EU border. In fact, Belarusian authorities spent the summer facilitating tourist visas from the Middle East to allow migrants to travel to the border area with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. By autumn, conditions were worsening and desperate people would find themselves trapped in an impossible situation – the Polish border authorities push back all who they find in their territory, often in contradiction to international human rights regulations. On the other hand, migrants report Belarusian officials beat and detain those who return from Poland, and they prevent them from leaving the country even when they’d like to return to their home countries. People are spending days, sometimes weeks in the forests around the border, with no food, shelter or healthcare.

Although all sides share responsibility for this human crisis, providing assistance to those suffering seems to come last in terms of priorities. Latvia and Poland have both declared a state of emergency on their borders, which includes additional troops and border patrols, razor wire fences and far-right vigilante groups roaming the area. In Poland, the state of emergency covers 183 towns and villages within two miles of the border, blocking all access to that area for journalists, civil society organisations, volunteers, and others. On the Belarus side, the 10-kilometre stretch parallel to the border is a secure zone, to which only Belarusian nationals who reside there have access, with the 3-kilometre area closest to the border completely restricted to all but military and security officials.

In October, the Polish parliament passed an act legalising pushbacks and allowing for asylum applications to be left ‘unexamined’ if a person has entered the country ‘illegally’. Human Rights Watch has interviewed people on the ground and investigated reports that Polish border guards follow no due process in executing pushbacks. In some cases, if those crossing were injured or sick, authorities took them to hospital for medical treatment and gave them a temporary six-month stay on humanitarian grounds. However, the family members of those hospitalised were mainly taken back to the border and pushed across to Belarus, separating them from their loved ones.

Given the harsh winter conditions, the emergency measures, general violence and harassment of activists and NGOs attempting to help, the situation on the ground is very charged. Still, local residents are organising as best as they can to provide emergency support, with younger people smuggling blankets, food and medication into the forests and small villages and towns uniting around the Green Light initiative. By putting a green light in the window, residents indicate to those looking for a warm place for the night that they’ll be allowed to come in, have a meal and a shower. Residents are not hiding migrants or facilitating further journeys but preventing immediate loss of life, especially given many of those trapped at the border are families with children.

Human rights observers, journalists and activists such as the Grupa Granica collective report regularly on the situation, not only focusing on the violence and harassment against migrants but also the unauthorised searches of activists’ vehicles and homes, the false statements by police authorities and the scaremongering police officials are spreading in the area to try and discourage residents from assisting desperate migrants. From the beginning of the crisis until 11th November, at least 5,000 people from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran and Somalia had applied to Grupa Granica asking for help, but this is only a snapshot of the scale of the situation.

Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, spent four days in Poland and went to the field with Grupa Granica. “The greatest strength of the aid movement for migrants and refugees from the Polish-Belarusian border are the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns – in the zone of emergency and next to it. It is their compassion and empathy that prolongs the life of people in the forest. Their courage and selflessness. Their good saves lives,” she said.

While winter and word of month seem to have helped slow the flow of people to Belarus, the number of people looking for safety and dignity across the world is only going to rise as the climate crisis deepens. We need institutions that put human life first, and we need practical organising and practical solidarity measures to make these institutions happen.

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