ALONG THE EAST POLAND BORDER – The father had walked in circles in the rain-soaked Polish forest and cradled his sick daughter, who was delirious after three days with hardly any food and water when the temperatures dropped to freezing point. He was soaked, shaking, and faced with a terrible decision.
His daughter, 2, has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. He had put a thin coat on her to protect her from the cold, and she needed urgent medical attention. The father, an Iraqi Kurd who gave his name to Karwan, had led his family across the border from Belarus, but was now in a forest area patrolled by Polish soldiers and border guards.
The father’s choice was ruthless: the search for medical help meant a return to Belarus and the end of his family’s desperate trip to Europe.
“I can call an ambulance for you, but border guards will come with me,” said Piotr Bystrianin, a Polish activist who came to help the family who said they wanted to apply for asylum in Poland. He had found her after hours of searching in the dark and had been made aware of her whereabouts by a tracking pin sent by cell phone.
Karwan’s family had stumbled into a geopolitical battle between Belarus and Poland that escalated into a man-made humanitarian catastrophe for Europe. At least five people who entered Poland illegally have died in the past few weeks of hypothermia and exhaustion, according to Polish authorities, and three almost drowned in a Polish swamp.
“Many more will die if the weather conditions worsen,” said Bystrianin. “Our government treats these people worse than criminals who go to jail as if they weren’t people, just garbage to be thrown away. What is the plan – to have people killed? “
There is strong evidence that Belarusian President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko used migrants to punish the European Union for imposing sanctions on him for cracking down on him after a controversial election last year. Migrants – some fleeing poverty in Africa and elsewhere, and others pre-war in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq – are allowed to enter Belarus and are then encouraged to go to Poland, a member of the European Union, in the Hope to spread throughout the region.
Poland’s right-wing government, determined to keep refugees and economic migrants out, has flooded the eastern border area with security agents while repelling curious glances by making it an exception zone, forbidden to all but residents.
Opinion polls show that a majority of Poles support the government’s approach. But the government – apparently concerned about a backlash against politics – began last week demonizing migrants as terrorists, pedophiles and sexually degenerate people who rape animals.
These efforts have partially failed, drawing disapproval even from some officials and the Catholic Church, a powerful force in Poland that seldom criticizes the government.
Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the head of the Polish Church, said: in an interview that it is “harmful” for the government to claim that “every refugee is a terrorist or a sex offender,” adding, “We cannot accept that people are dying in front of our eyes.”
In one detailed report, Amnesty International documented last week how Polish border guards detained 32 Afghan asylum seekers for weeks under “terrible conditions” and then pushed them back across the border into Belarus in violation of international law. In one separate report, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said: “Poland is carrying out massive illegal pushbacks on its border with Belarus”.
Some officials oppose government policies. Poland’s deputy human rights commissioner condemned the treatment of asylum seekers as a “scandal” that shows “the darkest picture of Poland”.
The government’s official line is to defend the European Union’s eastern border from “hybrid attacks” by Mr Lukashenko, who accuses Poland of sending migrants across the border to create disorder.
According to the Polish border guards, more than 11,000 people tried to enter illegally from Belarus in August and September, compared with around 120 in the whole of the previous year.
The surge started this summer after the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus for shooting down a passenger plane carrying a Belarusian dissident. Mr Lukashenko’s government initially steered the migrants towards Lithuania, but after Lithuania erected a fence, it led them south to the Polish border.
Both Lithuania and Poland have strengthened their borders, wrapped barbed wire and reinforced existing barriers by borrowing anti-migrant methods that Hungary introduced at the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015.
The European Union, reluctant to see a repeat of this crisis and another wave of support for populist anti-immigration politicians, has particularly supported the efforts of Poland and Lithuania to keep people trying to enter Belarus out of the country.
“The aggression of the Lukashenko regime deserves a determined and unified response from the EU,” said Ylva Johansson, the union’s migration commissioner, on Thursday after a meeting with Poland’s Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski.
Mr Kaminski outraged Liberals and upset some ruling party supporters when he held a briefing last week allegedly showing a photo from a detained migrant’s cell phone showing a man copulating with an animal.
TVP, a state television broadcaster that acts as a megaphone for the ruling party, headlined his Briefing report: “He raped a cow and wanted to enter Poland? Details on migrants at the border. “
But the image turned out to be a still from a zoophilia pornography film available on the Internet and showed a horse, not a cow.
Poland has taken in hundreds of asylum seekers from Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power in August, but hostility towards migrants sneaking across the border is a constant feature of the ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland. In 2015, before the elections that put it in power, its leader said they were carrying “all kinds of parasites and protozoa”.
Nevertheless, many in Poland have the feeling that Mr. Kaminiski’s performance has exceeded the limit.
“If someone else did what he did, he would be in jail for showing photos that grossly incite ethnic hatred,” said Marek Nazarko, the mayor of Michalowo, a town near the Belarusian border, last Week in an interview.
He denounced Mr. Kaminiski’s report on eastern Polish cities besieged by violent sexual deviants from Belarus as “hideous” lies. “These people are not criminals and have not disrupted order in my city in any way. They are peaceful, desperate people who just want to move on to a better life, ”said the mayor, a former police officer.
Last week in his city, 20 detained foreigners, including eight children, were led screaming by security guards in black balaclavas into a bus that was taking them back to the Belarusian border, witnesses said. All of them were then kicked out of Poland.
The episode prompted Mr. Nazarko to convene an emergency meeting of the city council and to decorate his hall with symbolic coils of barbed wire.
The acting head of the city’s border post, Piotr Dederko, was invited to attend and expressed discomfort at his orders from Warsaw. “I don’t have the heart to push these people to the limit and throw them away,” he said. “These are really difficult situations.”
The council voted unanimously to turn the city’s fire station into a “help center” with food and emergency shelter for migrants who make it out of the exclusion zone. However, in order not to break the law, the mayor agreed that the border service would be alerted about those seeking help.
“In Poland today we live in a situation where it is criminal to help people,” he complained.
Mateusz Wodzinski, a resident of Lapicze, a tiny border village, said the government defied human decency by throwing hungry, freezing people “like trash” away.
And the quiet of his village was destroyed by the noise of the surveillance helicopters and the barking of guard dogs. “It’s basically like a war zone out here now.”
Mr Bystrianin, the activist who found Karwan’s family near the forest, spends his nights looking for desperate people by roaming country roads and paths in a car laden with donated food, water, blankets and dry clothes .
In a clearing early Saturday stands Mr. Bystrianin, who runs the private charity Fundacja ÖcalenieShe patiently waited for the desperate family’s decision.
Worried that his sick daughter and others in the group might not survive, Karwan decided it would be best to seek medical help. Two ambulances arrived and, as he had been warned, border guards also came.
Four family members were taken to hospital and six more to the border to return to Belarus. Mr. Bystrianin and a fellow activist, Dorota Nowok, who provided food and clothing in the area, were fined for entering a restricted area.
Monika Pronczuk contributed the reporting from Brussels and Anatol Magdziarz from Warsaw.