Polish activists fear that migrants are stuck on the border with Belarus

Lama, a 21-year-old Syrian student, and her ailing father were stuck in the inexorable terrain of the Polish-Belarusian border for more than three weeks when Kamil Syller found them.

“The father has cancer and needs treatment. He and his daughter tried to get to a country where he could be better cared for. . . where it would not be dangerous, ”said the Polish activist. “Instead he found himself in a forest.”

The two Syrians are part of a flood of migrants attempting to enter the EU across the EU’s eastern border, a movement of people who, according to both the EU and Poland, was led by Belarusian dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko in retaliation for supporting Brussels for the Belarusian persecuted is staged opposition.

Since the summer, thousands of migrants from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Somalia have flown to the Belarusian capital Minsk before being transported to the western border with the EU.

There, many who attempted to invade Poland are trapped in the forests that span the border, sandwiched between Polish forces that refuse to allow them to enter and Belarusian security services that refuse to withdraw them.

Official figures suggest that immigration is accelerating. Poland’s border protection agency said last week that of the 24,500 illegal attempts to cross the border with Belarus this year, more than half were made this month.

Activists and doctors say that the condition of the migrants they treated worsened with the length of the stalemate. Medical problems range from hypothermia, hunger, and dehydration to conditions like diabetes.

“I think it’s because these people are spending longer and longer in the forest and it’s getting colder and colder,” said Malgorzata Novosad from the group of volunteer paramedics Medycy na Granicy that helps migrants. She pointed out that around 10 percent of migrants in the forests are children.

The Polish government responded by declaring a state of emergency – banning access for non-locals, including NGOs and the media – in a strip of land bordering Belarus, and dispatching thousands of soldiers and police officers to seal off the border.

It is stepping up rhetoric against migrants, planning to spend 350 million euros on a border wall, and has passed a law that, according to critics, allows security forces to force migrants found on Polish territory back into Belarus.

Protest in Michalowo, Poland, against the deportation of migrants to Belarus © Wojtek Radwanski / AFP / Getty

Activists say this is against international law. But the Polish government has insisted that it acts legally and has an obligation to defend its territory.

Officials say attempts to help migrants on the Belarusian side of the border through legal crossings have not been accepted by Minsk. “We put the security of our fatherland above everything,” said Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak last month.

Locals who live in the border zone, now filled with police checkpoints and military patrols, say the crisis has turned normal life upside down. “At some point we had around 100 soldiers, 50 migrants and 20 locals in the village,” says Mateusz Wodzinski, who lives less than two kilometers from the border.

“[The migrants] would cross the border, run into the woods. And then the border guards and the army tried to find them and kick them out again. And they just kept turning. “

Even in less affected places, many are unsettled by the influx. “If [the migrants] had good intentions to cross the border legally, ”said a woman who visited her mother’s village near the emergency zone. “If not, it means they have bad intentions.”

Others try to help. In Michalowo, the city council set up a center where migrants can get help from the local fire station. Although only a few made it to the city about 20 km from the border, the initiative has received so many donations of clothing, food and other relief items that it is planning to open two more storage centers, according to Konrad Sikora, Vice Mayor Michalowo.

Meanwhile, Syller started an initiative in which the locals were asked to hang green lights in front of their houses to signal migrants that they could find help there. So far only one other house in his village Werstok has had the green light, but others have supported each other privately.

Other volunteer groups have also been set up to provide the migrants with food, water, warm clothing and power banks. But activists are frustrated that the government won’t let them into the emergency zone. To make matters worse, many migrants are too scared to seek help if they are turned over to the authorities.

“They are afraid that they will be sent back to Belarus and into the forest. Unfortunately, their fears are justified, ”said Piotr Bystrianin from the Fundacja Ocalenie aid group.

Activists fear that the situation will worsen if the flow of migrants does not stop before the onset of freezing winter in Poland, especially as many are unaware of the conditions. “You are completely unprepared,” Sikora said of the migrants. “When spring comes and the snow melts, there will be a few bodies.”

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