The publication of the Border Group’s report, describing events on the Polish-Belarusian border from 15 August to the end of 2021, becomes a reason to look at this crisis once again – and from a wider perspective. For the crisis is not over. Yes, the biggest border incidents seem to be behind us, but this is certainly not the end of the crisis to which the Polish public has already become too accustomed.
The Border Group is so far the best source when it comes to getting real information about the situation on Polish-Belarusion border. It is composed of fourteen NGOs organisations such as The Helsinski Foundation, Salam Lab or Kuchnia Konfliktu and RATS Agency. Among the people who create the Border Group are almost 50 psychologists, lawyers, and hundreds of activists, including residents of the closed border zone in Podlasie. They provide everyday assistance for migrants: from vital, life-saving help to law assistance once migrants wish – and get a chance – to apply for asylum in Poland. Last but not least, Group’s statements and information form the basis of every piece written about the crisis. State officials – apart from creating propaganda narration about a proxy war on our border – are not interested in providing any fundamental information. The Border Group’s contacts with independent journalists and weekly news conferences give a powerful answer to the propaganda. The facts speak about humanitarian crisis.
So let us look at the final report: it says that about 7700 people asked for help, including 405 children in the period from 15 October. Humanitarian aid has been provided along the entire length of the Polish-Belarusian border, which is over 400 km. A total of 900 humanitarian aid interventions has been carried out. During this time it was possible to obtain 31 decisions on temporary measures for 112 people, including three unaccompanied children. These people were not pushed back immediately to the Belorussian forest.
– We also operate throughout Poland: in guarded and open centers for foreigners. Dozens of safe houses where refugee women and refugees hosted by people of good will find shelter – the Border Group activists wrote. They were recently forced to extend the scope of activities by offering psychological assistance to activists working in the field. No one was ready to see the horrors and violence that they faced for several months.
There is little doubt among Polish left-wing and liberal segments of public opinion: a series of abuses have been committed by Polish state. Janina Ochojska, one of the main figures of polish humanitarian movement, known very well among liberal, wanna be middle-class voters all across Poland, publicly accused the Polish government of committing crimes against humanity. In the response Maciej Wąsik, deputy head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration, filed a notice with the prosecutor’s office against Ochojska for comparing the Polish services to Nazis and Soviets. This faced a big solidarity campaign. Hundreds of people self-reported themself via social media platforms, once again accusing the Polish government of commiting crimes against humanity.
The Border Group, in their turn, reported Belarussian government to the International Criminal Court – for bringing migrants to the border and then forcing them to cross it, beating up the unwilling, taking away phones or valuable things. Nevertheless, the Border Group noted that the possible proceedings would also examine the behavior of the Polish services: what they were doing when they saw that on the other side of the border people were being held in forests, prevented from retreating deeper into Belarus, in extremely difficult conditions. Above all, however, the International Criminal Court would have to assess Poland’s attitude toward those migrants who have already crossed the Polish border. In the case of those who wandered in the forests and then were pushed to Belarus and left in the forest again, even a violation of the right to life would come into play.
Information about people dying in the border forests of Poland was coming on daily basis at one point, one story more horrific than another.
One of the victims was Avin Ifran Zaheer, 38, a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan. On November 12, volunteers from the Medics on the Border received a request for help from a group of Kurdish migrants. On the spot, they found the woman in immediate life-threatening condition. She was deeply unconscious, she had fallen into the water two days earlier. Medics transported the refugee woman to the hospital. At the same time her relatives were already taken by the Border Guard: her husband and five children were taken to a center, the husband’s brother was pushed back to Belarus.
Avin Ifran Zahir had five children and was in the fifth month of another pregnancy. She had already suffered a miscarriage in the hospital. Doctors assessed her condition as critical. The woman had to be dialyzed; her condition did not improve. On Saturday, December 4, she died.
She is one of the 20 people whose death has been reported. But activists say that there are many, many more bodies in the Polish-Belorussian forests. Their bodies are torn by wild animals, often to the point that recognition is not possible. Very harsh Polish winter, during which temperature goes down to the point of minus fifteen degrees, leaves no doubt: we are going to discover more victims in the spring once the snow melts, revealing the true face of the crisis.
If in the forests between Poland and Belarus migrants are left to die in the snow, the situation does not improve when they are locked up in the centers for foreigners, or so-called migrant facilities. The overcrowded and cold cells, care and legal assistance denied, poor food and hygiene are their daily routine. The worst of all is the one in Wedrzyn, which is referred to as “’Polish Guantanamo”.
The Wedrzyn center holds migrants whose asylum applications are being evaluated, but also those who are waiting to apply, and who should by law stay for a maximum of 90 days. According to some activists, sometimes judges renew such detention beyond the term, forcing migrants into uncertainty. There are also refugees who have been arrested at the border for crimes ranging from irregular border crossing to violence against a public official. Individuals are thus in a detention status for all intents and purposes.
What is even more mindblowing is the fact that the situation is not improving after many interventions, not only made by Polish politicians and activists, but also by international journalists.
The reality of Polish migrant facilities was revealed last September. After the whole family from Afghanistan ate soup made from mushrooms which were found in the grove surrounding one the facilities. Two couple years old boys died after this incident. After this incident Polish journalists discovered that the daily ration for one person in such a place is equivalent to 12 zlotys, which is 2,5 euro.
On 3 January the investigation of this case was cancelled.
The situation on Lithuanian-Belariussian border is not different. Currently, the Lithuanian government’s main idea for refugee policy is limited to pushbacks and 1,000 euros for those who have already filed an asylum claim but agree to withdraw it.The Doctors Without Borders and activists of Lithuania’s Sienos Grupė (the Border Group) may face trial, accused of… human trafficking.
Why? Exactly on Christmas Eve, the Sienos Grupė activists received a message from a Syrian refugee: „I have been sitting here in the forest for two days. I cannot stand or walk. I am very sick”. Activists found the man sitting under a tree, almost completely exhausted. They notified a group of Doctors Without Borders operating in Lithuania. Upon arrival, they had no doubts: the man must be immediately taken to hospital.
The man was first taken to Druskininkai, then to a hospital in Vilnius. People from the Sienos Grupe saved his life. And on the same day they received a 100 euro fine from the Border Guard for illegal entry into the border area. The doctors were treated the same way. The medics and humanitarian activists were also reported to the prosecutor’s office, which will investigate whether they… smuggled people.
Commenting on the case, a spokesman for the Lithuanian border guard was not particularly moved by the fact that the man would have died in the restricted zone. – With all due respect to doctors: they too must abide by the rules- Giedrius Mišutis said in an interview with LRT television.
He added that it is possible to obtain a permit to enter the zone – such a requirement was introduced several months ago when Lithuania introduced a state of emergency over the border. However, activists point out that it is practically impossible for them to get permits. Lithuania sometimes allows representatives of the Red Cross or UN agencies dealing with migration and human rights to enter the border. For people who want to help migrants it is impossible. They are treated as potential criminals. Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Kęstutis Lančinskas said in late December that the activities of the Border Group are „anti-state actions that undermine trust in Lithuanian institutions.”
Lithuania also does not intend to abandon its current practice of dealing with migrants, which is basically no different from Poland’s. Like their Polish counterparts, Lithuanian border guards also subjected elderly and sick people, pregnant women, families with children to push-backs. Even the Frontex Fundamental Rights Office suggested to the government in Vilnius to identify particularly vulnerable refugees and transport them to official border crossings where they would apply for asylum, instead of dumping them in the forest. The government’s reaction has been outrage and suggestions that if Frontex has its own ideas about how to defend the border, its mission in Lithuania could be terminated. The Lithuanian Interior Ministry announces that at least until a wall is erected on the border with Belarus, there will be no change in migrant policies.
As the Border Group notes, the only way out of this situation is to return to normal migration procedures under the procedures of international law. Migrants should be treated as human beings – not as enemies of the sovereignty of the European Union borders. This crisis should not be a show of brute force, but rather the humanitarian power of the EU project. These actions should be followed by diplomatic efforts to end the exploitation of refugees by the Belarusian regime. These efforts should take place at the source of the problem, i.e. in the countries of the Middle East.
Even if, according to the narration of the Polish and Lithuanian governments, our countries find themselves in a situation of a border conflict or so-called proxy war, its victims should not be the innocent refugees, but rather the criminals who are behind the creation of the whole situation.
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