Since Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko opened a migration route from Belarus to Poland in 2021, around fifty migrants have died and hundreds are missing. Facing numerous obstacles over the past two years, a struggling but increasingly assertive civil society continues to search the forest for migrants and bodies.
The Białowieza Forest, Europe’s last remaining virgin lowland forest, became the scene of a humanitarian crisis in August 2021 after Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko opened a new unofficial migration route to Europe and thousands migrants began to arrive at the Polish border.
Polish authorities, viewing the situation at the border as part of a broader Russian effort to destabilize the region which it once controlled during the Soviet era, refused to let migrants pass. As an additional measure, the conservative government in Warsaw introduced a state of emergency in the region between September 2, 2021 and July 1, 2022, banning journalists and human rights activists from approaching the area to see what’s going on there.
Unable to stand by and watch, local residents and activists began heading into the forest with hot soup and blankets for the refugees. Lacking any hierarchy or chain of command, they braved the harsh conditions of the forest and sought to help with whatever skills they had.
“I thought I could help with my knowledge of immigration law”
Marta Górczyńska, lawyer and head of the migration department at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, is one of them. “I thought I could help with my knowledge of immigration law, but that was naive of me,” she said. Along with other human rights lawyers, local doctors and volunteers, Górczyńska tried to make contact with the refugees when the humanitarian crisis began. “We’ve all had some sort of experience, but no one has ever had to treat someone in a dark forest,” she said.
Over time, their efforts clashed with those of border guards (Straż Graniczna) and the State. “The whole policy is exactly the same as two years ago,” Górczyńska said, remembering the group of around 30 Afghan refugees who were stuck in the border area for weeks in 2021, while Poland and Belarus both refused to welcome them.
Bartek Rumienczyk, representing the communications team of Grupa Granica, a social movement and network that provides humanitarian aid to refugees and migrants at the border, agrees. “Little has changed on the Eastern Front as the humanitarian crisis persists. However, we are seeing new levels of cruelty and violence in the country. EU border control. The perfect example is the construction of a border fence which caused specific injuries,” he said.
Completion of kilometer 187 fence along the border with Belarus coincided with the end of the state of emergency last summer. More than 5 meters high and topped with barbed wire, the fence has failed to stop the influx of migrants. “People climb the fence and fall onto the barbed wire on the other side. We see cuts on people’s bodies, as well as fractures of the spine and pelvis,” Rumienczyk said.
Shifting from bureaucracy to crisis mode
Many humanitarian organizations like the Ocalenia Foundation (Salvation) or the Legal Intervention Association operating in the border region used to help migrants or refugees integrate into Polish society and cope with the bureaucracy of the country. In 2021, however, they had to go into crisis mode; working in the snow and frost in winter to bring survival kits to refugees, with the added pressure of potentially being apprehended by the police.
“We had to become experts in providing aid,” Rumienczyk said. “People had to learn what to take into the forest (like NRC foil or packets of protein bars), how to check a person’s temperature to determine if they have hypothermia or not, how to administer injections and intravenous infusions, etc. and so on.”
Many activists pointed out that calling an ambulance often meant alerting border guards, because the doctors called often arrived with local authorities. This meant that volunteers in the region had to make complex decisions on the ground, such as weighing whether to seek professional medical help for a migrant and potentially lead to their detention, versus not calling an ambulance and letting the individual to face the complications. of their illness or injury. Non-governmental organizations operating in the area have counted 50 migrant deaths and estimate that hundreds are missing.
October 2021: two new amendments adopted
In October 2021, two amendments were adopted speak Polish Parliament allowing the pushback of migrants at the border, without assessing the risk of possible human rights violations. The amendment also allows a foreigner’s application for international protection to be left without examination.
Civil society and the UNHCR criticized the amendments, saying they violated the principle of non-refoulement of foreigners to countries where they could be in danger. “It’s something we had to learn on the spot,” Rumieczyk said. “If a man with a cardboard sign saying ‘I want asylum’ was arrested by the border police and no one saw him again, very often the only response was that he was taken to Belarus.”
With increased awareness of pushbacks, the issue of missing migrants has emerged, with approximately 200 people are reported missing since January 2023. Sometimes people are found in guarded detention centers around the border, while sometimes bodies are found. “To identify a body, a DNA sample is needed. With the support of local organizations, families receive financial assistance to travel to Poland to provide their DNA,” Górczyńska said.
Since the end of June this year, Poland has increasingly militarized the border area. Last month, the The Polish Defense Minister announced that up to 10,000 soldiers from the Polish army and territorial defense will be stationed on the border with Belarus, in addition to the usual border guards.
Upcoming elections in the fall
As the October legislative elections approach, “the ruling party (Law and Justice (PiS)) is using fear management tactics during the electoral campaign. They create a great threat and give the impression of reassuring the citizens that they know how to protect themselves from it,” said Aleksandra Chrzanowska, a member of the Association of Polish NGOs for Legal Intervention and Grupa Granica. “They are trying to present the situation at the border as much more dangerous than before, first with the presence of the Wagner group (in Belarus) and then with many more people trying to cross the border into Poland.”
However, she says there has been no increase in the number of people requesting humanitarian aid. Border guards, on the other hand, have published a multitude of messages on social media in recent weeks about the migrants they have arrested along the border zone. “Border guards never provide exact statistics, they only talk about those they prevented from entering Polish territory,” Chrzanowska said. “If they say they stopped 100 people at the border, that means it’s probably the same people trying to cross the border repeatedly.”
After two years, many activists are exhausted and disappointed that the humanitarian crisis at the border no longer gets as much attention as before. The most significant change is that what was once an emergency situation has become normal. “This is just another migration route along our border, like the Mediterranean or Balkan route,” said Kalina Czwarnóg of the Ocalenie Foundation. “If the European Union resorts to pushback, why would Poland act differently?”
The power of civil society
Many activists say they are motivated by a feeling of anger and helplessness. “I don’t see any political will to end the pushbacks, in Poland and at the European level. If I can go into the forest and help groups of individuals to survive, I can do something that has an immediate and minimal impact without feeling totally helpless.” Chrzanowska said.
Rumienczyk said he was particularly touched by people of Syrian origin who emigrated from Lebanon. “These are people who are fleeing not only war but also poverty,” he said. He noted that in the public debate about who should benefit from asylum, a distinction has been made between refugees and economic migrants, but that “the reality is not black and white.”
The dynamic of cooperation within civil society working along the Polish-Belarusian border has transformed over the past two years, with groups across the region often coordinating with each other and forwarding calls to their alarm phones to groups closest to the caller. . “I continue to believe that pushbacks must stop,” Górczyńska said, “and perhaps the reason they are ending is due to the collective effort of civil society.
You have to be confronted with the crisis to understand the extent of the suffering,” she concluded with resignation.
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