A disturbing report from our Polish reporter which preserves his authentic voice.
At the moment of writing these words, thousands of migrants are trapped between Polish border fence and Belarusian army near the major border crossing in Kuźnica Białostocka (see more here (in Polish, but with pictures)). Whole families are sitting around campfires while temperatures at night drop to below zero and yet the Polish government narrative is as if it was an invasion, not a humanitarian disaster. What is the story behind that refugee crisis and what can be done about it?
1. How it started?
You might remember the story of Ryanair flight forced to land in Belarus so the opposition activist can be removed? As a consequence, Belarussian airlines were denied entry to European airspace. That left Lukhashenko with loads of grounded planes and the airline at the verge of the bankruptcy. So the new plan was made: the planes will be used to bring migrants from Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries to Minsk under false promise of easy onwards travel to the European Union (notably: Germany). Oko.press reporter Szymon Opryszek followed the track of migrants and discovered that this is a well-organized business where people selling up everything they own, lured by the false promise of Belarussian government facilitating their travel into the EU. The prices for travel and visas are extortionate and when migrants finally arrive in Belarus, they are further robbed by Belarussian regime and then transported to the border and told to go west. They are prevented from turning back into Belarus by force.
2. What is the reaction of the Polish government?
The Polish government decided to not let those people in. They answered with illegal push-backs (that means, the Border Forces just pushes people back into Belarus by force). It is illegal under both Polish and International law, and the new law introduced by Polish government allowing it to do so remains invalid, as it could not trump higher legal acts such as international conventions or the Polish constitution. As the situation escalated the Polish government introduced – and then further extended – a state of emergency (de facto: martial law) in the administrative districts bordering Belarus. Nobody, including humanitarian NGOs and press, is allowed to enter, with the exception of people registered as resident of the area.
But people pushed back into Belarus are stopped by the Belarussian forces who force them back into Poland again – even those, who want to get back to their home countries. It ends in the people becoming a victims of a human tennis game between two regimes, or them having to camp for weeks at the border, awaiting the mercy of the one of the sides – like people trapped at the border near the village of Usnarz Górny. You can read more about that in my piece on the subject for a Czech internet portal Britské Listy, English translation available at my website here.
3. Is anyone trying to help those people?
Not the Polish government. Don’t get fooled at their attempt to play the public by sending truck convoy to Belarus: it was just a staged PR stunt, it was obvious (they knew it – as we know from leaked e-mails of one of the government ministers, the scandal that is going on for some time now) that Belarus would never let them in. The only aim was to try to convince the public that the refugees are on Belarussian side and the Polish government would want to help them, but Lukashenko prevents them from doing so. Meanwhile the investigation of NGO’s such as Amnesty International proves, that the refugees were, in fact, already inside Poland and they were forcibly pushed back into Belarus after being denied their right to apply for refugee status (even despite the fact that two opposition MP’s tried to help).
The whole burden of help within the exclusion zone rests on the local communities. Several local people are involved in delivering food, clothing, medical and legal help to the refugees, who are hiding in the forests from the Polish Border Guard and Police in fear that they will be thrown (sometimes literally) back into Belarus. Local activists are supported by nationwide efforts, several NGOs and grassroots groups organize collection of clothes, food, camping gear and medical supplies that are then distributed in the forests by the local people. Many people leave their barns or garages open and leave water and other goods for the refugees to collect and a green lantern above the doors or in the window become a symbol of a place where humanitarian help can be obtained.
Despite calls for allowing humanitarian help (including the most recent appeal from several Nobel prize winners), the government not only refuses to allow access to independent humanitarian NGOs, but the right wing activists, as well as soldiers and police officers harass people trying to deliver help.
Just as I write this words a group calling themselves “Medics on the Border”, that provides staffed ambulance that is at all times ready to provide emergency help both to migrants and the locals (but are not allowed to enter exclusion zone), reported on their instagram that someone (most likely soldiers) released air from the tyres of their ambulance parked at the verge of the forest when they went into it to deliver medical help.
4. What do we know about the situation?
This is the problem. Despite several appeals, the press has no access to the area from the Polish side, and obviously not from the Belarussian side either. So the information we have comes from either first-hand reports of the local residents and refugees themselves, or from the snippets of information released by the official government propaganda of the Polish or Belarussian governments.
From the reports of the local activists and refugees one can paint a pretty dreadful picture: some migrants are living in the forests for weeks, eating tree bark and drinking bog water and are being kicked over the border there and back dozens of times. At least 10 people are confirmed to be dead so far (although unconfirmed rumours about several dozens of dead bodies in one of the local rivers being pushed back and forward from Belarusian side to the Polish one were also in circulation).
Local residents tell shocking stories – like the one of the women who had to give birth in the forest, assisted only by a local resident who had nothing on her so she had to bite through the umbilical cord. There are numerous reports from the refugees themselves about them being beaten and robbed by both Polish and Belarussian soldiers – some show dogbite marks on their leg or mobile phones with the charging ports destroyed – allegedly by the Polish army. One pregnant woman lost her baby after being thrown back to Belarus like a sack of potatoes over the razor blade wires by Polish soldiers.
The razor blade wires are also illegal. The law allows their usage only at the height of 180cm or above, meanwhile Polish army simply unrolled coils of them on the ground along the border. Several migrants have shown deep cuts from those wires. Last but not least those are also extremely dangerous for the wild animals, and Polish-Belarusian border cuts through highly protected Puszcza Białowieska, one of the last remaining primeval forest in Europe with significant populations of moose and European bison. There are reports about animals bleeding to death after trying to cross.
One thing is sure: several hundreds, if not thousands, of people are trapped between the Polish border and second line of the Belarussian fortifications (Belarus has another line of these coiled wire fortifications and fences a few hundred metres back into their territory), on both sides uniformed forces prevent them from going deeper into the country. This area has already been given the terrifying name “zone of death”.
Meanwhile on the Polish side even those who managed to get across and officially claim asylum (often with the assistance of the Polish NGO’s providing legal assistance to them) are often locked in the Border Guard stations and then forced to board trucks bearing no number plates (so the journalists and locals can’t track them, as all military trucks look the same) and driven back deep into the forest, where they are forced to cross back into Belarus.
The situation is getting worse, as both local activists and soldiers, forced to follow inhumane orders, are at the verge of psychological collapse, according to this report by the university researchers who were allowed to the zone.
5. What we can expect to happen next?
There is no sign of any attempt to de-escalate from either side. The Polish government failed to address the problem at source – there were no attempts to counter Belarussian narration and discourage people from paying a fortune for a flight to Minsk in the countries where those migrants are originally coming from. There was no attempts to put any diplomatic pressure on those countries, not to mention Belarus. Polish government not only failed to liaise with the rest of the EU (which is nothing unexpected, as they are now in conflict in Brussels over undemocratic reforms introduced in Poland), but also openly refuses help from the EU institutions such as Frontex, opting for spending 350 000 000 euro on building a giant fence along the border instead. For the right wing Polish government it is a matter of pride that Poland can defend itself from the “invasion of the hordes of migrants”, but they are also not too keen to let international observers in, as the treatment of the refugees by the Polish border force is criminal under Polish and international law and can be considered as crimes against humanity.
It has to be said that the rest of the European Union is also remaining pretty inactive on the matter, which is appalling during a humanitarian crisis on such scale.
When it comes to Belarussian side, Lukhashenko has nothing to lose. He already lost the remains of his democratic mandate, and he is now full-on bloody dictator. He won’t hesitate to keep using those people as bullets in his hybrid war against the West, and he does not care how many of them die in the process. The right-wing Polish government facilitates this, as by refusing those people their rights and treating them in such inhumane way, it is allowing Lukashenko to show to his people “look, they aren’t any better than us there in the West” while the lack of access of the free media to the border makes it really difficult to fact check Belarussian (and Polish) propaganda.
Most recently several thousands of migrants decided to march towards the border in a peaceful attempt to cross at the border crossing in Kuźnica Białostocka (the Polish right narrative was for the long time that if they want to claim asylum, they should turn up at the border crossing, but to a surprise of nobody not a single person was allowed in), but the Belarussian regime hijacked that event and is now forcing large groups of people to forcibly cross the border into Poland. Experts and analytics fear it will all end in violence – the warning shots were fired when refugees wanted to go back into Belarus, and the Polish government is building narrative of the country being under attack. So with some voices already asking “when our soldiers will be allowed to open fire” it might soon turn into a violent conflict – which, if we remember that Lukhashenko for some time already pumps the narrative that eastern parts of Poland are, in fact, occupied Belarussian lands, might, in extreme case, end in open military conflict. There were already unconfirmed reports about armed men in uniforms without any insignia being spotted on the Polish territory…
6. But are those people even refugees?
This is the question that pops up a lot in Polish discussion. Most of those people were wealthy enough to be able to afford paying to Belarus for their flights and visas, and most of them are coming from the countries stable enough for the civilian flights of the Belarussian airlines to operate regular scheduled flights to. However now, when they are already in Belarus, where they are robbed, beaten, have their passport taken away from them, refused the right to come back to their country and are forced to storm the Polish border at the gunpoint, then it is pretty obvious that they are victims of a bloody, totalitarian regime and, as such should, be treated as refugees.
7. How can you help?
If you would like to offer financial support, then you can donate to Grupa Granica – a coalition of reputable NGOs providing humanitarian and legal help to people in the crisis here (page in Polish).
Another option is to donate for the Ocalenie foundation, that focuses mostly on providing legal help. Their donation page is in English and can be found here. Ocalenie is also looking for translators and interpreters that could translate from Arabic, Farsi, Kurmanji, Sorani and Pashto into Polish or English. You’ll find their contact data here.
Medics at the border managed to raise funds exceeding their target twice, but if you are a medical professional and would like to join them, even for a short spell of time, you can register here
It is also very important to spread awareness and pressure politicians in your country to act and form some pressure on the Polish state, as well as undertake some diplomatic retaliations against Belarus.
8. Where to look for reliable information.
Most imporantly: avoid official sources from the Polish government, including the public media in Poland that have been turned in recent years into the government propaganda machine. According to various research, including that conducted by academics from top British universities such as Oxford, public broadcaster TVP became one of the least reliable sources in Europe. The same goes for the Polish Radio and even Polish Press Agency. You need to be careful as there are many English language websites – such as https://polandin.com/ – that are in fact pumping government propaganda. There is no exaggeration here, Polish public media (as well as some pro-government private outlets like niezalezna.pl, dorzeczy.pl and others) are now about as reliable as the state broadcasters of Russia or North Korea.
A reliable source of information in English will be the page of Gazeta Wyborcza (here), biggest independent Polish daily paper. Notes from Poland is another reliable English language source.
The invaluable source of information regarding Polish political and humanitarian crisis is also a citizen funded journalism portal oko.press known for its high quality journalism provided, among others, by some of the biggest names in Polish press. Most of the pieces there are in Polish (but you can google translate them) but on occasions they also publish content in English.
There are also some Twitter accounts worth following:
this Belarussian journalist: https://twitter.com/TadeuszGiczan
this Polish journalist: https://twitter.com/JakubMedek
English language account of the Belarussian opposition Telegram channel Nexta: https://twitter.com/nexta_tv
This long time political commentator (he has some right-wing inclination, but he lives literally at the border, so many of his reports are first hand observations): https://twitter.com/Exen
Last but not least, for the last 5 years I write a weekly digest of the events in Poland aimed at foreign reader: it’s written for a Czech internet portal Britske Listy. English translations of that series can be found on my personal website here.