Last month, Freedom reported on the plight of 32 people from Afghanistan seeking asylum in the EU imprisoned on the Polish-Belarus border and left there without food, shelter or medical assistance for weeks. These people are the victims of a diplomatic spat between the dictatorial regime of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko and the EU.
The Belarusian government is, first, flying people to the country’s capital Minsk and then forces them to cross the border with Poland, or other neighborhoring EU countries. The Polish state, on its side, is pushing the people attempting to cross the border back to Belarus, often using violent means to do so, and without any regard to peoples’ safety and wellbeing.
The victims of the illegal pushbacks, already exhausted and confused by unfamiliar surroundings, are left in make-shift camps along the border without appropriate care, food or shelter, or they are simply disappeared. This brutal practise happens against international laws around refugee rights. All organisations attempting to assist these desperate people are barred from the area following Poland’s introduction of the state of emergency laws to combat this, as they call it, “invasion”. In the meantime, the Polish state is using this issue to, basically, peddle nationalistic war-like propaganda.
So far, we know of five deaths that are a direct result of this inhumane treatment, but this number can be much greater: the area along the border is a dangerous forest, and it is getting cold there. The refugee people are prevented from moving back to Belarus or continuing their journey across Poland, and instead are being left along the border to, basically, die.
Below, Freedom publishes a report by Katarzyna Czarnota and Marta Górczyńska: two activists involved in “Grupa Granica” present in the area and doing all they can to help.
Video: A group of refugee people stuck on the border without food, water or shelter. The video was taken on day five of their ordeal.
It is unknown how many places along the Polish/Belarusian border see extremely exhausted refugee people being left to die. Nobody reaches out to these people, and nobody is looking for them – it all happens in silence. If this situation doesn’t change, we will eventually find fresh mass graves in the forests surrounding this area of Europe.
The announcement of the State of Emergency in northeastern Poland on September 2 was mainly an attempt to prevent activities of lawyers, the media, NGOs, and activists carrying out human rights monitoring and documentation, or otherwise scrutinising the authorities’ actions. As activists remaining close to the state of emergency area we call for intervention!
Our daily operations confirm that, in most cases, the people we find in the forest would probably already be dead without our intervention. The people we meet are often in a state of extreme exhaustion. We do the work that nobody else does in this country.
This work should be performed by virtually all state services available in the area. Their legal duty is to save the victims of a situation that the Polish government describes as a political-military conflict with Belarus (“hybrid war”). Ambulances, medics and Polish Red Cross, as well as all institutions and organisations that are able to find the migrant people and provide them with immediate help, should be sent to the area under the state of emergency.
Because of the situation, what happens next with these people is a secondary question. We are no longer talking about the political crisis related to dictators and smugglers taking advantage of the lack of a safe passage and the lack of operational mechanisms to seek international protection for people fleeing their countries of origin. At this stage, we are dealing with a humanitarian crisis, bearing in mind the number of people who can pay for this political game with their lives. Our primary duty is to make every effort to ensure that no one else dies on the Polish border.
The legal regulation introducing the state of emergency has practically cut off the public opinion from the information on the true number of push-backs to Belarus. The law prevents anyone from monitoring, documenting or reporting on the situation in the border area. No lawyer, NGO or private person can reliably report on this situation. We do not know how many people died in the forests.
There are only about 10 of us where we are, and in the last two days alone, we have saved 11 people from death and recorded 40 reports from people on the move who have been (sometimes repeatedly) illegally deported. Under the guise of “preventing illegal migration”, life and health-saving services are forbidden to work, and the state is not allowing doctors and medics to intervene. Increasingly, we encounter refusals to provide help from the service operators. ‘We don’t care if someone dies or not’, we hear, ‘these are illegal immigrants’.
We can only obtain indirect information from the data and statistics provided by the Polish government. We, however, have much more information shared with us by the refugee people themselves, if they manage to contact us via social media. Only some were lucky enough to be able to send us their location along with an appeal for help.
We are not allowed to enter the emergency state zone, so we are forced to operate outside of it. This makes our options limited, and if we try to enter the state of emergency zone, we may be detained. Increasingly, aid workers are seen as a threat to the nation-state simply because they reveal its extreme violence and ineptitude in political games.
We believe that representatives of all international, humanitarian and human rights monitoring organisations should enter this area immediately. At this point, this is the most critical need: to help in a crisis, to prevent further deaths. We expect such decisions to be taken and, at the same time, we call on everyone to support the necessary intervention.
The local people in the state of emergency zone are not fully aware of what is happening exactly. On the one hand, they are terrified by the scale of the dramatic events, and on the other, they do not know what to do as the government propaganda is engaging in some scare-mongering operation around the alleged “threat” of refugee people.
The degree of dehumanisation we observe today finds reference in the events of WW2. It was as a result of the War that the Geneva Convention was established, with the aim to protect against the atrocities of war on an international level. As one of the very few European countries, Poland has not pursued a migration policy since the 1990s – there is no document under that name in the Polish legal framework. The activities carried out on the state level are more focused on deportations than on granting protection, i.e. ensuring people’s safety.
Today, however, there is no time to discuss the inadequacy of the Geneva Convention itself to the current conflicts and causes of migration, such as the climate crisis or extreme poverty. Today, we ought to prevent a situation where we will find more dead people in the forests of Europe.
The current “security policy” of the Polish state it the one of violence and powerlessness. This is evidenced by both specific projects and decisions made, as well as images or descriptions of the situation at the border. Instead of solutions based on the creation of safe routes for migration, people are thrown into the hands of smugglers. The physical barriers, such as the barbed wire along the Polish- Belarus border, only mean that people are forced to choose a longer and more dangerous route. This, in turn, causes more and more of them to perish during their journey. Likely, nobody will find out how many people paid for the pushbacks across the Belarusian border with their lives.
Who will be liable for the death of these people? Who will inform their families and who will take care of their burials? Surely, the issuers of the orders are responsible for this situation. But those who carry the orders out should be reminded of the obligation to refuse – in this case, to refuse to kill and dehumanise. Katarzyna Czarnota and Marta Górczyńska
Katarzyna Czarnota is an activist and sociologist. Marta Górczyńska is a lawyer specialising in human rights issues. Both authors are currently engaged in the activities of “Grupa Granica”: a group that is involved in assisting the migrant people attempting to cross the Polish-Belarus border.
Images: a family that was disappeared by the Polish state on 28 August 2021. Nobody knows what happened to them. By Dawid Chalimoniuk.