Humanitarian Crisis on the Polish-Belarusian Border: 32 Afghan Migrants Trapped and in Critical Condition

By Zofia Majchrzak and Franciszek Dziduch

Collage by Anna Sazonov

The Czech border guards found him as dusk was falling. (…) The first one took out his radio and gave the other a quizzical look, then they both glanced at their watches and hesitated.  (…) And then, acting in unison, they shoved Peter’s leg from the Czech to the Polish side. But that wasn’t quite enough for them, because then they gently tugged his whole body into Poland. And, feeling guilty, they went off in silence. Half an hour later the Polish border guards’ torches lit up Peter. ‘Jesus!’ cried one of them (…). The Poles looked Peter in the face and whispered to each other. Then, gravely and silently, they took him by the arms and carried him over to the Czech side. — Olga Tokarczuk, “House of Day, House of Night”

On the evening of September 27, a 16-year-old Iraqi boy died on the Polish-Belarusian border. Before, he had been vomiting with blood. He is not the first victim of a recent humanitarian crisis along the Polish border, through which many try to access the European Union. What’s worse, he may not be the last. What led to this situation? And who is responsible?

For over a month now, Poland has been witnessing an unfolding humanitarian crisis on its border with Belarus. At the center: A group of 32 Afghan migrants, sparking a nationwide political conflict regarding the increasing influx of immigrants and stirring up an international debate concerning the EU’s migration policy. The crisis is a direct result of Alexander Lukashenko’s plan to destabilize the political situation in the EU. The Belarusian president’s government transports refugees to the Eastern border of the European Union from the Middle East and leaves them stranded there. Homeless, on the verge of starvation, and in critical condition, asylum seekers have become pawns in Lukashenko’s political game played against the European Union. 

Barbara Wołk, a Polish activist and International & European Relations student based in the Hague, visited Usnarz Górny, a Polish village adjacent to the site where the stuck Afghan migrants, having no other choice, had set up their camp. She was not the only one;  towards the end of August, the site was visited by countless NGOs, representatives of political parties, journalists and medics. “Most of us came with the hope of helping to improve the condition of the Afghans by providing food, water or clothes”, she says. However, none of them were granted access to the migrants’ camp. Wołk recollects that the activists unsuccessfully negotiated the entrance of a medic into the Afghan camp. In fact, the Polish government has even refused access to the Red Cross convoy. 

Another motive for Wołk was to see the place firsthand: “While reading the news, I could not believe that such a gruesome situation was taking place so close to where I live. It was beyond my imagination. Only once I arrived, I saw how critical the migrants’ situation is.” Since then, she has visited Usnarz Górny three times.

Wołk describes the village as set “in a fairy-tale-like scenery”. It is situated at the heart of Podlasie, a region known for its astonishing nature and landscapes. “The first time I came there by car”, Wołk recollects, “I arrived in the middle of the night, and could barely see anything.” She remembers seeing the camp for the first time, just as the sun started coming up. The sight left her speechless. “The tiny silhouettes in the distance seemed so helpless and contrasted with the line of border patrol and police cars, along with the green field.” Wołk could see that the migrants were surrounded on a territory so small that they could not even set up the seven tents they had been given. “These people are trapped”, she adds, “with no possibility to move in any direction.” From one side, they are being scrutinized by the Polish services, from the other by the Belarusian. Each time Wołk came back, the situation worsened; “By the third time I came there, most of the people were vomiting and reported blood in their urine.” 

Now, Wołk is unable to return to the site, and so are other activists, lawyers, and journalists. On September 2nd, the Polish government introduced a state of emergency across the Polish-Belarus border. Documenting the site has been prohibited and the access to over a hundred villages along the border, heavily restricted. The gap in media coverage has been quickly filled by Belarusian government-controlled media and Polish Public Television subjected to Poland’s ruling party, “Law and Justice” (PiS). Without independent journalists, the migrants’ conditions are expected to worsen even further.

In Poland, the issue of Usnarz Górny has become heavily politicized. By fueling the fear of Belarusian regime and presenting the migrants as a threat to the state security, PiS uses the Polish Public Television to misrepresent the situation on the border and push forward its anti-migration policy. For instance, on September 27th, during a press conference, the representatives of the Polish Ministry of Interior and Administration, and the Ministry of National Defence announced that zoophilic and pedophilic content was found on the mobile phones of two of the migrants who had been captured after allegedly trespassing the border. Showing a video of a man having sexual intercourse with a cow, they implied that the men captured by the services and others “on the run” are the protagonists of the recordings. Since the conference, it has not been proven that the phones in fact belong to the men captured by the border control. However, it was found that the videos were widely spread and easily accessible on the Internet, dating a few years back. The opposition has been split and is unable to form a consistent narrative around what is happening. Lewica, the left-wing political party, has in the past taken a moralizing tone while acting alongside activists, often with questionable effectiveness. More centrist politicians avoid conversation about humanitarian concerns, emphasizing the fact that EU border security is at stake. They frame the current state as an act of  “hybrid war” or “a Belarusian provocation”. 

Wołk believes that regardless of Lukashenko’s actions, offering help to the people on the border is the Polish government’s legal duty. “When we take a look at the satellite maps, we can see that, initially, the migrants had entered Polish territory. After a while, as the media coverage increased, the migrants were forced to move a few meters back. Only a third of them retreated back to Belarusian territory though.” To separate themselves from the migrants, the Polish state guards installed barbed wire, thus giving up a strip of Polish territory to Belarus. Wołk expresses her outrage, saying,  “the Polish government is bound by international law including the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee and European Convention of Human Rights.”

“The Geneva Convention”, she adds, “obliges us to grant them protection. We are also breaking article 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which guarantees the right to asylum.”

However, a decisive response from the European Union is unlikely. Since the very beginning, the EU has been giving its tacit consent to the way Poland has been handling the crisis. Some Western leaders directly expressed their approval, showing that the situation on the Polish border is only one manifestation of the EU’s migration policy.  Therefore, any condemnation of the Polish government’s actions would be considered hypocritical. Following a number of failed attempts to reform its approach to migration, the European Commission has proposed a new plan that focuses on “finding consensus among the member countries”. It involves efforts to increase the protection of external borders and effectively speed up deportations. 

Among the international institutions that have openly criticized Polish officials for endangering the lives of the 32 Afghans, only the European Court of Human Rights has urged the Polish government to intervene and offer help to the asylum-seekers stuck on the border.  In contrast, Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, has been accused by Human Rights Watch of “repeatedly failing to take effective action when allegations of human rights violations are brought to its attention”.

The worsening situation of the Afghans is not an anomaly: since the beginning of August, hundreds of migrants try to illegally trespass the Polish-Belarusian border daily. As of now, with limited access to the border, Barbara Wołk finds it difficult to hope for a good resolution to the crisis. Looking back on her last day in Usnarz, she recalls: “When I looked around, I couldn’t resist but to think about how big Poland is. There is so much land at our disposal. How can we not let these people in? Who gave us the right to take land? And how are we any different from this person who stands 100 meters away?”

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