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Crisis in Europe

An eyewitness account from the Poland-Belarus border

Deputy director for Europe programming, International Rescue Committee

Recently, I travelled to the border between Belarus and Poland to assess how the International Rescue Committee could help the asylum seekers and migrants trapped there. What I found was not a migration crisis but a political crisis. 

The people we met had fled countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. They came to Belarus with the understanding that they would be able to travel to Poland and seek protection in the European Union. Following disputes with the EU, Belarus has encouraged and even forced these people to cross its border. Poland, for its part, has met them at the border with violence, turning them away and illegally denying them the right to seek asylum. 

As a result, people are finding themselves trapped outside in freezing temperatures. They are brutalised by border guards and shuffled back-and-forth between countries; Our Polish partners met migrants who were forced into the freezing cold river in Belarus, told by Belarusian authorities to swim to the Polish side. Polish border guards turned them away and forced them to swim back.

At least thirteen people have lost their lives, with many more injured.

The decision to put people in detention or in a reception centre or send them across the border appears to be utterly arbitrary, leaving people unsure where they stand. Many are understandably terrified, and end up hiding in freezing temperatures hoping to find a way to safety.

A women huddles in her sleeping bag in the woods by the Poland-Belarus border.

"The decision to put people in detention or in a reception centre or send them across the border appears to be utterly arbitrary, leaving people unsure where they stand," says Lehmeier. "Many are understandably terrified."

Photo: Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Activists at the Poland-Belarus border say "It is like The Hunger Games"

We don't know how many people are hiding, waiting in the forest on either side of the border, because we can't go there and because they are too scared to reach out for help. It could be hundreds. Or it could be thousands.

The area is very remote. There is a national park with deep swamps where people drown or get bogged down; I met a man who broke his leg trying to escape the mire. There are areas that only local guides know how to navigate. Even the local border guards sometimes struggle to find their way.  

There is a restricted area between the two countries where journalists and aid workers are barred from entering. Even ambulances have been turned away unless they were called for local residents. When I was there, if someone found an asylum seeker who was sick or about to die and they called the ambulance, it would not come unless summoned by a border guard.

Now that winter has set in, there is no way a person can survive in the forest for more than a few days. Sometimes after a few days, people are found by border guards, who then send them back to Belarus— an illegal act under international and EU law. Some are picked up by traffickers or smugglers and taken elsewhere. Some die. 

People have crossed the border three, five, 10 times but keep being pushed back. Local activists say that it is like The Hunger Games.

Imagine if you had spent your life savings—and in some cases, those of your neighbours or a whole village—to get to Europe. These people cannot go home. They will literally say, “I want to die here. I cannot tell my family back home that I failed. I have to die here or make it.”

Little empathy, needless cruelty

I met three people who had waited so long in the cold that they suffered from hypothermia, yet they were too scared to go to the hospital or stay to accept help.

After a global outcry, Belarus sheltered several thousand people in a warehouse, but border guards reportedly continue to force people over the border with Poland. The Polish border guards occasionally show empathy for a family with young children or people with severe health conditions. They may even bring them to the hospital or provide them shelter, food and some services. These families may get the chance to file an asylum claim. Or, eventually, they may be pushed back to Belarus.

Of course, this arbitrariness, coupled with the violence perpetrated by border guards, terrifies people. I met three people who had waited so long in the cold that they suffered from hypothermia, yet they were too scared to go to the hospital or stay to accept help. They returned to the forest, and an uncertain fate. 

One woman, attempting to reach her son in Germany, was admitted to the hospital in Poland. When her son learned of his mother’s condition, he rushed to be with her. After a brief reunion, a military ambulance picked her up to return her to Belarus, even as he stood watching.

A women holds her daughter in the snow on the Poland-Belarus border

"Now that winter has set in, there is no way a person can survive in the forest for more than a few days," says Lehmeier.

Photo: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Making it harder to help at the Poland-Belarus border

In situations like this, vulnerable people, stripped of options, are forced to desperately seek out smugglers to assist them or are driven into the hands of traffickers. We see this all around the world when safe and legal pathways are removed when fences or walls are erected, or whenever there's more surveillance and the interception of people. Smuggling and trafficking increases and can become more exploitative and dangerous. People become more desperate and risk their lives. The worse conditions are, the more they are exploited, the more traffickers profit. 

Under these conditions, with this sort of repression, it becomes almost impossible to provide impactful aid on the scale required. People hide because they fear being pushed back or we are blocked from accessing them.

Locals have been able to reach some people, however, and the IRC is aiding their efforts. We spoke to volunteer groups from all across Poland. Some drive 10 hours to do a 72 hour-shift helping people before returning home again. These volunteers are providing medical and psychological first aid, offering warm soup and warm tea to address hypothermia and dehydration, as well as clothes and sleeping bags, and basic legal advice. Their efforts make a huge difference–and must be urgently supported and scaled up.

We must remember that this is not a natural disaster that has overwhelmed us. This is a relatively small number of people and the EU easily has the resources to help.

I am haunted by the story of a pregnant woman who had suffered abuse, violence and uncertainty to reach safety, but who now needed emergency surgery. She was scared. She had her two other children with her.

Prior to the surgery, she asked not to be given anaesthesia because she was terrified that she would wake up to her children having been taken away. She trusted no one. Even in her state, her greatest fear was that she would not be able to protect her children. 

When people find themselves in this sort of situation, I think we can say that everything has gone wrong. Everybody involved has failed this woman and her children. 

What needs to happen at the Poland-Belarus border

What we are seeing at the Poland-Belarus border is against European and international law. All countries involved must fully respect the right to asylum and ensure that humanitarian needs are urgently met.

The IRC is calling on the EU to take the following steps to ensure the humane treatment of people across its borders:

  • Uphold the right to claim asylum and stop illegally turning away people seeking safety
  • Allow for a fair and humane asylum process by reviewing cases on an individual basis, ensuring people can access dignified accommodation, and avoiding the use of detention
  • Guarantee medical care and access to basic reception conditions from the moment people arrive 
  • Provide access to humanitarian workers and human rights organisations at the border

How you can help the IRC's response at the Poland-Belarus border

We need donations. The IRC has launched an emergency response to bolster the activities of local organisations in Poland that, as noted above, have been working tirelessly to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants stranded at the border with Belarus. We need funding for this work, and for all of our work around the world. If you can, please donate to the IRC today.

We are seeing people speaking out in courageous ways, even though they are being intimidated. They have been threatened with losing their jobs and some have been abused physically. Yet, they continue to speak out and show solidarity, such as by flashing a green light in the windows of their home to signal: This is a safe space where you can knock if you need anything.

If people can speak out, in any way, then they should. Whether it's a letter to their Member of Parliament or a letter to the editor or in social media, it doesn't matter. It is important to speak out. Politicians monitor what is being said and they need to see that there are thousands of people who do not want to see human rights violations perpetrated by their governments, in their name. People must not underestimate the power of their voices.

Stefan Lehmeier started working for the IRC in Germany in 2016 and led programming there up until 2019. Now, as a deputy director for Europe programming he oversees IRC's operations in Greece, the Western Balkans, Germany, UK and Italy. Previously, he worked for other organisations in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Caucasus.