Along the Poland border with Belarus, ‘we will never know how many people died’
Since the first Russian missile touched Ukrainian soil on February 24, Poland has granted temporary protection to more than 1.4 million refugees streaming across the border from Ukraine, earning praise for its humanitarian efforts as the country prepares for a new influx of Ukrainian refugees this winter.
But people from countries such as Iraq and Cameroon who are trying to come across another border with Poland have received a starkly different response. Further north along the EU member state’s border with Belarus, their pleas for help are being ignored.
Initially angered by EU sanctions following Belarus’s rigged presidential election in August 2020, strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko lured people from around the world to his country on the false promise that they can get easy access to a safer future in western Europe. Hoping that an increase in asylum seekers will sow discord across the EU, Belarusian authorities have ferried men, women and children to the border with Poland and forced them to cross since mid-2021.
Poland’s response has been heavy-handed. As the number of attempted crossings swelled last fall, human rights groups documented unlawful cases of pushbacks by Polish border guards, a practice that continues to this day. The border area was also militarized, and an exclusion zone established.
European Union leaders in Brussels have been positive on Poland’s actions, as the issue of how to respond to migration is largely considered the business of individual member states. When Warsaw announced in January that it had started construction on a metal wall along the Belarusian border to keep people out, European allies issued no objections.
Despite the 18-foot-high and 116-mile-long barrier, people have not been deterred from seeking protection in the EU. But it has worsened conditions for asylum seekers who risk life-threatening injuries and death trying to scale it.
Now with surveillance technology being installed along the wall, and Poland fearful that Russia and Belarus will usher many more people to its borders, Aleksandra Łoboda, a member of the humanitarian organization Grupa Granica, warns against border militarization.
With temperatures falling, we spoke about the current situation on this part of the Polish border. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Aleksandra, what is the situation on the Poland-Belarus border right now?
Since the wall was raised, the Polish government’s narrative is that it has been a deterrent and the scale of the humanitarian crisis has reduced. We follow the situation very closely and we know that’s not true. What the wall has done is diminish the health of people who are trying to cross the border. We have been treating a lot of leg injuries from falls, a lot of cuts from the razor wire that lines the top of the wall. There are more and more cases of hypothermia. The situation is tough.
We don’t have an estimate on how many people are crossing, but we do know how many people are asking us for help (we only provide humanitarian aid to people who are on the Polish side). So, every week it’s between 100-200 people. Last week, there were 149 requests for assistance. Also, take into consideration we are not the only initiative providing humanitarian aid, so the real number of people is even higher.
Over the last 14 months, 27 people are confirmed to have died on the Polish-Belarus border. We believe around 190 people are missing. We will never know how many people died on the border because so much of the evidence gathering has been left to grass roots organizations.
This month the initial installation phase of high-tech surveillance equipment along the wall was inspected by Polish authorities. How could this infringe on the rights of asylum seekers?
It’s a further attempt to militarize the border. This should not be the response to the humanitarian crisis. No wall can stop migrants crossing the border if they are seeking international protection.
Building a wall and adding surveillance could contribute to even higher abuse of peoples’ rights, the rights to asylum, right to freedom from torture. If you want to get to the root of migration, you cannot just erect a barrier and hope the issue will disappear.
When I was reporting near the Poland-Belarus border last year, there was a lot of disinformation swirling around about the people on the Belarus border. Has that continued?
The government is actively spreading disinformation and claiming that people who are crossing the Poland-Belarus border are economic migrants who do not need international protection. We have documented people who have been asking us for help and most of them come from countries affected by war and conflict, so this is one kind of disinformation.
Another is the line that the people who are trying to cross the border with Belarus pose a threat to national security. We have helped approximately 13,500 people from the border area, but the Polish community has accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, and it hasn’t posed a threat to national security. We have seen it is possible for Polish society to accept people from other countries, to accept a larger number of people who are fleeing wars and conflict. So, I think the government has proved that its own line is propaganda, disinformation.
The EU has supported the Polish government’s actions on the Poland-Belarus border. How do you feel about that?
There is more than one humanitarian crisis on European borders. The EU needs to take a common approach, which should not focus on the militarization of borders but should examine how to implement the right to asylum, the right to international protection. As a bloc it needs to change its current policy in terms of migration.
Looking ahead, the Polish government says it will build a temporary security wall with Kaliningrad to prevent migrants crossing over from the Russian enclave. How much is this on your radar?
We are closely monitoring the situation on the Poland-Kaliningrad border and for now, as far as I know, there have not been a lot of people trying to cross. We will monitor the situation and see what happens. Judging by the Poland-Belarus border there may be a real threat to peoples’ rights so we must keep an eye on it.
Aside from migrants, a lot of Polish people don’t want Russians to seek asylum in Europe because of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Our message is that everyone has the same right, anyone who flees persecution from war and conflict can seek protection regardless of their nationality.
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