An international aid worker has warned “more people are going to die”, describing how desperate, often dangerously weakened migrants including very young children are being pushed back across Poland’s border with Belarus.
Crystal van Leeuwen, a medical emergency manager with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said NGOs must gain urgent access to a secure militarised zone on the Polish side and that migrants’ claims for international protection must be respected.
“People are being treated like weapons,” said Van Leeuwen, who recently returned from a week-long assessment with local groups including the Ocalenie foundation and Grupa Granica. “It’s hard to believe this kind of crisis is unfolding in the EU.”
At least eight people have died as thousands of migrants, mostly from Iraq, Iran and Syria, have tried to cross from Belarus in recent weeks but found themselves trapped in a densely wooded border zone with no food or shelter from subzero temperatures.
NGOs say the real figure is likely to be significantly higher since all non-residents – including journalists, aid workers and foreign observers – are barred under a state of emergency declared by Warsaw from entering a 3km-deep (1.9-mile) strip along the border.
Poland this week sent 2,500 more troops to the area, bringing to 10,000 the number of soldiers helping border guards prevent attempted crossings, after several incidents in which groups of 60 or 70 people tried to tear down a razor-wire border fence.
Warsaw and other capitals have said Belarus is waging a “hybrid war” on the EU in retaliation for sanctions. Poland insists it is defending not just its border but that of the bloc and says it recorded 15,000 attempted crossings in October.
Van Leeuwen said she met a group of 13 women, men and children just outside the exclusion zone. They were being helped by a local man who had brought them to his home inside the zone for food and warmth, then led them out to meet NGOs.
“It was pitch black, in a densely forested area, with everyone trying to navigate through the darkness by holding on to each other,” she said. The migrants “had very few belongings with them, aside from their clothes and sleeping bags”.
They were “scared, hungry and cold” after four nights sleeping in the forest, Van Leeuwen said, and – unlike many – this was their first attempt to cross into Poland. “It’s dangerously cold to be sleeping outdoors,” she said. “It was -4C that night.”
After local aid workers confirmed the group wanted to claim international protection in Poland, and understood they risked being sent back to Belarus, the migrants signed powers of attorney and were videoed requesting protection.
Aid workers handed out food, drinks and warm clothes, Van Leeuwen said. Only then were the border guards called. “Several of the adults burst into tears, in relief and trepidation,” she said. “A young girl repeated, ‘No more forest, no more forest.’”
The first two border guards to arrive were “calm and appeared professional”. But then came a second vehicle, carrying armed, balaclava-wearing guards, followed by a large army truck with benches in the back and a tarpaulin cover.
Guards refused to say where the group would be taken, and the 13 never arrived at the nearest processing centre. “Hours later, the Polish NGO received a location pin and videos showing their location as back on the Belarusian side of the border,” she said.
“Despite their belief that they were finally safe, they ended up back across the razor-wire fence.” Migrants face “a bleak dilemma”, she said: asking for protection and risking being sent back by guards on both sides, or risking their lives by waiting.
Van Leeuwen described their position as desperate, adding that NGOs were only aware of the situation outside the 3km exclusion zone. Inside, where only Polish ambulances, border guards and residents are allowed, “we have no idea,” she said.
“The cold is the greatest physical concern,” she said, “and the lack of food and water”. But many of the migrants also have significant mental health issues after spending sometimes several weeks being shunted back and forth across the border.
“These people need shelter, food, water and medical assistance,” she said. “Their lives need protecting, and they need to be treated according to EU and international law. They are not weapons, they are human beings.”
‘I thought I would die’: one person’s story
In September Ahmad Dandashi, who fled Syria for Lebanon in 2012 and then spent more than seven years working for the Norwegian Refugee Council helping fellow migrants, paid $1,200 for a return flight from Beirut to Minsk, via Dubai.
“The country was collapsing,” said Dandashi, 29. “The economy was nosediving. There were constant power cuts. It would get worse before it got better. I’d applied for so many jobs elsewhere, for scholarships … But nothing came. I had to leave.”
A friend had made it to Germany via Belarus and Poland in July, he said, and he and a small group of friends decided to try for themselves. They needed return tickets “because otherwise you do not get your one-week tourist visa on arrival”.
At Minsk airport, the group and hundreds of others waited three days, sleeping on the floor, for their visas. They spent five more days in Minsk recovering before taking two taxis to a spot on the Poland/Belarus border they had chosen using Google Maps.
“There were nine of us,” said Dandashi. “All Syrian, all from Lebanon. We counted on it taking us three or four days to get across. It took me 20.” Dandashi said he rapidly became weak, undernourished and “just permanently cold, shivering”.
Five times he was picked up by Polish border guards, “beaten, kicked, insulted” and taken back to the Belarus side. Back in Belarus, he was twice beaten by soldiers after saying he wanted to give up trying to reach Poland and return to Minsk.
“Eventually I was too weak to continue; I told my friends to go without me,” he said. Polish NGOs “visited many times when I was on my own. They gave me food and water, because I was drinking from a bog. Finally an ambulance came.
“I begged to stay in hospital, but police were standing guard over me and after two or three hours, when I was more or less stable, they took me to the police station, and back across the border. I was in a very, very bad way. I thought I would die.”
Three days later, he said, “Belarusian soldiers found me, and pushed me back to the border again. My good luck was, I met a family. They had relatives in the EU who were organising a taxi to pick them up … We crossed together. It was over.”
Dandashi made it to a processing camp in Eisenhüttenstadt, just across the German border, and filed his application for international protection. He feels, he says, “half happy. I am safe. I am in Germany. But I feel psychologically unstable, and very insecure. I am separated from my friends. I cry at night.”
According to German authorities, Dandashi is one of 6,100 migrants who have entered Germany via Poland from Belarus this year, including 1,000 on a single day last week. Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said 800 police had been deployed to the German-Polish border and the number could be reinforced further.