Since August, thousands of migrants have been trying to cross the Polish border from Belarus. They have come from Yemen, Syria, Iraq or the Democratic Republic of Congo, hoping to enter the European Union. Poland has accused Belarusian head of state Alexander Lukashenko of instrumentalising migrants in a feud with the EU, and has opted to deport them. Turned away from both sides, men, women and children find themselves stranded along the border in the middle of the forest.
In this latest edition of The Observers Direct, “Belarus-Poland border: Migrants trapped in the forest” (watch it above) Maëva Poulet, FRANCE 24 Observers journalist, met up with Gulliver Cragg, FRANCE 24 correspondent, in the border region of Podlaskie, Poland the week of October 4. In this reporter’s log, she takes a look back at the alerts that were issued by migrants to the NGOs and press.
“We are probably going to meet a family with children. Would you like to join us?” Saturday October 9. It is 3pm when Piotr Bystrianin sends us this message. Piotr is a member of the Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish NGO helping migrants and refugees based in Warsaw. Since the summer, their team takes turns every week to be go 200 km outside the capital to the border region of Podlaskie to monitor the unprecedented migration crisis in Poland and help migrants.
Someone sends us a GPS position near the small village of Stara Łuplanka. This is where a family from Iraqi Kurdistan was spotted. After a seven-day trek from Belarus, they arrived in Poland by evading the the border guards. “We receive alerts about the presence of groups of migrants,” Piotr Bystrianin briefly explains. What we know is that many migrants send their GPS position, to organisations or the press, to call for help.”
A ‘hybrid war’ between Poland and Belarus
The meeting place is on the edge of the forest, near a cornfield. Karolina Szymańska, also a member of the foundation, gestures at us to wait: “We have to talk to these people first. It is a single father and his four children, aged 8 to 14.”
“They are very cold and scared,” Piotr explains, as his colleague offers them food, water and warm clothes.
On the phone, an Arabic-speaking translator explains the situation to the father. Poland’s strategy is clear: migrants on the Polish side must be turned back at the border into Belarus, even if they are asylum seekers. The Polish parliament authorised border guards to do this on October 14.
Poland believes that these migrants are not in danger in Belarus, where they arrived legally by plane with visas. This is also what makes the European Union say that Minsk is waging a “hybrid war”: in response to European sanctions, Belarus is trying to destabilise the 27 country bloc by sending migrants across its borders.
‘Sometimes they take them back to the forest, even if there are children’
In order for this Iraqi family to avoid ‘refoulement’, or being pushed back into Belarus, Piotr and Karolina have only one option: to help them apply for asylum. But the family has to agree to apply in Poland, and therefore stay in the country. However, according to the Polish government, many actually want to go to Germany, England or France.
In order to apply for asylum, they also must be able to explain that they are fleeing their home country for fear of persecution or conflict. This is not the case for all migrants who cross this border.
This family meets those requirements. “The family will give power of attorney to [Karolina], and she will call the border guards to ask them to come. She will help them in their application for international protection in Poland.”
We then wait for two hours for the border guards to arrive. It is up to them to register the application. However, with the new law, they are not obliged to do so. The NGO has invited media to help apply pressure. “Sometimes they take them back to the forest, even if there are children,” insists Piotr. That evening, thanks to Piotr and Karolina’s mobilisation – and perhaps the presence of several cameras, including ours – the family will be taken to the border guard station, where they will spend the night, in the warmth, while awaiting the next stage of their application.
‘It’s like a game of ping-pong’
The family was able to get this kind of help because they had made it past the “emergency zone,” a 3 km strip of land drawn by Poland along its border with Belarus, where journalists and NGOs are denied access.
Along the border, migrants find themselves trapped between Polish and Belarusian border guards. On the Polish side, they’re taken back to Belarus by force. In Belarus, they’re also turned back – since October, the country has refused to let in migrants who have already crossed into an EU country.
“The only way to get out of Poland is to get into Belarus. The only way to get out of Belarus is to enter Poland. It’s like a game of ping-pong,” said Nelson (not his real name), a migrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo who contacted our team.
Nelson documented the nights he spent between between the two countries. He filmed himself in the labyrinthine “no man’s land” in the forest, where temperatures regularly drop to 0 degrees at night in October.
“We met some Polish soldiers and I told them, ‘I’m from Congo, I’d like to ask for asylum’. They told me ‘You are not going to do anything’. They started to take us by force back to the border. That was the first night we spent outside, me and my children,” Nelson said.
One of his videos shows his children sleeping in the forest. They lay on the ground near a campire, without a tent. “It was extremely cold, and extremely dark,” he said.
— The Observers (@Observers) October 25, 2021
‘We can’t go on’
These images, like those of other migrants calling for help, are rare testimonies of what is happening in the border zone. Since September, at least nine people have died of hypothermia or exhaustion in the forest.
Other migrants have contacted our team from the area, but some weren’t able to send images. Some have sent messages of distress. “It’s cold, there’s nothing to eat, it’s hell”, wrote one Congolese migrant. “We can’t go on,” said an Iraqi in a WhatsApp audio. “Hello ma’am, I’m at the border,” writes another migrant whose origin we don’t know. She did not send any more messages after this one.
The only way for them to get help is to share their GPS coordinates with the organisations working near the border… from a forest where the internet and telephone network is unstable, and without electricity to recharge her phone.