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The lost trail of refugees on the border between Poland and Belarus

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Harsh winter conditions and pressure from the EU brought the 2021 migration crisis orchestrated by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko to a halt on his country’s border with Poland. It seemed as if the trail of hundreds of migrants and refugees trying to reach the European Union by this route had been lost, and the ultra-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government viewed the situation by building a 5-meter -Rocket as solved fence, 5 meters high and 186 kilometers long. However, dozens of people continue to enter their territory every day. According to human rights organizations and non-governmental organizations, human rights violations with forced returns continue to occur. And almost 700 migrants and asylum-seekers remain locked up in detention centers, including women and children.

Last year, Polish border guards recorded 40,000 attempts to enter the country illegally, a number that includes those who made multiple attempts. Poland, like the Baltic states bordering Belarus, has taken extraordinary measures in the face of what the EU and regional governments have dubbed “hybrid warfare,” the use of migrants to destabilize the union. The government declared a state of emergency on September 2, banned access to a three-kilometer strip along the border and passed a law guaranteeing hot returnees. On July 1, Warsaw lifted this measure and declared the fence complete as no electronic elements such as cameras and motion sensors were installed. “Thanks to our policies, today we can focus on what is Europe’s top priority, which is to help Ukraine, which is struggling to maintain its sovereignty,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on June 30. at the foot of the wall crowned by accordions.

There are areas where the orography has left gaps in infrastructure with rivers crossing forests and swampy areas. In addition, migration experts repeat themselves, and Poland’s Deputy Human Rights Commissioner Hanna Machinska, a public figure independent of the government, observed in a telephone conversation: “A fence is not a solution; It will not prevent the entry of those desperate to save their lives.” As explained by members of Grupa Granica, a network of activists and organizations providing humanitarian and legal assistance to migrants, those trying to get to the EU are overcoming to enter, the obstacle by digging tunnels, using stairs or climbing.

Marysia Zlonkiewicz from the Chlebem i Solą (Bread and Salt) association, who has been living between Warsaw and the border since September, explains that this summer they are conducting weekly outreaches with about 200 people on the Polish side, and there have been days when the number has reached 50 has reached 24 hours. According to official figures, there have been 6,000 entry attempts so far in 2022.

If in 2021 thousands of people who wanted to enter Poland came mainly from Minsk on trips organized by the Lukashenko regime, from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan countries, then the main starting point of the route is in this one year Russia. “Everything is organized by the Belarusian regime and managed by the Russian authorities,” says Anna Michalska, a spokeswoman for the border guard. Zlonkiewicz explains that they meet many foreigners whose residence permits in Russia have expired, or young people with student visas in that country. Also migrants who have fled to Russia from eastern Ukraine, according to Katarzyna Slubik, president of the Legal Intervention Association, also a member of Grupa Granica.

Children behind the makeshift fence between Poland and Belarus, in a picture taken from video released by the Polish government last November.Monday (Reuters)

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This year there are fewer women and children, and new nationalities have also arrived, such as Cubans, Haitians and Yemenis. If migrants and asylum-seekers sought the protection of Polish authorities in 2021 when activists found them cold and tired in the woods, this year, alarmed by the stories they’ve heard about forced returns and internment in detention centers, they’re trying to avoid them and putting their away to other European countries, Slubik said. Machinska emphasizes that 20 people died on both sides of the border. The health of those arriving now is perfectly acceptable this summer season apart from broken feet or legs and cuts from fence climbing.

Compared to the open-door policy for Ukrainian refugees from Poland, which nobody disputes and which everyone celebrates, the treatment of the people entering the country via the Belarusian border, although there are far fewer, is “cynical, cruel and inhumane”. , according to Green MP Tomasz Anisko. “All refugees must be treated equally, no matter where they come from and how they reach the border,” says Rafal Kostrzynski, spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Poland. His committee pleaded with the Polish government “for more humane treatment, access to asylum procedures and the avoidance of hot repatriations”.

The border guards are fighting back: “If someone wants to apply for refugee status, we will definitely register the application. But we don’t help those who only use our country as a stopover on their illegal journey to other European countries,” her spokesman said via email. However, all those who have been observing or helping at the border denounce the systematic return of migrants on the Belarusian side by border guards, even if the will to seek asylum is expressed. “Some have been deported up to 30 times,” says the deputy commissioner, whose facility was the only one with access to the exclusion zone during the crisis. This practice is “illegal and a violation of international laws and standards as well as the Polish constitution,” he emphasizes.

Those registered by border guards as asylum seekers or awaiting deportation are being held in detention centers for several months while their case is being processed. There are almost 700 people in the six that exist in the country. At the height of the crisis in 2021, the poor conditions of some were compounded by overcrowding. Now they have more space, but riots, hunger strikes and suicide attempts continue. The name of one of them, Wedrzyn, pops up in almost every conversation. “It’s like Guantánamo, with worse conditions than in prison,” describes Anisko. There, he says, the inmates are cut off from the outside world and at the mercy of their carers, whether they like them or not. At this center, which is located in a military zone, “the guards don’t use names [de los recluidos], only pay; it’s inhuman,” adds Machinska.

“Some of the NGOs that have criticized our service have never taken the time to talk to us or visit our centers,” said Michalska, a spokeswoman for Border Patrol. But both Anisko, as deputy, and Machinska, as representative of the human rights office, had the opportunity to get to know them from the inside. The deputy commissioner also reminds that vulnerable people such as pregnant women, people with disabilities and minors should never enter these types of centers, just like victims of torture, and yet they were found there. Those inside must have guaranteed access to psychological and medical help, to lawyers and interpreters, and to decent living conditions, he reminds. “Most of society thinks this crisis is over,” warns Anisko. The existence of the centers and activities on the border show that this is not the case, although the war in Ukraine has diverted focus.

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