For the last two years, starting in July 2021, the Poland – Belarus border has been the site of a human tragedy. Tens of thousands of refugees, mostly from North Africa and the Middle East, have been trapped on the border and in the forests and marshes surrounding it, lacking food, water and medical supplies, all while being actively hunted down by the Polish Border Guard. With the Ukrainian War currently firmly in the first place when it comes to media coverage and aid in Eastern Europe, there is little hope of the refugees’ situation improving in the foreseeable future, especially when both the Belarusian and Polish government seem to be determined to act as their enemy.
Most of the migrants arrive at the border after lengthy travel through Russia and Belarus, with the hopes of finding a refuge from war and persecution of their homes, in Western European countries such as Germany, Austria or the Netherlands. Poland, though also a member of the European Union, is not included on that list of safe havens. Rather, it’s the last, and for some, the most deadly, obstacle.
With no real legal way of crossing the border, the refugees are faced with the choice of climbing over the border wall – five meters tall and covered at the top with coils of razor wire – or taking a chance at river crossing. If they manage, a big if already, considering that many are families with young children, the real challenge begins. Once their feet reach Polish ground, exhausted though they may be, they must go into hiding. Until they cross into Germany, or at the very least find a way to get out of the border-adjacent territories, they are under constant threat of being found by or reported to the Border Guard, and when that happens, escorted back across the border with often no chance to plead asylum or receive medical care.
It is strongly believed that the crisis initially began due to Belarus’s President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, purposefully allowing Middle Eastern migrants easy passage through Belarus and then pressuring them to cross the border into EU in numbers that would overwhelm the border forces and provoke a spike in islamophobia in the West. Other countries besides Poland along the EU’s eastern border have also been affected, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and in some of their cases the issue was at least partially resolved back in 2021 or 2022, by the joint efforts of the EU itself which prohibited Belarusian flights entry into their territory and EU countries themselves which processed the refugees’ cases swiftly and humanely. In the case of Poland, however, the government’s response was far from what anyone could refer to as humane.
The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has in the past made anti-immigrant sentiments one of their campaign’s talking points, opposing the EU’s guidance in admitting refugees during, among others, the 2015 migrant crisis. They have since then only radicalised, with government support being openly granted to far-right nationalist organisations such as Robert Bąkiewicz’s National Guard, a pseudo-military group which has since 2020 been a constant presence at counter-manifestations against minorities and migrants.
With the government narrative working actively to demonise the refugees, the Border Guard’s objective has been firmly set on removal, not help. Not only do they not provide medical aid or food, they also refuse access to refugees to humanitarian organisations and journalists, this preventing them from accessing help from possible non-government sources and at the same time making accurate data about the crisis virtually impossible to obtain. Currently, the organisations that wish to provide aid and safety to migrants, such as the Granica group, the refugee’s main support system that is believed to have aided thousands of them in safely escaping border territories since the crisis started, are forced to operate secretly while actively withstanding the pushback from the military. Due to the migrants’ presence in Poland being technically illegal, they are understandably distrustful of the Polish people in the area surrounding the border and often refuse help save for critical situations. This makes it further difficult for activists to find them in time to guarantee their safety, which can often in injury or death, especially in winter when temperature often drops below 0 °C (32 °F) during the day, and as low as -16 °C (3.2 °F) during the night.
Although the flight ban initially decreased the amount of people seeking entry into EU via the Belarusian border, Minsk’s easy travel policy still made the Russia-Belarus land route a good alternative to the Mediterranean Sea for human smugglers selling their services to people in North Africa and the Middle East. In Poland, smuggler-affiliated drivers whose job it is to extract the refugees from the border territories and transport them to Germany, are being viciously hunted down by the Polish police forces, with hundreds of them being arrested every year. As for many migrants they are the only means of successfully leaving Poland, organisations such as Granica are forced to treat them as the necessary evil, knowing that the alternative to a person being smuggled away is them either making the difficult journey to the home they fled, or dying in the Polish forest, trying to make their way out on their own. Aside from allowing the organised crime organisations to profit from the vulnerable, this ‘hear no evil see no evil’ status quo is also actively helpful to human traffickers, who pose a constant danger to migrating women and children.
The Polish government’s current policy is, to put it mildly, morally indefensible. Their decisions have directly led to hundreds of refugees’ deaths and have allowed human trafficking rings and other forms of organised crimes to flourish. If one were to hold them to any moral standard besides blatantly self-interested nationalism, the only acceptable course of action on their side would be to immediately allow humanitarian organisations and the media access to migrants, start properly processing the refugees’ asylum pleas and create facilities that would house them in humane conditions while their cases are being processed. Additionally, the government should start gathering the data on the number and condition of refugees, which then could be shared with Germany and other EU countries in order for the countries to cooperate on the problem’s solution. In a perfect world, the PiS politicians would also change their xenophobic narrative surrounding refugees, and would instead use their influence in the state media to encourage people to provide aid in whatever form they can, as it has been done in the case of Ukrainian refugees who started arriving in Poland in 2022.
Tragically, we can’t hope this perfect world to arrive any time soon. As the PiS xenophobia has only been growing in the last years (a flagrant example of this being Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish PM and member of PiS, declaring that he and his government will oppose EU’s latest migration bill in June), the only groups which can act as agents in support of migrants are non-government organisations such as Granica, the media, and governments of other countries. While the first are already doing everything in their power to help the migrants and should only be supported further by donations and other forms of aid, the latter two are where there is a real need for improvement.
The lack of media attention on the issue following the breakout of the Russia-Ukraine War has allowed Poland’s treatment of the migrants to mostly go unnoticed. The majority of major publications on the issue (including the exceptionally written “Jezus umarł w Polsce” by Mikołaj Grynberg) have been written in Polish and have not as of yet been translated due to lack of international interest. If we want to see the PiS government held accountable, and the refugees’ condition shifting for the better, it is necessary that both the media and political groups outside of Poland start applying outside pressure. At the same time, the people of Poland should do their best to spread awareness, provide whatever help they can to Granica and other activists organisations and, in the next election in the Fall, make it clear with their votes that they do not support the government’s actions. This is not an issue that will go away anytime soon and there is no one quick miracle solve to it, but that should not be a reason to leave those affected by it alone. If we don’t break the silence surrounding the treatment of refugees, we will have no one to blame but ourselves when more and more of them will disappear forever in the Polish woods.
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