On freezing Poland-Belarus border, migrants cry for help

Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Reuters
Migrants gather near a fence on the Belarus-Poland border. Thousands have arrived in hopes of being allowed into European Union member Poland, but Poland is refusing them entry and Belarusian troops are not allowing them to leave.

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Thousands of mostly Middle Eastern migrants are camping out in the freezing cold, stranded on the Belarus border with Poland, and prevented from going any farther toward their goal – the European Union.

Trapped between Polish soldiers guarding the border fence and Belarusian soldiers who will not let them turn back, three Syrian migrants are in a particularly bad way. “We’ve been 10 days without food or water,” Mahmoud Naaous told the Monitor on a WhatsApp call. We have no tent or anything else, just our clothes. We are going to die.”

Why We Wrote This

Thousands of migrants are freezing on the border between Belarus and Poland, trapped in a geopolitical standoff. Our correspondent talked to three of them about their dilemma.

The EU accuses Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of “weaponizing” the migrant flood, making it easy for the migrants to get into his country, and then depositing them in a forest, near the border, and encouraging them to try to enter Poland illegally.

As diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis continue, Mr. Naaous and his companions have given up on their hope of reaching Europe. “What we need is to get out of here,” he said on the phone. “We need help.”

The man’s voice, carried over a faint phone line from the depths of Europe’s oldest forest, was tinged with desperation.

“We’ve been 10 days without food or water,” says Mahmoud Naaous, urgently. “We have no tent or anything else, just our clothes. We are going to die.”

Mr. Naaous, a Syrian delivery driver who fled Lebanon, had hoped to find refuge in Europe. Now he finds himself stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland in the freezing cold, along with several thousand other migrants.

Why We Wrote This

Thousands of migrants are freezing on the border between Belarus and Poland, trapped in a geopolitical standoff. Our correspondent talked to three of them about their dilemma.

As tensions between Belarus and the European Union mount over their future, these migrants, scattered through the primeval Bialowiesza forest that straddles the border, have struggled to make their voices heard. Journalists and humanitarian workers have been barred from the border area on both sides.

One of Mr. Naaous’ traveling companions, Walid Hammoud, said he was seriously ill and could scarcely breathe, when reached by WhatsApp on Monday. “We are at the Polish (border) fence,” he said in a feeble and faltering voice. “We are waiting for the Polish army.”

But the Polish soldiers on the border have orders from their government to keep the migrants out. Belarusian soldiers, on the other hand, have prevented Mr. Hammoud from going back the way he came, even though a Belarusian military doctor recommended he be transferred to a hospital, according to Mr. Naaous.

Stranded and alone in the woods, “we are super, super cold,” a third Syrian in the group, Mohammed al-Attar, said in a voice memo that ended with a muffled sob. “Please, please, please, we want help.” He sent a photo of his group, three men huddled together under a tree, their faces framed by beards, scarves, and hooded sweaters.

Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA/AP
A Polish serviceperson sprays tear gas during clashes between migrants and Polish border guards at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Tuesday. Polish border forces say they were attacked with stones by migrants seeking to enter Poland.

Taken to a faraway spot

Migrants from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan have been gathering at the woodland border since August, when Belarus made it easier to obtain entry visas. The EU has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as weapons against the bloc, and the three Syrians’ experience suggests official involvement in their journey.

From Minsk, a taxi took Mr. Hammoud and his companions to a regular border crossing in Brest, according to his nephew, Dr. Ahmed al-Youssef, who lives in France and has been in regular telephone contact with his uncle in recent days.

“Once they got to Brest the Belarusian army took them to this faraway spot,” in the forest, explains Dr. al-Youssef. “The army puts [migrants] in areas where there is not much Polish security” along the border fence.

“This inhumane system of using refugees as tools to exert pressure on the European Union has not improved but has got worse over the last days,” Germany’s EU Minister Heiko Maas said Monday as the bloc announced new sanctions against Belarus aimed at airlines and travel agents allegedly involved in the standoff at the Belarus border with Poland.

“Today’s decision reflects the determination by the European Union to stand up to the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes. We are pushing back on this inhuman and illegal practice,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.

President Lukashenko has, however, posed a problem for the EU, which has been struggling for several years to design a humane and efficient system for sorting political refugees, possibly eligible for asylum, from economic migrants.

The journey turns deadly

Mr. Hammoud, whose nephew said he was planning to seek asylum in Germany, said he had left Lebanon “because I could not make a living there” as a truck driver and because he was seeking better medical treatment than was available in Beirut.

The trio said they arrived in Minsk on a Belavia flight from Beirut on Nov. 2  and reached the border three days later. Mr. Naaous said he paid $1,200 for the flight and another $1,500 for his Belarus visa, arranged for him by an agent in Beirut and issued by the Belarusian Consulate in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

A travel agent in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil said colleagues of his there have been selling package journeys to Belarus, including a visa, for $3,500. Under EU pressure, Iraqi and Syrian airlines have now suspended flights to Minsk. FlyDubai still advertises one-way fares to Minsk from Beirut for $2,000.

For many, the air journey may have seemed safer than the Mediterranean route to Europe, where nearly 23,000 migrants have drowned or disappeared, according to the Missing Migrants Project. But with temperatures dropping, the journey from Belarus to Poland has turned deadly. Nine migrants are reported to have frozen to death in recent days.

“If Belarus was not issuing visas, no one would have been able to go,” says Hunar, the travel agent, who provided only his first name. “Every day we get about two people asking to go to Belarus, but we don’t provide that service. It is putting people at a level of risk that the heart cannot accept.”

For Mr. Hammoud, the eldest of the group, the risks proved much worse than expected. His difficulties breathing and ghostly complexion have his two companions worried. “My back and chest are killing me,” he said on the phone Monday. “There isn’t an NGO in sight.”

Belarusian soldiers come and go in the area, Mr. Naaous says, but are no help. On Monday, a Polish soldier exchanged no words with the group, but threw a bottle of water over the barbed wire fence erected to keep them out.

Some migrants have managed to break through the fence to reach Polish territory and have then been pushed back by soldiers. That is when “the nightmare really starts,” says Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch, which sent a fact-finding mission to both sides of the border last month.

“Once people are pushed back into Belarus, they are intercepted by Belarusian border guards, forced to stay in makeshift camps, often beaten, often threatened and forced to go again to Poland multiple times. No food. No water. Even dying in some situations,” Mr. Dam says.

“On our own in the woods”

Under EU and international law, Poland may not push back migrants who ask for asylum once they are on Polish territory, says Mr. Dam. Nor may Polish officials arbitrarily expel people to a country where they would be at risk of abuse. 

Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA/AP
Belarusian Red Cross employees hand out humanitarian aid to migrants gathering at the Belarus-Poland border. The EU is calling for humanitarian aid as up to 4,000 migrants are stuck in makeshift camps in freezing weather in Belarus, while Poland has reinforced its border with 15,000 soldiers.

The humanitarian crisis at Poland’s border has been brewing for weeks and came as no surprise, he says. The EU could and should have helped put in place an orderly process to review asylum requests, he argues – a few thousand people pale in comparison with the million that arrived in 2015.

Instead, mounting frustration gave way to chaotic scenes on Tuesday in the Bruzgi-Kuźnica border region, where crowds of migrants tried to break through the barrier while Polish border guards kept them at bay with water cannons.

Belarusian state television has broadcast video of disorganized makeshift camps in the forest and next to a wire fence. The government-linked Belarusian Red Cross says it has delivered food and set up three heated tents at a makeshift camp in recent days, but its spokesperson was unsure of its location.

So is Mr. Naaous, who has no idea where his group is in relation to that shelter and says they no longer have the strength to move major distances. As dusk fell on Monday evening, the group sent a pin location from the no man’s land at the heart of a bitter geopolitical standoff that has turned into a life-and-death gamble.

“We are on our own in the woods between Belarus and Poland,” Mr. Naaous said. “What we need is to get out of here. We need medicine. We need help.”

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