“Die here or go to Poland.”
This was the “choice” that a Kurdish man from Syria told me a Belarusian border guard had given him, as he described his horrific experiences on the Poland-Belarus border, pleading with the guard to be allowed go back to the capital, Minsk. He told me he had been pushed back from the Polish side of the border several times, sometimes violently and that his pleas for asylum were ignored by Polish border guards. He ended up, as many have, back on the Belarus side, a place many migrants described as pure hell.
Migrants described the Belarussian border as a place of brute violence, where they were forcibly kept in open spaces without shelter, food, or water for days to weeks, vulnerable to theft and other abuse, and blocked from returning to Minsk or their home countries. They told me how Belarusian border guards pushed them – exhausted and abused – to try again to enter Poland, in most cases unsuccessfully, resulting only in their forced return to Belarus and further abuse.
I spent two weeks on the ground in October, one in Belarus the other in Poland, documenting accounts from migrants of abuses on both sides of the border. (A full report will be published soon).
In the meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis is taking root on the border, with at least eight documented deaths and hundreds, if not thousands of people either trapped in inhuman conditions in Belarus or its border zone, or stranded in the woods in Poland and having to walk through swamps, marshlands and difficult forest terrain.
While the European Union and its member states are focused on war talk, states of emergency, and barbed wire fences, the acute suffering of the women, men, and children trapped in limbo at the border is being ignored.
To prevent further deaths, the EU and its member states need to work with Poland to immediately ensure humanitarian access to border areas, currently off-limits to those who can help. Poland should also halt unlawful pushbacks of migrants to Belarus, where they will face inhuman and degrading treatment, and instead allow them access to its asylum procedure and decent reception conditions. For its part, Belarus should immediately halt its abuse against migrants, facilitate humanitarian access to those on the border and allow those who wish to leave the border zone and return home to do so.
This is a human crisis, and those who are trapped in it desperately need a humane and mature response.