Families and refugees entitled to international protection are pushed back by Poland as it is simultaneously praised for welcoming Ukrainian refugees.
Sokolka, Poland – The ‘pinned’ location sent to the NGO’s phone leads the volunteers to a thick stretch of forest north of Bialystok, a western Polish city bordering Belarus.
It’s an early afternoon in late March, and Bartosz Frackowiak parks the car at the edge of the forest, as far as possible from the nearest village.
Just a few hours earlier, locals had alerted the border authorities to their presence, most likely after recognising their car as belonging to Ocalenie, the refugee rights organisation they work with. Travelling with him are Olga, another volunteer, and Ocalenie’s lawyer, Tomasz Pietrzak.
“We know that one of them is injured, so we [have] some medical equipment with us,” explains Bartosz, who is the director of an art space in Warsaw.
The three fill six backpacks with water, instant noodles, protein bars, dry fruit, hot water bottles, tea, socks, shoes, warm jackets and tents they will be delivering to Mahdi and Abubakar*, from Yemen and Sudan, who contacted them via a helpline after walking across the border from Belarus.
“They also asked for shoes, they probably [crossed] some kind of pond or river. And of course, water and food,” Bartosz says.
In just over a month, Poland has provided refuge to more than 2.3 million people fleeing Ukraine, more than half of the refugees who have left the country. The effort was largely led by volunteers and grassroots groups, who have flocked to the border to cook food, give rides and offer accommodation to the mostly women and children fleeing Russia’s aggression.
The government is fully supporting and encouraging the effort – a stark contrast to its refusal, back in 2015, to relocate Syrian refugees from other EU countries at the height of that crisis.
The number of people approaching the Polish authorities for asylum remains low in comparison to other EU countries despite a significant rise in 2021, when 7,700 people applied - compared to 2,800 in 2020. Applications from Belarusian citizens, evacuations from Afghanistan and the crisis at the Belarusian-Polish border late last year account for much of that rise. Only 2,200 were granted protection.
Mahdi, a 39-year-old with a slim and friendly face, greets the group. His travelling companion, whom he’s only met a couple of days ago, was injured “jumping over the fence,” he says.
“Is it your first time in Poland?” Tomasz asks.
“It is, we were lucky,” Mahdi replies, implying it was their first attempt at crossing the border and the so-called ‘exclusion zone’ – a three-kilometre-wide strip of land the Polish government proclaimed a no-go area last September, when a state of emergency was declared in the area.
Bartosz, Olga, and Tomasz proceed to lay the multiple backpacks dangling off their shoulders on the ground. “I can’t believe this, thank you so much,” says Mahdi, who is from Sanaa, Yemen, a country ravaged by war and famine for nearly eight years. “I am not used to this, thank you,” he says again, grabbing tea and a hot soup.
Tomasz takes a stash of papers out of his backpack. His job is to find asylum seekers before the Polish Border Guard does, and help them apply for international protection in Poland, preventing their informal return to Belarus.
“We have a power of attorney document the [asylum seekers] can sign,” Tomasz explains. “We conduct a short interview to get to know their individual situation, and we send the information to the European Court of Human Rights.” The court, he says, will normally react relatively swiftly and grant an “interim measure” for the person, which will then be communicated to the Polish government and the Polish Border Guard.
“This is the only means by which we can prevent pushbacks of asylum seekers to Belarus,” says Tomasz.
Stranded and undocumented in Russia for the past five years, Mahdi looks forward to his chance to start a normal life - one where he doesn’t have to hide from the authorities.
“I was doing everything, anything I could to survive really,” Mahdi recounts. “I got some help from my university friends. I was working in construction somewhere out of the city [Saint Petersburg], where there were no police checks,” he says, “I didn’t have [regular] work, each time it was for two, three weeks, or a month.”
Having landed in Russia in 2015 to study oil and gas engineering, Mahdi says he became undocumented once his student visa expired and his government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition to fight a war against Houthi insurgents, could no longer pay his scholarship fees. He became one of the many Yemenis studying at universities abroad who found themselves unable to pay fees and maintenance costs, and were forced to interrupt their studies.
“When I anticipated the situation, that I would become illegal, I went to the Red Cross and the UNHCR looking for help,” Mahdi recounts. But no help came, he says, and the only way out was to save up and get smuggled out of the country.
When a helicopter starts hovering overhead, the group decides to move the camping gear to an area where the foliage is thick and provides better cover. Then, amid hugs and handshakes, the three NGO workers pick up their empty bags and return to their car.
“They are in a good spot,” Tomasz says, implying it will be difficult for the Border Guard to find them. “They don’t arrest people, they just throw them over the border.”
Celebrated on one border, risking prosecution on another
The Polish government is planning to spend more than $400 million on a wall along the Belarusian border, whose construction started in January. Villages and towns have been cut off by the exclusion zone, leading to a decline in local tourism. According to the Polish Border Guard, more than 3,400 people have attempted to enter Poland from Belarus since the beginning of the year.
A spokesperson for the Border Guard did not reply to TRT World’s request for comment about detention and returns to Belarus, which are informal and illegal under international law. According to its Twitter feed, Afghans, Syrians, Yemenis and others entitled to international protection have attempted to cross.
Last autumn, thousands of migrants and refugees gathered by the border after flying into Belarus, which was issuing temporary visas in what European Union officials called “hybrid warfare” in retaliation for EU sanctions against Belarus. Dozens of people, including families, have since been stuck in a camp in Bruzgi, a border area near the Belarusian city of Grodno.
The camp was closed at the end of March, scattering the remaining asylum seekers in the surrounding forest. Simultaneously, the number of people attempting the crossing daily spiked, according to Polish authorities.
Four activists from another group operating on the border, Grupa Granica, were arrested in late March on charges of ‘human smuggling’. The activists, who face up to eight years in prison for transporting the asylum seekers, stated they were providing humanitarian assistance to a family stranded on the border.
Back at the NGO’s guesthouse later that evening, Bartosz is tasked with responding to new messages and alerts. He receives a message from Mahdi: Abubakar is feeling unwell and appears to have a high fever. But calling an ambulance would mean the two would be detained and, most likely, sent back to Belarus.
Mahdi does not want the responsibility of something happening to his travel mate and leaves the choice to Abubakar. In the living room of their apartment, Tomasz, Bartosz and Olga wait nervously for about 30 minutes before receiving a message.
“[Abubakar] said he would rather die than be taken away by the border guard,” it reads.
A political game that has turned deadly
Near a Tatar village on the Polish-Belarusian border, the graves of five asylum seekers who lost their lives while trying to cross over are covered with flowers and pine leaves. One of them was an unborn child. The identity of another remains unknown.
Not far from there, Tomasz and the volunteers find Ferhad*, a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurd. The former barber sits alone amid birch trees, wrapped in a sleeping bag and shivering in the early hours of the morning. He says he’s spent the night there, after crossing the border with eight others. In his backpack, all that is left is a broken power bank.
He says Belarusian border guards prevented the group from going back to Minsk after they’d left Bruzgi. It’s the second time he has attempted the crossing, after flying to Belarus alongside thousands of Iraqi Kurds late last year at the height of the border crisis.
“The first time I was arrested in Poland, and sent back,” he says. “Today the Belarusians prevented us from going to Minsk, they kicked us to Poland instead,” he says.
Despite the highly militarised border and police checkpoints, many asylum seekers manage to get picked up by smugglers and driven to other European countries, often after walking through the forest for days. Most see Poland as a transit country.
Many walk or wait in the forest for days before they are able to arrange for a smuggler to pick them up.
Not long after meeting Mahdi and Abubakar, the group receives a message on the foundation’s phone. It’s from Mahdi, and it’s sent from Belarus.
“I told [the Border Guard] I want to stay in Poland and apply for asylum. I told them I want a lawyer, I told them I want to call my embassy, I told them I want to call UNHCR. Nothing worked.”
*names have been changed to protect identities and safeguard asylum procedures