On the border between Poland and Belarus, migrants die alone in the middle of the forest: “The forest is easy, but it can kill”

Retaliation following European sanctions

Poland’s troubled neighbor sought to retaliate against new sanctions imposed by the European Union following the hijacking of a plane hosting a blogger critical of Belarusian power. Thanks in particular to new airlines departing from Iraqi Kurdistan, tens of thousands of migrants began to reach the Belarusian capital Minsk airport in the summer and autumn of 2021, from where they were transported to the Polish border. Since then, the world’s cameras have turned elsewhere. However, exiles from the Middle East and the African continent never stopped traveling through the dense forests that separate Poland from Belarus. Every day several dozen people try to cross the 5.5-meter-high wall built by Polish authorities 186 km along the 400 km Polish-Belarusian border. Built in the summer of 2022, it represents a response by national conservatives from the Law and Justice Party (PiS) to what they see as a “hybrid” threat from the Lukashenko regime.

The EU is trying to break the circuits that bring migrants to Minsk.

The “push-back” of immigrants was legalized

According to the Polish daily, almost 30,000 people crossed the border between January and mid-September 2023. Gazeta Wyborcza. Based on an internal report by the Polish border guards, it reports that the system was only 60% operational during this period. Migrants, sometimes aided by smugglers or Belarusian authorities, carry an entire arsenal of weapons to get around the barrier, whose bare metal posts can be cut or twisted. Once on the Polish side, army-backed border guards do not hesitate to push back interceptors, even if they seek asylum. A practice contrary to the Geneva Conventions, but legalized by a decree of the Ministry of Interior and a legal amendment voted in October 2021.

Last September, Warsaw further increased the number of troops on the border and began deploying an additional layer of barbed wire around the perimeter of the 186km wall along the Polish-Belarusian border. ©Hélène Bienvenu

Last September, Warsaw further strengthened the number of soldiers on the border and began deploying an additional layer of barbed wire around the perimeter of the wall. Unable to stem the tide of migration, now fueled by Moscow’s complicity, many exiles land in the Russian capital, from where they reach Belarus.

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This new barbed wire belt is extremely dangerous for refugees, who cut themselves as they cross the wall. Katarzyna Mazurkiewicz-Bylok, who has dedicated herself for almost two years to the calls for help received at the POPH emergency number, is saddened. (Podlaski Voluntary Humanitarian Emergency), An organization that brings together cross-border workers committed to helping migrants wandering in forests. These volunteers react when they receive distress messages with geolocation. Armed with torches, portable batteries, warm clothes, hot soup and tea, other food, even a bag packed with medicine, they operate very stealthily to avoid being detected by law enforcement agencies, and can start what they call “smuggling operations”.

Two Cameroonian migrants found drowned

“A few days ago one of our activists was targeted by army firing (He was not injured. Editor’s note) I hope next time I don’t go there” says Katarzyna Mazurkiewicz-Bylok, who welcomes us to her wooden house in the Belarusian border town of Krynki. This mother of two not only watches over the living, but also regularly participates in migrant burials and POPH “citizen patrols,” searching for the missing. “The forest is easy, but it can kill. Refugees are not allowed to return to Minsk. I know how important it is for families to attend funerals. This determined woman traveled more than thirty kilometers in early November trying to find the trace of a 23-year-old Syrian diabetic who no longer gave any sign of life. “Finally, it was a biologist who discovered his body by accident.”

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At the Catholic cemetery in Kringi, the thirty-year-old was moved to see the graves of Cyril and Liv decorated with flowers. These two Cameroonian nationals are SVislocks, A A river that overflowed its banks a few months ago. “The villagers came to bring them flowers.”, Katarzyna Mazurkiewicz-Bylok rejoices. Cyril’s mother, who lives in France, was able to attend his funeral there. Her visa requests to the French and Belgian consulates to join her son with her family in France were unsuccessful.

A recent migrant was repatriated immediately following a hospital stay. Bartosz Jakubowski, an employee of the Ocalenie Foundation, which works with immigrants in Poland, and “permanent” In the north of the Podlaskie border region in mid-November. “Currently in the north, there are very few crossovers, which is happening in the south of the region.” He was on a mission to find this fifty-year-old young diabetic Syrian. “There is no telephone network, satellite navigation is inadequate. Professionals in government services have to take care of it. He says.

Donald Tusk’s Civic Alliance is expected to form a “democratic” government in the coming weeks.

The fifty-year-old hopes that the situation will change with a new, liberal government coming to power in mid-December, following the victory of opposition forces led by Donald Tusk. “I hope that our volunteers will stop being criminalized and that the “push-back” will no longer take place.” To do this, “A simple repeal of Ordinance 2021 is enough,” Kamil Siler, a lawyer based in South Podlaskie, underlines.

Hopes shared by Anna Chmielewska, coordinator of Ocalenie Foreign Aid Center in Warsaw, she notes. “This migration route is less dangerous than the Mediterranean, which is not going to be closed”.

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