Thursday, December 2

Volunteers from the Poland-Belarus crisis: “Border police can be very aggressive” | Poland

Tthe call came in around 1.30pm in the afternoon. A group of 15 people, all Iraqi Kurds, were found in the Narewka forests after they managed to cross the border from Belarus into Poland. A woman could barely walk. Others had early signs of hypothermia.

The young volunteer who answered the phone, one of 40 members of Grupa Granica, a Polish NGO network that monitors the situation at the border, knew they had to act quickly.

If the Polish police arrived before the doctors, they would in all likelihood send the migrants back to Belarus, risking that their health conditions deteriorate and prove fatal.

At least eight people have died since the beginning of the humanitarian and political crisis with Belarus, which is accused of deliberately provoking a new refugee crisis in Europe by organizing the movement of people from the Middle East to Minsk and promising them safe passage to the EU. . in revenge for the sanctions that Brussels has imposed on its authoritarian regime. Poland, which has deployed approximately 20,000 border police, has in turn been accused of violently pushing thousands of people across the border.

“We have around eight teams operating near the border and around 40 people in total. Whenever we receive a call from the families, we send the request to our teams and verify who is the closest person to the location, ”said Anna Alboth of the Minority Rights Group, who is also a member of Grupa Granica. “Migrants often ask for food, water, a doctor or a pair of shoes. I met a family from Syria who did not have footwear ”.

After the phone call, there was only time to put on warm clothes and prepare hot tea to offer to the migrants.

An ambulance in the border region.
An ambulance in the border region. Photograph: Alessio Mamo / The Guardian

“Working here in the border region is difficult on many levels,” said Anna Chmielewska, coordinator of the Warsaw-based Foreigners Aid Center. ‘”First of all, we can’t enter the safe zone [a two-mile deep militarised zone created by the Polish government] which means that we cannot help the people there. Only locals can help in the area. We can reach people only when they can pass the zone and meet us outside, and some cannot pass through the zone. Winter is coming and people are not ready to stay outside day after day in the cold. We fear that bad weather will lead to more deaths. ”

The team was able to find the group in the forests near Narewka before the Polish border police. They had crossed the border from Belarus the day before. It was beginning to get dark and the temperature had dropped to almost zero degrees Celsius. Once at the scene, the team delivered blankets and hot tea to the families.

“The border police can be very aggressive,” Chmielewska said. “We don’t do anything illegal but they make us feel like we are. Helping people should be very normal. But in this situation, it becomes like a secret activity. I just feel that in these times, here, in this piece of the border, the legal is so far from the moral ”.

At approximately 4 in the afternoon, the police arrived in the forest. Minutes earlier, the volunteers had explained to the group how to apply for asylum.

The asylum lawyers then explained to the police their obligation to allow people to submit applications for international protection, citing how any rejection would be a violation of various international laws. There was time for one last hug between asylum seekers and volunteers before officers took the group to a border patrol station.

Then the phone rang again.

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