Death at the EU border: Migrants pay the price of Belarus’s ‘hybrid warfare’

After living through a decade of conflict in Syria, Boushra believed she was finally going to find safety in Europe. The 48-year-old teacher thought her journey from Syria would be easy. She would fly, via Lebanon, to Belarus. From the Belarusian capital, Minsk, she would drive several hours to the border and cross by foot into Poland. Then she would get a train to Belgium to be reunited with her brother, who has been living there since 2018.

But, on reaching the Polish border in mid-September, Boushra and many other migrants were aggressively pushed back by Polish border guards. When they tried to return to Belarus, they were shoved back by guards and left trapped in the dense forest that straddles the two countries. 

“We were pushed into the swamp, into the mud, we were shaking from the cold and screaming at the guards, but nothing changed,” Boushra said, “I want to forget all of it.”

Since Boushra arrived at the Polish border, tens of thousands more migrants have attempted to cross into the country, lured by simplified visa rules and direct flights to Minsk from the Middle East. Poland has recorded 24 500 attempted crossings from Belarus this year, more than half of which took place in October alone — compared with 120 in the whole of last year

Anna Alboth, a member of a minority rights NGO, said: “There are lots of ‘travel agencies’ in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey” that spread information about the route to Europe via Minsk. “You can find Facebook ads about the ‘easy, cheap, fast’ trips,” added Abloth, who is also a member of Grupa Granica, a Polish network of 14 NGOs monitoring the situation on the border. Most of the migrants have fled danger and poverty in the Middle East and Asia.

Polish officials and the European have accused the long-serving Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, of engineering the migrant crisis in retaliation to sanctions imposed on Minsk after the country’s disputed 2020 presidential election and the ensuing vicious crackdown on dissent. 

“It is a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack,” said Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said in Warsaw last week. Lukashenko has denied the accusation. 

In August Lukashenko told journalists in Minsk: “We are not blackmailing anyone and we are not threatening anyone. You have put us in such circumstances that we are forced to react and we are reacting.”

As Boushra experienced, every day, Polish border guards push hundreds of migrants into the forest, while Belarus turns them back towards the Polish side. Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer at Grupa Granica, said she has received reports from multiple migrants about Belarusian border guards beating and threatening to kill migrants if they do not cross the razor-wire fence that Poland erected in August to deter crossings. 

“All the testimonies that we hear are so similar that, for us, it’s confirmed that this is a practice of Belarusian guards along the border,” said Gorczynska. 

Trapped between push backs and violence, potentially thousands of migrants have hidden in no-man’s land, too afraid to approach either border. They are sleeping under trees, trying to shield themselves from the freezing temperatures with damp sleeping bags.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said that allowing migrants to enter the country would be giving in to “blackmail” by Lukashenko. Warsaw has deployed thousands of troops to try to fortify its border and plans to spend €350-million on a border wall. It has already passed legislation in October allowing border guards to immediately expel migrants who cross the border illegally and to reject asylum requests. 

Activists say this breaches international law, under which Poland is required to help anyone seeking asylum. But Poland’s government has insisted that it is acting legally and has an obligation to defend its territory.

According to documents, Tsentrkurort — a state tourism company that is part of the Office of the President of Belarus — allegedly also provided transfer from Minsk airport to the city and accommodation in centrally located hotels, from where guests were taken to the border in an organised manner. Tsentrkurort denied coordinating the travel of Iraqis to Belarus.

For 21 days, Boushra was stuck in the forest, trudging back and forth through swamps to both sides of the border. “We were like a football being kicked between these countries,” she said. 

The forest has effectively become a black hole, devoid of independent information from the rest of the world. Many migrants have little hope of receiving help there. An emergency act imposed by Warsaw in early September banned all non-residents, including aid workers, medics and journalists, from entering a three kilometre strip that spans the entire length of the forest, covering 115 towns and villages.

No one knows how many migrants are stranded or have died in the forests. Grupa Granica, which relies on a network of local residents for information, estimates that up to 5 000 people, including children, are trapped there for days, even weeks at a time. 

According to Polish officials, at least nine people have been found dead. But aid workers say the unofficial death toll is much higher, based on information they have received from those who have passed through the “emergency zone”. Last week, Polish media reported that a 14-year-old Kurdish boy froze to death overnight on the Belarusian side of the border. The Belarusian Border Commission denied the reports.

Kalina Czwarnog, who works for the Polish human rights organisation, Fundacja Ocalenie, said migrants told her they were “walking through bodies”. She also heard a report of a three-year-old child from Syria dying while crossing the woods. Activists and journalists have been unable to verify these reports because they are denied access to the region. But Gorczynska said these claims are “not hard to imagine” given the severe weather conditions, with temperatures reported to drop to -3℃ at night.

“Small children, sick and elderly people cannot survive these temperatures without having proper equipment, and people rarely have any kind of equipment with them,” Czwarnog said.

Boushra said she begged for food and water from the Polish border guards, who replied that Belarus was responsible for them, not Poland. On her social media page, she shared a video of masked security officials in Poland pointing guns at people and shouting, “Go to Belarus”, while children cried. Another video, taken by Boushra, shows a migrant trying to put a plastic sheet on the ground for an unconscious man, who was being carried by several migrants. An unknown man snatched the sheet as it touched the ground and told them to move away.

After three weeks in the forest, Boushra collapsed from exhaustion and was taken by Polish border guards to a hospital in the northeastern town of Hajnowka. “I was so hungry, thirsty and cold. I couldn’t breathe,” she said.

The Polish government has denied multiple requests by NGOs to enter the emergency zone, meaning the only assistance migrants in that zone can hope to get is from local residents, who help at their own risk.

Activists have been doing what they can to help the migrants hiding in the part of the forests that stretches past the emergency zone, having made it past the guards and the razor wire. They have been delivering food, water and clothes, guided by location pins sent by migrants to alert activists to their whereabouts. 

Last week alone, Grupa Granica was in contact with more than 1 000 migrants. “Our most important job is to keep people alive, the ones we can reach. Very often, by the time we reach people they’re in a very critical state — they are dehydrated, they have hyperthermia,” Gorczyńska said.

“In this forest, you can feel like you’re in a battlefield, as if there is a war going on,” Czwarnog told me in a cabin surrounded by forests in the Polish town of Sokolka, where Fundacja Ocalenia set up a base a few months ago. The cabin, located about 16km from the border, was filled with bags of canned food, clothes and blankets, which the volunteers and aid workers delivered around the clock. “It’s emotionally and physically exhausting because some nights you only sleep two hours,” Czwarnog said, wrapping her hands around a mug of tea. 

A challenge for activists has been to reach migrants without drawing the attention of the guards, who will push any migrants they find back across the border. When delivering provisions at night, Ocalenie workers have been using a red light that cannot be seen from a distance.

Activists say that as the winter sets in, pushing already freezing temperatures lower, it will be even harder to protect the migrants. “Sending people into forests where the temperatures will reach -20℃ is like sending them to death,” said Gorczyńska.

Małgorzata Nowasad, of the Medycy na Granicy (Doctors on the Border), group of volunteer medics has treated migrants with medical problems including hypothermia, frostbite, hunger, dehydration and conditions including diabetes. “There are going to be more and more people who need help in the hospital,” she said. Human rights activists said some migrants have broken limbs from being attacked by security forces in Belarus. Even with help from aid workers, Nowasad said, it is not possible for some migrants to survive in the forest for longer than a week.

Nowasad is one of 40 medics who have been volunteering near the border in her spare time after work. “It’s our duty to do this,” she said. The group has received a lot of public support, quickly raising funds for medicine and equipment through a crowdfunding campaign. “It shouldn’t be like this — our government should be paying, not civilians,” she said.

But activists have said their efforts to deliver humanitarian aid outside the “emergency zone” are being hampered by the Polish authorities and unknown people. They have been aggressively questioned at checkpoints by border guards and police, who often threaten to charge them with trafficking or people smuggling when they suspect they are trying to help the migrants, according to the United Nations. Medycy na Granicy was forced to suspend its work on Sunday after unknown people deflated tyres on five cars used by its team. A week earlier, someone punctured their ambulance’s tyres while they were helping migrants.

‘I feel like I’m dreaming’

Kalina Czwarnog claimed some migrants who are admitted to hospital are later being forced back into the forest by border guards — a claim that has also been raised by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. She said she helped to organise hospital treatment for a man who was suffering from symptoms of an imminent heart attack, who was later brought back to the border by guards. “We knew he would become very ill again soon because of his heart condition,” she said.

Boushra was luckier. After six days in hospital, she was transferred to a centre for migrants in Poland. By that point, she was determined to leave the country because of her experience at the border. “I didn’t trust Poland anymore. A lot of the migrants felt the same way,” she said. 

Boushra escaped from the centre and took the first train she could get out of Poland, which was bound for Amsterdam, Holland. There, officials took her to a migrant centre in the north of the country, where she will be able to claim asylum.

Boushra said she feels finally safe in Holland but hopes to make it to Belgium to be with her brother. “I can’t believe that I’m here — sometimes I feel like I’m dreaming, but my journey has not ended yet. I still feel for the people who are at the border. It’s very hard to stay there. It was so cold and now it’s colder.”.

What is the role of Belarus in the border crisis?

Although Alexander Lukashenko denies any involvement, an investigation by Der Spiegel and the London-based Dossier Centre suggests that a company connected to the Belarusian presidential administration has helped obtain Belarusian visas for Iraqi ci

In another investigation, Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT interviewed a number of migrants, as well as employees of Iraqi travel agencies, and concluded that the Lukashenka regime earns money on migration visas, accommodation in Minsk hotels and transportation.

According to their reporting, Iraqi travel agencies collect a deposit of some $3 000 a “tourist”. This money, LRT suggested, is used to pay for the services of those who deliver migrants to the border of Belarus and beyond. In total, “transit” to Europe, including crossing the Belarusian border, can cost $6 000 to $15 000 a person. People who passed through Belarus and reached Germany named similar numbers to two German media outlets, Bz-berlin and Bild.

This is an edited version of an article first published on the Open Democracy website:

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Madeline Roache
Madeline Roache is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on politics and human rights issues in Europe

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