Europe's forgotten refugees: from the Middle East to Belarus to oblivion

The world has focused on the plight of those fleeing Ukraine - but an earlier exodus remains unresolved

Migrant children during a protest outside the transport and logistics centre in Bruzgi on the Belarusian-Polish border, in the Grodno region, Belarus. November 25, 2021.  Reuters
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About 2,000 people, largely from the Middle East, are caught in a migration trap, either hidden in a wooded area between Belarus and Poland or held in Polish refugee detention centres after their attempts to seek asylum were met with a hostile push-back policy.

Meanwhile, more than two million people from Ukraine have been welcomed into Poland unimpeded in a move that has drawn applause and support from around the globe. Not so fortunate are those who just months earlier were unleashed by Belarus on Europe but thwarted by the Polish authorities.

The European “migrant crisis” that began last August saw thousands of people from countries in the Middle East and Central Asia first started trying to cross from Belarus into the EU, through Poland in particular, seeking asylum.

Minsk was accused of orchestrating the flow of people across its borders in what the EU called a “hybrid attack” on its eastern flank in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the bloc on Aleksander Lukashenko’s government. About 40,000 attempts were made to reach the EU through Poland and an estimated 20,000 people were successful, but at the peak of the crisis about 3,000 to 4,000 people were trapped in the forest, ping-ponged from one set of hostile border guards to another.

Polish authorities responded to that particular refugee crisis with a series of hostile measures that included barring asylum-seekers from entry, pushing them back into the woods, creating an "exclusion zone" that journalists and aid workers are prohibited from entering and effectively criminalising humanitarian assistance to those in need there.

To see it in black and white, to see that it is possible to take 100,000 times more people immediately, that it's possible to give them soup and it's legal. It’s really difficult for all of us who are acting on the Belarusian border, and I cannot really fully appreciate the good that is happening in Poland now."
Anna Alboth, Minority Rights Group

Since then Anna Alboth has spent more than six months furtively helping people who were trapped in a freezing cold forest on the border with Belarus in north-east Poland after being repeatedly pushed back from entering the EU member state

When the war in Ukraine erupted, Ms Alboth went 500 kilometres south to see what help she could offer refugees coming in from that front. She told The National that she broke down after witnessing the starkly different treatment from guards stationed there.

Migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere camp at the checkpoint Kuznitsa at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, in November 2021.  Some of the migrants have children with them at the border in their desperate bid to reach the EU.  Most are fleeing conflict, poverty and instability. AP

“When I went to the Ukrainian border and I saw the border guards playing with small kids in the line, I just cried. I just couldn't take it,” she says. “Those seven months were wrong and even if we knew that, it's still different to see it in black and white, to see that it is possible to take 100,000 times more people immediately, that it's possible to give them soup and it's legal. It’s really difficult for all of us who are acting on the Belarusian border, and I cannot really fully appreciate the good that is happening in Poland now,” Ms Alboth said.

Two borders, two different treatments

Workers build a wall along the Polish-Belarus border in Tolcze, north-eastern Poland, on January 27, 2022.  The 5. 5-metre high wall will run along 186 kilometres of the border – almost half the total length – and is to be completed in June.  AFP

Hunger, cold, thirst, illness and alleged physical abuse from Polish border guards greeted people who sought safety at the doorstep of the EU. Small wonder refugees and activists like Ms Alboth find the praise heaped on Poland for embracing millions of people fleeing war-torn Ukraine a bitter pill to swallow.

There are at least 20 victims of the policy, people who have already died on the paths out of Belarus. Ms Alboth, who is the co-founder of Grupa Granica, a coalition of charities that have been monitoring the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border, suspects the number of bodies in the forest is much higher.

“And then you see thousands of Polish people driving to the Ukrainian border with their cars, and not being stopped by police all the time, it's just mind blowing,” Ms Alboth said bitterly.

She is of course talking about today’s refugee crisis, which has elicited a very different response from the EU member and created a “beautiful sort of white-washing where Poland takes in refugees”.

Aid groups are dotted across Przemyśl, the border with Ukraine, feverishly helping to feed, clothe and medically assist the tired, hungry and scared crossing their paths without obstruction.

A refugee who fled “Putin’s bombs” in Syria in 2019 and was among those who crossed the Polish border from Belarus in November wrote of his pain at observing the difference in treatment towards others.

“I’m very sympathetic to the Ukrainian people. Nobody deserves war, destruction, and exile from their homeland. But the difference in treatment just hurts so much. The blood that comes out of all people is the same colour,” wrote the man, who went by the name Ibrahim, in a first-person piece published by The New Humanitarian.

‘How is it possible that on one border you beat people, and yet on the other you give them soup and cookies? Isn’t this racist?’ he asked.

Anguished as he is, Ibrahim is lucky compared with those trapped in the forest or those languishing in one of Poland’s refugee detention centres.

'Polish Guantanamo'

Murtada, 32, has been stuck in a refugee centre in Wedrzyn, a town a few kilometres from the German border, since September. An activist who took part in last year’s anti-corruption protests in Kurdistan, he flew from Iraq to Belarus in August in an attempt to cross into the EU and get asylum. Attempts to cross into Lithuania and Latvia were rebuffed by “dogs, threats and push-backs”, he said.

After days wandering the forest without food, sleep or water, crossing into Poland was his last hope and it was a bittersweet success.

They’re treating us like terrorists but we ran away from terrorists, we just want to live, we just want our human rights.
Farhat, Yazidi refugee

About 20 kilometres inland, Polish guards found Murtada and in a break from their customary pushback towards Belarus, they took him to one of the country’s eight detention centres used to hold and process asylum-seekers.

Migrants at a transport and logistics centre near the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus, November 23, 2021. Reuters

It is a place that he and several others describe grimly. “It’s a prison not a camp,” he said over the phone. "We can’t see each other because cameras are forbidden in there, as are visitors, unless it’s someone from the UN refugee agency or a lawyer, which not everyone has access to."

Murtada can’t send any pictures, but his description of the place echoes those that have been repeatedly relayed by former and current occupants.

Overcrowded and cold cells of up to 20 people in a room, little to no access to medical treatment or legal assistance, poor food and hygiene resulting in the development of rashes and scabies.

Earlier this month a Polish politician called the Wedrzyn centre a "new Guantanamo".

“We’ve started protesting because of the treatment towards us. All we are trying to do is get some peace and freedom. Why am I being locked up in here as if I am a killer or a criminal?” Murtada said.

“We are from a country that has faced the most conflict,” he said before passing the phone to Farhat, another Iraqi being held in Wedrzyn.

Farhat is Yazidi and was displaced from his home in Sinjar when ISIS mounted its genocidal campaign against the religious minority in 2014. Several of his female relatives were killed but he and his family escaped to Kurdistan, where they have been subsisting in what he describes as desperately squalid refugee camp for the past eight years.

After several attempts to cross the Polish border, Farhat was eventually picked up and put in Wedrzyn, where he has been since September.

Confined to the centre and with no idea of when he might be released, Farhat has grown increasingly depressed and worried for his wife and children who are in Kurdistan with even less support than the little they had before.

“They’re treating us like terrorists but we ran away from terrorists, we just want to live, we just want our human rights,” he said on the phone.

Adding insult to injury, the Wedrzyn centre, built last September to deal with the migrant crisis, is a few metres from a field used for military exercises. Migrants are awakened by the roar of gunshots and assault weapons, which continues throughout the day. There is a shooting range for the soldiers, who also perform simulations with armoured vehicles and tanks.

Given that most of the centre’s residents come from countries in conflict such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, exposing them to such noises is an additionally traumatic experience that some have likened to psychological torture.

“It is so humiliating. Where is the humanity? I am grateful to the few people left who are still trying to help but I don’t see much humanitarianism in Poland,” Murtada said.

Aid workers in Poland: heroes or criminals?

Refugees are not the only ones dismayed by Poland’s double standards. Increasingly onerous legislation on the provision of humanitarian relief to those in the "exclusion zone" means aid workers often do so only under the cover of darkness.

“I’ve worked in human rights for many years, but I was never running at night in the forest with a backpack full of hot soup hiding from drones. I mean this is insane,” Ms Alboth said.

“We are risking getting fined, or even being detained, but if you know that there’s a woman with a 40-day-old child saying that she hasn’t eaten in a week then you just do it.”

Urszula Glensk, a Wroclaw university professor, pays her respects in January by the graves of three migrants who died at the border area and an unborn baby who died during a miscarriage. The deceased are buried at the Muslim cemetery in Bohoniki, Poland. Getty Images

Earlier this month, four activists were detained in Poland for aiding migrants crossing the Belarusian border. They face three months of pre-trial arrest and up to eight years in prison if convicted. Grupa Granica says the volunteers simply gave humanitarian aid to a family stranded in the border forest.

“When they helped refugees from Ukraine they were heroes, now for providing that same help in Podlasie, they are criminals.”

When last year’s surge of migrants trying to cross into Poland was handled with forcible resistance by border guards, the wooded area became largely inactive, until very recently.

In a return to the use of refugees as political pawns, Belarus shut down a warehouse in Bruzgi that was holding migrants and gave those inside an ultimatum: either head into the forests towards Poland or cross the border into Ukraine.

In just one day, the Polish border guard said that 134 people tried to cross from Belarus, the largest number this year, and Grupa Granica said it received more than 125 calls on the same day from people asking for help.

According to the organisation, the most vulnerable, including families with children and those who are ill or have disabilities, are now trying to survive in the exclusion zone.

Despite Poland showing the world it has the capacity and capability to shield the most vulnerable, a subset of refugees are left to hope the work of activists and locals who are willing to put their own liberty on the line brings freedom for others.

Updated: April 01, 2022, 6:00 PM