Children sleep in forests as Poland reports surge in migrants from Belarus

Border security said Monday was busiest day so far in 2022 after the closure of a camp in Belarus

Polish soldiers oversee the construction of a barrier along the border with Belarus in Tolcze, north-east Poland. AFP

The number of migrants trying to cross into Poland from Belarus hit a record for the year so far on Monday after people were moved out of a warehouse camp near the border, according to charity workers.

Grupa Granica, a coalition of charities, said that migrants held at the border camp in Belarus were given an ultimatum to move into the forests or head across the border to Ukraine.

The Polish border guard said that 134 people tried to cross from Belarus on Monday, the largest daily number this year, while attention was focused further south on the refugee crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Charities working with the new arrivals said the crossings came after migrants were told to leave an accommodation centre on the Belarus side of the border. The people detained by Polish border guards included 16 Iraqis who were rescued from marshes, the agency said in a post on Twitter.

Poland in January started building a 186-kilometre barrier between the two countries to try to prevent a repeat of the surge of migrants seen last year, when about 40,000 attempts were made to reach the EU through Poland.

Belarus last year set up an accommodation centre at Bruzgi on the border with Poland where several thousand people stayed at the height of the crisis. Grupa Granica said only the most vulnerable remained there earlier this week, including mothers with very young children.

They said those that had tried to cross the border into Poland after the eviction included a mother with a six-week-old baby. Migrants from Sri Lanka, India, Yemen, Syria and Turkey are among those who have attempted the crossing so far this year.

Poland accused Belarus of deliberately stoking last year’s crisis by issuing visas in Kurdish areas of Iraq and other parts of the Middle East to test European resolve and its border security.

Experts described the move as an element of “hybrid war” that culminated in last month’s Russian attack on Ukraine.

Grupa Granica said on Tuesday that 90 people had asked for help in the past 24 hours, with women and children in particular in need of aid.

“We were dealing with three or four quite large groups with more than 10 people and including children,” said Monika Matus from the group.

The organisation posted a video of a small camp in the forest, where it said four very young children had been found.

It also highlighted the case of a Syrian family with a 5-year-old child who were detained by Polish border guards and feared being returned to Belarus.

“If they are taken to the forest, they will not survive,” said the charity coalition.

The European policing agency warned on Monday that people fleeing war risked being exploited by human traffickers.

It said that unaccompanied children arriving in the EU were “particularly at risk”, with countries such as Poland under pressure to monitor and record people because of the vast numbers arriving from war-torn areas.

The EU said last week that Belarus, an ally of Moscow, had become a “military district” of Russia.

It has increasingly relied on Russia since President Alexander Lukashenko's regime was weakened by mass protests in 2020. Russia used the opportunity for deeper military integration with Belarus, culminating in some of the attacks on Ukraine being launched from Belarusian territory.

Updated: March 22, 2022, 5:15 PM