Aid workers assigned to Poland’s border with Belarus have left the country in protest at being denied access to migrants stranded in freezing temperatures.
The charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Polish authorities had denied repeated requests to enter the forested border region at the heart of the political standoff.
It said the death toll at the border was “likely to increase” if humanitarian groups cannot provide food, water, warm clothing and medical care to the migrants. At least 13 deaths have been reported in the months-long crisis.
The Polish side of the border is under a state of emergency which limits access for journalists and humanitarian workers. Ministers announced this week that Poland had signed three contracts to build a 186-kilometre barrier on the border.
MSF said its teams had similarly been kept away from the border in Belarus and Lithuania, forcing it to operate further inland in both countries.
Although the crisis partially eased towards the end of 2021, the charity said some of the mainly Iraqi migrants were still living in sub-zero temperatures at the border and “in desperate need of medical and humanitarian assistance”.
“We know that there are still people crossing the border and hiding in the forest, in need of support,” said Frauke Ossig, an emergency co-ordinator for Poland and Lithuania at the charity.
“But while we are committed to assisting people on the move wherever they may be, we have not been able to reach them in Poland.”
She said some volunteers had been “vilified and intimidated” and had their possessions destroyed by unnamed enemies in an apparent attempt to stop them helping the migrants.
While some residents of the restricted areas have been able to provide help, MSF said it would work from elsewhere in Poland and establish a country office in Warsaw. UN inspectors previously said they were denied access by both countries.
“The current situation is unacceptable and inhumane. People have the right to seek safety and asylum and should not be illegitimately pushed back to Belarus,” Ms Ossig said.
Belarus is suspected of engineering the crisis for political ends after the EU imposed sanctions over domestic repression by President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
But Poland has also been criticised for pushing migrants back over the border after they have arrived from Belarus. Warsaw rejects claims of mistreatment as Belarusian propaganda.
Poland said another 35 people had tried to cross the border early on Thursday, with stones and tree branches allegedly thrown at guards.
Neighbouring Lithuania said this week it had chartered a flight to send 98 Iraqi migrants back to their home country after they entered illegally from Belarus.