Tuesday

29th Nov 2022

Local Poles near Belarus risk trouble for helping refugees

  • For Hanna, the idea that people are freezing or possibly dying in a forest near where she lives is inconceivable. "I cannot do nothing," she said. (Photo: EUobserver)
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Poland's exclusion line along the Belarus border loosely extends into areas on the Polish side where people are presumably allowed to circulate freely.

But some locals are becoming increasingly exasperated from what they say is an aggressive police border force.

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  • Interrogated by Polish border police (Photo: EUobserver)

Among them are Zuzanna and Jakub who live several kilometres away from the so-called red line. They asked for their real names not to be used out of fear of repercussions.

Beyond the red line is a semi no-man's land patrolled by Polish military and police and where people are still being pushed back into Belarus as part of a government doctrine.

Although criticised by the European Commission in broad terms, the illegal pushbacks are silently condoned by the European Union.

"I have lived in this forest for 20 years," says Jakub, visibly angered by the police checks.

"This is our reality," said Zuzanna's friend Hanna, also not her real name.

With some still managing to cross from Belarus and through the Polish exclusion zone, Polish border police are suspicious of anyone providing asylum seekers and migrants help once inside.

Those caught could be arrested and possibly charged with organising illegal immigration, leading to up to eight-year prison sentences. In late March, they arrested four Polish volunteers for having aided a family with seven children in the forest.

Poland's government says the exclusion zone was needed to face off a so-called hybrid threat from Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko's regime in Belarus, a vassal state used by Russia in its brutal war against Ukraine.

Some 40,000 attempts were made to cross from Belarus by the end of last year they said, sparking calls for the EU to finance border walls in Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Poland has since started erecting its own 186km wall set to be completed in June.

But some are complaining, including the regional president of Terespol, Krysztof Iwaniuk, who also lives in a town of the same name that straddles the Belarus border along the Bug river.

"I don't understand this wall. It gives me the chills," he told EUobserver in a recent interview, noting he had helped tear down the Berlin wall in his youth.

Yet people are still arriving from Belarus.

In late March, Belarusian authorities started evicting some 700 refugees and migrants from a warehouse in the village of Bruzgi. Among them are families with small children and others with disabilities.

Amnesty International, in a report out on Monday (11 April), says the Belarusian police are forcing them across the border using dogs and violence.

Welcome to the Jungle

For Hanna, the idea that people are freezing or possibly dying in a forest near where she lives is inconceivable. "I cannot do nothing," she said.

On the morning of Saturday, when EUobserver visited the forested area, it was 4 degrees Celsius.

Still some distance away from the red line, EUobserver had followed both Zuzanna and Hanna through the forest. Shortly after entering the woods from a dirt road, the two had found an open bag perched next to a tree.

In it was a small red sweater, some diapers, and other remnants of a likely family that had temporarily sought refuge in the woods. Further still were women's clothing, shoes, a sleeping bag, empty bottles of water from Belarus and cigarette packs from Minsk.

Although not in the exclusion zone, the two navigated through the forests with precaution. They say border and military police sometimes stop them in the forests, demanding they show their documents.

Where the forest gives way to a field, they keep to the edge. When they have to cross a clearing, they walk quickly.

Both were carrying four rescue kits; plastic bags full of non-perishable food, Ibuprofen tablets, water, and emergency rescue blankets. These were then strung up on trees at points to assist anyone lost in the woods.

Within minutes of exiting the forest onto a road and while waiting for a lift from Jakub, an unmarked van pulled up next to us.

Two Polish border police officers, not in uniform, exited the van and demanded identity documents.

They then copied all the details, including this reporter's passport and press card. Asked why, the officer said to speak to his commander. After some 20 minutes of interrogations and telephone calls, they returned the documents and left.

"Welcome to the jungle," said Hannah.

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