‘A Crazy Situation’: Afghan Migrants Stranded Between EU and Europe’s Last Dictator

Poland is refusing to allow entry to asylum seekers crossing from Belarus, accusing Alexander Lukashenko of sending them to destabilise the country. The standoff has stranded dozens of desperate Afghans in no-man’s land for weeks.

Aug 31 2021, 5:46pm

Poland is close to declaring a state of emergency for the first time since the fall of communism over an escalating border standoff with Belarus that has left a group of Afghan asylum seekers stranded in no-man's land between the countries for weeks.

Human rights groups fear that the state of emergency along parts of the border with Belarus, which is likely to be approved by President Andrzej Duda, will hamper the ability of aid workers and others to monitor and provide assistance to asylum seekers trapped in worsening humanitarian conditions on the EU’s eastern border, or pushed back into Belarus.

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Poland has reported a surge of migrants illegally crossing from Belarus over the past month and is refusing to let them enter, accusing Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko of sending them over the border as part of a bid to destabilise Poland and hit back at the EU over sanctions.

Poland and other EU countries accuse the authoritarian government of Belarus, a non-EU state, of using migrants as a political weapon against neighbouring EU countries like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, sending migrants across the border as a form of “hybrid warfare” to destabilise those governments.

“People seeking safety and international protection in Poland are not grounds for a state of emergency,” Barbora Černušáková, a researcher at Amnesty International, told VICE World News.

“There is a great risk that declaring a state of emergency will restrict NGOs, journalists and activists [from carrying out the] vital role of monitoring the human rights situation and providing … assistance.”

Photo: Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The group of 32 Afghan refugees have been trapped in deteriorating conditions near the village of Usnarz Górny, about 55km east of the northeastern city of Białystok, for three weeks. The group, which includes men, women and at least one child, are being prevented from progressing into Poland or re-entering Belarus by armed border guards from both countries, according to NGOs and journalists monitoring the situation. Amnesty’s Černušáková described their situation as a “humanitarian emergency which requires an urgent response.”

“They’re surrounded by Polish and Belarusian border guards and they can’t go anywhere. It’s a crazy situation,” Antoni Mantorski, a Polish photojournalist who has been covering the situation on the ground, told VICE World News.

Photo: Antoni Mantorski RATS Agency

He said the group had no access to clean water, only intermittent supplies of food, and had gotten sick amid the wet, exposed conditions, with a 52-year-old woman in the group unwell and needing urgent medical assistance.

“They are all sick. They sleep in tents and in recent days there was heavy rain, so they can’t keep up the fire because the wood is wet,” he said.

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He said that the group was a few hundred metres away from Polish supporters who had gathered at the border to try to render assistance, and who could only communicate with them through a translator using a bullhorn.

Despite the calls from human rights groups for Poland to provide shelter and assistance to the asylum seekers, Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party – which came to power on the back of a staunchly anti-migrant campaign in 2015 – is refusing to allow the group to cross on to its territory. It’s deployed hundreds of soldiers to the border, and last week began building a barbed wire fence along the border with Belarus, saying it was necessary after hundreds of illegal migrants crossed in the past month.

"The situation on the border with Belarus is a crisis," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a news conference Tuesday. “We have to stop these aggressive hybrid actions, which are carried out according to a script written in Minsk and by Mr Lukashenko’s patrons.”

Polish ultranationalist groups have also been campaigning in border areas, attempting to drum up anti-migrant sentiment by painting the asylum seekers, from countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, as a threat.

Photo: Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last week, after a visit to the border, Morawiecki described the standoff there as part of “an effort to create a pan-European migration crisis by the regime of Alexandr Lukashenko,” the Belarus strongman.

Relations between the EU and Belarus have nosedived since Lukashenko – known as “Europe’s last dictator” – claimed victory last year in an election that the opposition and Western governments say was rigged. The EU responded with sanctions, while countries like Poland have provided support and sanctuary to dissidents fleeing Lukashenko’s crackdown.

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The Polish government has formally requested that President Duda impose a 30-day state of emergency in parts of the Podlaskie and Lubelskie regions, near the Belarus border, which would give the authorities greater powers to restrict the movement of people in those areas.

Marianna Wartecka, spokesperson for the Ocalenie Foundation, which has been monitoring the situation, said that the push for a state of emergency was a clear ploy to remove humanitarian groups and journalists from the scene.

“It’s a mechanism designed to respond to serious threats, acts of violence and terrorist attacks. That’s not the situation here, there’s nothing that threatens public safety on the border – the only thing that’s threatened is the lives of the people stuck there,” she told old VICE World News.

“We think it’s just being used to cover up what is happening there, and what will happen once we’re pushed away.”

Mantorski, the photojournalist, said the move would make it even harder for NGOs to help groups like those stranded at the border, as well as the much larger numbers of asylum seekers who were being intercepted by Polish border forces and pushed back off Polish territory.

“I think it will make it very difficult for the humanitarian groups to respond,” said Mantorski, who last returned from the border on Sunday. “Even when I was there I was stopped by the police every hour.”

Tagged:

Poland, poland-syndrom, worldnews

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