December 3, 2023

WARSAW, Poland (AP) – A year after migrants began crossing into the European Union from Belarus into Poland, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and senior security officials visited the border area on Thursday to mark the completion of construction of a new steel wall.

On Friday, Polish authorities will also lift a state of emergency along the border that has prevented journalists, human rights workers and others from witnessing the human rights crisis. At least 20 migrants died in the frozen forests and swamps of the area.

The Polish government describes the wall as part of the war against Russia; Human rights advocates see it as a huge double standard, with white and Christian refugees from Ukraine being welcomed, while Muslims from Syria and other countries are rejected and abused.

“The first sign of the war in Ukraine was the attack by (Belarus President) Alexander Lukashenko on the Polish border with Belarus,” Morawiecki told a news conference.

“With our political foresight and anticipation of what might happen, we can now focus on helping Ukraine, which is fighting to protect its sovereignty,” Moraviki said.

When Poland opened its doors to millions of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, work was underway to build a 5.5 m (18 ft) high wall along the 186 km (115 mi) of its northern border with Belarus. You still need electronic monitoring systems to be installed.

It aims to turn away asylum seekers of a different kind: those fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, and who were encouraged by the authoritarian regime of Belarus – a close ally of Russia – to try their luck as part of a dispute with the European Union.

One of the asylum seekers was 32-year-old Ali, who left Syria late last year after reading on social media that the easiest way to reach the EU was to travel to Belarus and walk to Poland.

Ali, from a village outside Hama in western Syria, flew to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and set out to find a unguarded spot in the woods where he could sneak into the European Union.

“I was looking for a place where I could live in safety, away from the oppression and despair back home,” he said in an interview this week with the Associated Press in Berlin.

Ali, who did not give his last name, fearing the repercussions for his family, was not prepared for the violence and sub-zero temperatures that awaited him in the vast forests and swamps.

“There were nights when I slept on the empty ground in the forest thinking I would never wake up again,” Ali said.

Human rights activists see double standards in the different treatment of neighboring Ukrainian refugees – fellow Slavs who are mostly Christian, female and white – and those from the far Middle East and Africa, many of whom are Muslim and male.

If you deliver a refugee at the Ukrainian border, you are a hero. If you do this on the Belarus border, you are a smuggler and you could end up in prison for eight years, said Natalia Gebert, founder and CEO of Dom Otwarty, or Open House, a Polish NGO that helps refugees.

Belarus had never before been a major migration route into the European Union — until its president, Alexander Lukashenko, began encouraging potential asylum seekers in the Middle East to travel to Minsk. Soon people from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and African countries flocked to the eastern edge of the European Union, entering neighboring Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

European Union leaders accused Lukashenko of waging a “hybrid war” in retaliation for the bloc’s sanctions over the regime’s treatment of dissidents. Poland’s government says Russia is complicit given Lukashenko’s alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although migration slows in the winter, people continue to try to enter the European Union via Poland, a route seen as less dangerous than crossing the Mediterranean, where many have drowned in past years.

Ali, whose small cosmetic business in Syria was destroyed when Sunni extremists learned he belonged to the Alawite religious minority, says Polish border guards have expelled him six times.

But the Belarusian guards beat him, stole his money, and forced him to take off all his clothes in the middle of winter. He wanted to surrender and return to Minsk, but the guards did not allow him to do so. They forced him and the others to lie on the cold ground, yelled at them, approached a snarling dog and repeatedly kicked Ali in the chest.

He said Polish border patrol officers broke the SIM card of his phone. He was without water and food for several days, lost in the swamps.

A Human Rights Watch report this month said Poland “is pushing migrants and asylum seekers illegally, at times violently, summarily back to Belarus, where they face serious abuses, including beatings and rape by border guards and other security forces.”

Amnesty International has also detailed serious human rights violations.

While some Poles support the government’s hardline stance, throughout the winter and spring many residents of the border region have sought help for migrants trapped in the forest, many of whom need medical help.

The play “Responsibility” premiered in Warsaw this week, and questions how Poland can accept millions of Ukrainians while withholding aid from thousands more. One of the characters asks: “Why does the Polish state require that a child from Aleppo sit in a swamp in sub-zero temperatures and prevent the assistance it provides to the child from Mariupol?”

Ali spent 16 days in the woods, before he and others used pliers to cut a hole in the border fence. Some villagers gave him food and water, but he was soon caught by the police and taken to a detention center.

Over the next three months, he was moved through several closed camps.

He said that the guards carried batons and stun guns, and each time before they transferred him to another camp, they stripped him and other detainees of his clothes in public. No one addressed him by his name, but by an identification number.

In March, he was handed his papers and taken to the Deepak Center for Foreigners in Otreposy, southwest of Warsaw, where he was told: “Leave, go to Germany.”

Ali arrived in Berlin in April and applied for asylum. Human rights activists and psychologists have documented his account, as well as that of other asylum seekers who said they were subjected to abuse by Belarusian and Polish border guards.

“I feel better here. People are calling me by my name again,” Ali said. “But I worry all the time that the Germans will send me back to Poland.”

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