In recent months, thousands of men, women and children have attempted crossing the freezing wooded border between Poland and Belarus leading to the Polish border crisis. The migrants are hailing from the Middle East and North Africa. One Syrian family paid upwards of $16,000 to travel to Belarus with the promise of entry into the EU. Once they arrived at the EU border in western Belarus, however, Polish authorities were unwilling to allow undocumented migrants into their borders. They are leaving people in limbo between the two countries and in danger of succumbing to the elements.
A New Refugee Crisis for Europe?
Poland and the EU have pointed fingers at Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, for manufacturing this crisis by luring migrants and flooding the EU borders. The Polish border crisis reached significant levels and threatened the EU with another influx of migrants like the continent saw in 2015.
The crisis has calmed down in the last weeks, as the first snowfall arrived in the area. Flights from the Middle East to Belarus remained on the ground and the repatriation of migrants took place. However, about 7,000 migrants remain on the Belarusian side of the border in makeshift tent camps.
Blocking the Border
Belarus has refused aid from Polish humanitarian organizations for the migrants. In September 2021, the Polish government established a state of emergency that prohibited media, medics and NGOs from entering the border zone. Anna Dąbrowska told The Borgen Project in an interview that this is a strategy for the government to “block free media from informing the public” about the situation.
The Missing Migrants Project, an initiative that records disappearances and deaths of refugees, has recorded 16 missing or dead migrants at the Belarus-EU border so far. However, these numbers may be higher on the Belarusian side due to a lack of information from the Belarusian authorities.
The Border Group: A Grassroots Initiative
Poland’s refusal to allow media into the border zone has forced journalists and activists to work quietly. They often work during the night to bring light to this humanitarian crisis. Grupa Granica (The Border Group) is a grassroots network of 14 Polish NGOs monitoring the situation and assisting migrants on the ground by providing supplies and legal aid. One of the most important tasks it faces is finding refugees and getting to them before Polish authorities do.
Dąbrowska said that with time there have been “more and more brutal actions by the border guards and the army.” Activists set up a hotline number that refugees can call when lost or in need of help. Once volunteers reach the migrants, they provide them with food, water, sleeping bags, shoes and other supplies collected as donations from good samaritans. As winter approaches, Dąbrowska said that aid workers and volunteers “rarely meet people in good physical and mental condition,” and that they often have not eaten or drank anything in days.
Homo Faber, an organization within The Border Group to which Anna Dąbrowska belongs, provides legal help to the refugees so they can claim asylum and continue their journeys. Homo Faber works in detention centers in Poland, providing further assistance there. For example, it partners with psychologists across Poland that give free services to refugees who have experienced trauma or abuse on their journeys.
Many refugees have made it into Poland and even Germany, but some have not been so lucky. Often, Polish border guards push migrants back over the border into Belarus instead of taking them to processing centers.
While the Polish border crisis has alleviated, Dąbrowska told The Borgen Project that there is still work to do. “Regardless of the length of the crisis we will carry out aid activities,” she said. However, she is worried about keeping the crisis at the forefront of public discourse as the plight of refugees becomes a “common occurrence” and one that is “less interesting” to citizens detached from the situation.
The Ways People Can Help
While the Polish border crisis is taking place out of the view of many, there are many ways people can help out. People can stay up to date with the work of The Border Group and learn more about migration and refugees. “It will be important to support us in the long term as organizations and individual activists,” said Dąbrowska, who hopes that the initiative continues to flourish.
Another way individuals can help is by talking to friends and family about the crisis. It is especially important to reach people who might approach this topic with indifference.
Individuals can also support leaders at home. The refugee emergency in Poland and Belarus has the potential to disrupt U.S. politics as well and our leaders must stay involved. One can communicate their concerns to their members of Congress.
– Emma Tkacz