A dead body in a freezing river, spinal injuries after falling off a wall, a pregnant woman given a punishment beating after being forced back — this is what’s happening on the EU’s eastern border, as the EU Commission calls for a “firm” approach by Poland.
The body of Siding Must Hamid Eisa, a Sudanese man, was found in the River Supraśl in Poland on 25 October, bringing to 27 the number of documented fatalities on the Belarusian migration route in the past 14 months.
But there could be many more, given that 186 people who tried to cross have so far gone missing without trace, according to Polish rescue NGO Grupy Granica.
Poland built a €320m, 5.5m high, 180-km long fence to stop migrants after Belarus flew in tens of thousands of people last year and forced them into neighbouring EU states to stir trouble. The EU threatened sanctions against airlines involved.
But people are still coming, in increasing numbers, despite the risk of accidents, hypothermia, or violence.
They are now coming first to Russia, before crossing into Belarus and moving on, two Arabic-language Telegram groups used by migrant-smugglers and seen by EUobserver indicated.
One Telegram group offered people a tourist visa to Russia for €1,000, transit to Belarus for €500, and onward help in getting to Germany for €5,950.
A second group offered long-stay Russian student or medical treatment visas for $2,000.
Grupy Granica is currently getting some 160 calls for help from migrants each week, compared to 50 or so a week in August, its spokeswoman, Aleksandra Łoboda, said.
“People are going around the wall. They dig under it, or climb on it, cutting themselves on razor wire, and suffering serious falls,” she said.
“There’s already a humanitarian crisis and it’s going to get worse as winter temperatures fall,” she said.
Another Sudanese man injured his spine in a fall on 23 October trying to climb the fence, she noted.
But he and his group refused to call an ambulance, fearing Polish authorities would force them back.
“He was scared to do it, because [injured] people are often sent back to Belarus [by Polish guards] straight from hospital, or they don’t even make it to a hospital,” Łoboda said.
Pushbacks — expelling people without giving them a chance to claim asylum — are illegal under EU and international law, but Grupy Granica is hearing upward of 70 stories of such incidents each week, Łoboda said.
“The Polish services use euphemisms. They say they ‘send people back to the Belarusian border’, but in reality they often use force, putting people’s lives at risk, for instance by making them cross rivers with strong currents,” she added.
And once back on the other side, they risk being beaten by Belarusian guards in revenge for their failure.
A pregnant Ethiopian woman said she was “beaten with fists” by Belarusian officers after being sent back three times by Polish guards, Łoboda told EUobserver.
For its part, the Polish Border Guard confirmed that numbers of irregular crossings were on the rise.
But it said the spike was likely temporary, as migrants were trying to get across before a new electronic detection system around Poland’s wall is switched on.
A Border Guard spokeswoman, Anna Michalska, contradicted Grupy Granica, saying anyone who wants to claim asylum in Poland is being allowed to do so.
But she did say people trying to get to other EU states via Poland were being turned back.
“Sorry, but we’re not a taxi service to Germany. We’re here to protect the Polish border and the Schengen zone,” Michalska said, referring to Europe’s passport-free travel area.
Asked what happens when people are taken back to the border, Michalska said they return to Belarus of their own accord because they have no choice. “We stand in their way, so they can’t come back,” she said.
Meanwhile, there is little love lost between NGO activists and Polish authorities.
When asked about the pushback allegations, one Polish diplomat said: “Evidence please: Where exactly? Which unit of the Border Guard? Photos. Videos and [names of] people involved”.
“If they have evidence, they should inform the proper institutions,” he added.
Polish officers were in fact rescuing migrants, such as a group of 10 people stuck in a swamp last week, instead of pushing them back, he added, and any claims of Polish human-rights abuses were Russian disinformation, he said.
‘Orderly and firm’
The EU Commission also played down the gravity of the situation.
“The number of irregular border crossings remains limited,” it told EUobserver.
The Commission’s line is that all allegations of pushbacks must be “fully and credibly” investigated by EU countries.
But it voiced more sympathy with Poland’s security concerns than it did it for vulnerable individuals in the border forests.
“The European Union firmly rejects attempts to instrumentalise people for political purposes and is working closely with Polish authorities to support them in this complex task,” it said.
“Orderly, firm border management in full respect of European asylum law and migrants’ fundamental rights is the only effective and humane way to manage this situation,” it added.
Grupy Granica said it has “plentiful visual documentation” and other materials to substantiate its allegations.
The NGO’s Łoboda also noted that Poland has welcomed over 1 million refugees from Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.
“This could be a beautiful example for how Polish society can welcome migrants, but the Polish government hasn’t changed its strategy when it comes to the Belarus border,” she said.
Most people coming via Belarus were “not authentic refugees”, like the Ukrainians fleeing war, the Border Guard’s Michalska said.