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Poland is clear: asylum seekers are not welcome

November 17th, 2021
topics: Refugees and Asylum
by: Magdalena Rojo
located in: Poland, Belarus
tags: European Union, Migrant deaths, migration crisis, Poland-Belarus border

Polish activist Anna Alboth, who had witnessed first-hand many irregular border crossings by migrants, says that the current situation at the Poland-Belarus border is by far the worst she's ever seen. In an interview with FairPlanet, Alboth

Anna Alboth has been working on migration issues for many years. She and her family welcomed refugees in their Berlin home when the so-called migration crisis started in Europe in 2015. Later on, she organised the March for Aleppo and walked from Germany to Syria to point at the situation refugees and migrants face when crossing borders.

She currently works for Minority Rights Group International. Apart from her full time job, Alboth also coordinates Grupa Granica (Border Group) - a network of organisations that are providing support to refugees crossing the Poland-Belarus border.

FairPlanet spoke FairPlanet spoke to Alboth about the crisis at the border and her work trying to support migrants.

FairPlanet: How was Grupa Granica founded?

Anna Alboth: Everything started with the Lithuanian border. Refugees began to flow there from Belarus first after Lukashenko had started additional flights from Iraq to Minsk. He wanted to punish his neighbors because Poland and Lithuania received a lot of Belarusian opposition representatives in the last three years. Another reason was the sanctions that the EU wanted to impose on Belarus. 

Lithuania was in shock when they quietly and suddenly received four thousand refugees. Who would expect such a non-strategic move? Lithuania never had refugees other than people from Russia coming in [...] They did not have refugee camps; they had to turn schools and old prisons into shelters. They built the fence and made the border much stronger, but they still took in and are still taking people who crossed to the Lithuanian side. 

When this happened I was more than sure that the same thing would happen on the Polish border. I called some of the Polish friends I used to work with in the last 20 years.

In July, we decided to gather and discuss things before 'the war starts.' We had organised a few calls and started working together as Grupa Granica. We are 14 NGOs, some bigger that have been existing for the past 30 years, others are smaller initiatives. But the idea was that we should do things together, we should coordinate our work. We knew our work would be needed, but nobody expected that the situation would be this critical. 

poland blocks ngo's and the media

You have been to the border not too long ago. How easy is it to get there?

When Poland made the decision to introduce the state of emergency, the zone of emergency was defined along the 418 kilometers long border. The most common understanding as to why the Polish government created the zone is that they did not want neither humanitarian organisations nor the media to see what is happening in the zone and what the scale of the crisis is.

They brought in a large portion of the army to the emergency zone. Nobody from outside can enter, only locals can be there. 

I believe there is another reason for the emergency zone than just hiding the information. The reason is securing the border. The EU should be protected. That is the idea of the borders. That is why there are borders. The Polish-Belarusian border was mostly protected by the Belarusian side because their opposition representatives wanted to escape the country.

Suddenly, Belarusian side is not protecting their border and everybody can cross, which means on the Polish side there was no infrastructure of protecting the border. This is what they are trying to hide now. 

Migrants pushed back, even disabled kids and the elderly

According to your estimates, how many people are at the border currently?

From the estimations of our teams working all around the border, there must be around 15,000 people now at the Polish - Belarusian border and in the surrounding forests.

But there are a lot of people in Belarus, in Minks, in Grodno, in big cities. Belarus does not only admit additional flights from different places in the world, but they also allow visa-free entry for a lot of countries, such as Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco. Nobody is stopping Lukashenko.

Can he be stopped?

The EU could do it if they boycott airlines that are flying people in. It would be possible. Why is it not happening? I believe because Poland would have to start to talk with the EU first. And right now the Polish - European Union politics is not really existent. So there is no international diplomacy on the topic. There is no Frontext on the Polish - Belarusian border either. Poland does not want to ask for help because they are too proud to do it. 

How does the Polish government treat refugees and migrants?

Poland recently officially voted on legalising "push backs" if somebody says, "I do not want to apply for asylum. I want to go to Germany". That is the moment when Poland can legally push somebody back now. But they are doing it in all the cases. They even push back people with disabled kids, with elderly who beg for asylum in Poland and honestly want the asylum in Poland. 

Grupa granica steps in 

What were the activities of Grupa Granica at the very beginning? 

We decided to start educational campaigns first. We thought that the most crucial thing is to talk with the locals along the border, to go from door to door and answer their questions.

We prepared different leaflets; we had telephone lines where people could call anytime of the day to ask questions. Our educational teams managed to visit 150 villages all around the border. This was before the emergency state was introduced.

How does your work look like these days?

This is the crazy part. We assist people in the forests once we locate them. Nobody was teaching us how to run in the forest at night though. Even though I used to be a scout. Once we get to the people, the first needs are being covered. It is usually food and water, and some medical help.

Many of the people already have problems walking because their feet have been wet for too long. Or they have hypothermia. It has already been freezing there. The region is very hostile. We explain the situation to refugees. Many of them do not know in what situation they are in. 

"Polish people are calling the police immediately when they see a refugee"

What are their options once they make it to Poland?

They have two options. They can apply for asylum or not. If they choose not to apply for asylum because, for example, they want to get to Germany, then they have to stay hidden. Otherwise, Polish people are calling the police immediately when they see a refugee.

If they want to go to the West, the only thing we can do is to give them food and leave. Theoretically, it is not illegal to transport a person who is illegally in the country, if you do not have any financial gain from it. But practically, with the Polish government right now, no organisation from our network is trying to risk it. Two activists have recently been arrested for driving people to the bus station and are facing five years in prison.

What happens if anybody wants to apply for asylum in Poland?

In such case, we have to call the border police. However, we know that in 98 percent of cases, even if people apply for asylum they will be pushed back to Belarus. On the human level, I am honestly not able to advise applying for asylum to anybody. We tell people the statistics of how refugees are being treated.  

Number of migrant deaths estimated as 10 times higher than reports

Officially, there have been ten deaths of migrants so far. Can we trust this figure considering we do not know exactly how many people are in the forests?

We estimate that the numbers are at least ten times higher. And winter is coming and the winter in Eastern Poland is very hard. That area is the wild part with not only the forests but also swamps. People who arrive have no idea about it. Not only are they not prepared for the trip, but often they do not know that such landscapes exist.

There are also many little lakes, rivers, but all of them are dirty so people are drinking the water from there and they are getting poisoned. 

Are there other countries receiving refugees?

There are many people who managed to go to Germany. Recently, I went to the German camp at the Polish - German border to meet with some of the people I had met in the forest. There are around 150 people a day arriving in Germany.

When they are in German territory and the police stop them, they are brought to the first reception center very close to Polish border. It is done, as it should be, in a respectful way. 

People have also been crossing the Belarus - Ukraine border already for a month. It is maybe ten people daily, but it is already happening. Ukrainian NGOs are on an alert. They are doing what we did in July. They are in contact with each other, discussing how to act. I am sure there will be more people coming that way, too.

How has being in the field and coordinating help for refugees and migrants impacted you personally? 

People call me [to say] that they are standing next to a dead body; they ask what they should do. Last time when I was in Poland, I had seven interventions in the forest. I realised I have the right to be tired and overwhelmed.

Activists who work with Grupa Granica have to go through medical and legal training. They also stay at our headquarters at least for a week, it makes no sense to join us for less time. 

Image by Kancelaria Premiera.

Article written by:
Magdalena
Magdalena Rojo
Author
Poland Belarus
Migrants hoping to cross into Poland camp near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on the Belarusian-Polish border on 17 November, 2021.
© MAXIM GUCHEK/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images
Police officers stand in the forest near Hajnowka, on 11 November, 2021.
© WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images
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