At center of Europe’s migrant crisis, tales of how Belarus clears the way — and punishes ‘pawns’ sent back

SOKOLKA, Poland — It was midmorning when the messages started pinging on the phone of a group assisting migrants along the Poland-Belarus border — the focus of Belarus’s latest gambit to use some of the world’s most vulnerable people in its battle with the European Union.

It was from a group of Syrians stuck in the forest. The group of Syrians stuck in the forest tapped out their pleas. Some needed water, others needed to see a doctor.

“Do not bring us to Bilarussia plise.”

“They are very bad people.”

The missives reaching activists with Fundacja Ocalenie, a Polish group that offers humanitarian and legal aid to refugees, offer a glimpse of the desperation of those caught inside a treacherous game of international brinkmanship by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. These accounts expand on claims that Lukashenko’s military, and other officials have played key roles in the movement of people across the border. They can also punish anyone who doesn’t cross or send them back.

Lukashenko’s regime — which is under E.U. The E.U. has placed sanctions on the regime of Lukashenka. This allows for easier entry for those arriving from the Middle East or elsewhere.

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There, Belarusian border guards help migrants get though the border fence and into Poland, according to interviews with more than a dozen migrants detained in Poland or stuck in the forests along the border.

They described Belarusian forces pulling down or cutting through barbed wire and shuttling migrants up and down the 250-mile border — now heavily guarded and fortified by Poland — to find the best places to cross.

Some migrants say Belarusian forces beat them if they fail to cross into Poland, turning them back toward the border and refusing them food or water or stealing what they have. Polish police are also accused of causing them to be beaten and even destroying their smartphones before they send them back to Belarus.

It’s a cycle that has seen some people bounced between the borders and sleeping in the forest for weeks — a plight that’s becoming increasingly dangerous as nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. Polish police confirmed Saturday that the body was discovered near the border by a young Syrian. There were unverified reports that an Iraqi teenager was killed on the Belarusian side the day before.

The migrants messaging the activists in Sokolka, about 10 miles from the border, made it outside of the border “emergency zone” that Polish authorities say is off-limits to aid groups and journalists. This means that the migrants are easily accessible. To be given to those left behind in the forest, the activists made soup, hot water and warm clothing.

The aid workers eventually find the migrants cowering under a group of trees. A woman lies on her back, in pain, on the forest floor. The woman said that she was six weeks pregnant, and had experienced a miscarriage.

People in the group are terrified and jump at every movement. They implore for “no police, no police” The group claimed they arrived in direct flight from Damascus (Syria) and spent three days at “camp” constructed by Belarusian forces at the border. According to them, they were denied food and water and beat up.

In June, Lukashenko, often called Europe’s “last dictator,” said he would no longer secure the country’s borders with the E.U. After being sanctioned for his audaciously diverting a Ryanair flight in order to hold a journalist. The initial flow of migrants focused on Lithuania, but then it moved to Poland where Law and Justice has an aggressive stance towards immigration. On Thursday alone, Polish border guards said they recorded 223 attempts to cross the boundary.

Poland has declared a state of emergency on its border and is planning to build a wall. Its parliament approved a law last month that legalized pushbacks of illegal entry. This allows for the expulsion of anyone who crosses the border and does not have their asylum claim assessed.

Cathryn Costello, a professor of fundamental rights at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, described Poland’s move as “absolutely not compatible with E.U. or international law.”

“Reframing the arrivals in different terms doesn’t change the fact that they are individuals who seem to be seeking protection,” she said.

The E.U. Expected to issue a fresh set of sanctions on Belarus Monday. After meeting with President Biden on Wednesday in Washington, Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission stated that the United States may follow suit next month.

Satellite imagery captured by Maxar technologies on Wednesday shows the crowds of people gathering at the Belarus-Poland border near Kuznica.

Pressure on airlines and transit countries has mounted. Turkey, a key hub for migrants headed to Belarus, banned residents of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen from flying into Minsk on Friday. In August, Iraq stopped direct flights and said that it would organize a rescue flight to help those who are trapped on the border.

But others are ramping up flights. According to airport arrivals, five flights directly from Egypt touched down Friday in Minsk. According to some refugees, they travel via Dubai from where one arrived Friday. Some others have arrived from Damascus or Beirut. According to Polish border patrol groups, most of the people making this trip come from the Middle East. However they have also traveled from countries as far as Cuba and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At check-in for a flight to Minsk in Istanbul on Wednesday, a group of Iraqi Kurds in their 20s with backpacks said they had plans to reach the E.U. Another Iraqi Kurd said he had paid $3,000 for a Belarusian visa, airfare and hotel in Minsk.

Journeys are often organized through travel agents. A Turk said arrangements were simpler and more affordable a few months back, however prices have increased due to higher demand. border. A ticket that used to cost between $550 and $600 on Turkish Airlines or Syrian carrier Cham Wings rose to $1,800, according to Abu Mohammed Feras, the agent in Turkey. Cham Wings stated that it will halt all flights on Saturday.

“People are staying in the hotel a day or two [in Minsk], and then they are relying on Allah [and moving],” he said. They rush to the border. Then they rush to the border.”

Help from Belarusian military

At a center for detained migrants in the Polish town of Bialystok, about 30 miles from the border with Belarus, an Iraqi father — traveling with his wife, 8 1/2 months pregnant, and their three children — described how they slept out in the woods for a month after they flew from Baghdad via Dubai, landing in Minsk on Sept. 30.

The man said Belarusian border guards aided the family of five in all seven of their attempts to cross the border into the E.U. Both in Poland and Lithuania. He also claimed that Belarusian border guards helped the family of five cross into Europe seven times.

“It’s all done by the army,” said the 32-year-old Iraqi, who, like other refugees in Poland, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears that giving his name could hurt future asylum claims. “It’s impossible for people to cross alone.”

On each attempt, they were pushed back to Belarus, including once after they made it all the way across Poland to the German border, before being detained by Polish authorities and deported. He said, “The Belarusian army sent us to Lithuania.” He said that the failed attempt led to the family being driven south towards Brest near Belarus’s border.

There were three families, two Iraqi and one Syrian, in that group. The children were fed insects by the discarded bread they found in swamps. The sleeping bags they had were wet.

“It was so cold,” he said. Two weeks ago, they were taken from Poland to Bialystok.

“I didn’t think it would be that hard,” said his 26-year-old wife, who is due to give birth in late November. Her plan was to give birth in the woods. In case of emergency, she brought painkillers.

Still, if they are deported to Iraq, she’d do it all over again, she said. They borrowed the $10,000 it cost the whole family to travel. She said, “We’ll do it again till we die.”

A 27-year-old Syrian from Daraa said he was among seven Syrians on his flight from Damascus in late October. Rest were Iraqi Kurds. He said that everyone was headed to the border.

“We were scared, very scared,” he said. “We were going into the unknown.”

He paid $100 to get to the border area with Poland and was dropped at the wire, he said. He was part of a group that heard them shake the barrier. This signalled the Belarusian Army to allow them into the “no man’s land” between the two nations.

No one arrived. They cut the fence by themselves. This drew the attention of the Belarusian troops, who then set their dogs upon them.

“They told us to go to Poland and never come back,” he added.

They tried to cross at the official border post but were turned back by Polish border guards, he said. After walking about 15 miles, they gave up and lit a fire. But then Belarusian forces loaded them into vans and drove them to a military camp farther south and about 100 yards from the fence.

“When it was dark they went out and cut the wires,” he said of the Belarusian forces. “They went around 200 meters inside Poland with us. We were around 30 people.”

In Poland, the migrants slept during the day and walked at night to avoid detection, but people started to pass out because of the lack of food and water. He said that his feet were “bleeding”.

He managed to get far enough into Poland to call a smuggler to meet him outside the “emergency zone” but was picked up at a police checkpoint. Although he was taken to the Polish police station for fingerprinting, he does not know whether he applied for asylum. Although he was informed he could be deported for not signing papers, he did not understand the terms.

Few want to stay in Poland, preferring to press on to countries seen as more accommodating, such as Germany and France. A surge in the number of migrants arriving in Germany has been reported. Between January and July, just 26 migrants arrived from Belarus through Poland, according to official figures. But there have been at least 1,246 “unauthorized entries” from that route so far this month.

The 27-year-old from Daraa said he’s aware that he is being used as part of a wider political game. He doesn’t care.

“We are being used as pawns,” he said. He said, “But I as a Syrian see it as an opportunity. The situation there is so bad.”

Humanitarian groups say that it shouldn’t make a difference and that people should be allowed to apply for asylum and have their cases assessed.

“Even though someone is using people as a political weapon, we as humans should help people if they are freezing in the forest,” said Anna Chmielewska, a coordinator with Fundacja Ocalenie.

Pressing on toward Germany

In the forest near the border, most of the group of migrants said they have no interest staying in Poland. A medic told the woman who had miscarried that she required a thorough examination.

A hospital visit, however, meant the police would be called. She was told by activists that she could apply for asylum in Poland, but it’s not a guarantee that she will be deported or sent back to Belarus.

She considered it but changed her mind about the hospital. Her son, who she had left behind in Syria for medical reasons, is now a priority.

She and her companions melted back into the icy, damp forest.

Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Durrie Bouscaren in Istanbul, Dariusz Kalan in Warsaw, Vanessa Guinan-Bank in Berlin and Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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