Poland’s border wall has not stopped the flow of migrants from Belarus | UKTN | 21.09.2022

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Katarzyna Wappa comes from the town of Hajnowka in eastern Poland, near the Belarusian border. Bialowieza Forest is on the doorstep.

In September 2021, the English teacher and mother of two noticed that “something wasn’t right” in the forest. She began to see figures among the trees: exhausted, emaciated people who were often ill and suffering from hypothermia.

Bialowieza Forest, on the border between Poland and Belarus, is an impassable wetland

It was around this time that the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, began to use migrants as a political weapon against the EU. People from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria who had flown into Belarus were taken to the border and forced to illegally enter Poland.

Warsaw’s response was swift and harsh, deploying police and military units in the region and setting up a military exclusion zone to keep out prying eyes.

Local activists help

Local activists, including Wappa, quickly set up a group of willing helpers. They searched for migrants stranded in the forest and provided first aid. “We often had to play the role of doctor, lawyer, nurse and even babysitter,” says Wappa. “I once carried a dying man out of the woods in my arms. We managed to save him just in time.” On another occasion, she gave a barefoot refugee a pair of shoes.

Karte Poland Belarus Bialowiezer Urwald NL

Wappa was one of the few people involved to show her face – a decision that would have serious consequences. After a report about her was broadcast on television, her Facebook page was flooded with hate messages. She was vilified by state media and her meetings with the security forces escalated.

Claims of illegal pushbacks

“I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I suddenly saw four masked soldiers running towards me,” she says of an encounter, the shock still etched on her face. “On another occasion my car was stopped by the police. The officers started hammering their fists on the roof and made a terrible noise. My children started crying. I begged them to stop, but they didn’t.”

“We had to hide the rescued refugees from the security forces so they wouldn’t be pushed back over the Belarusian border,” she told UKTN. While such pushbacks are illegal, they took place in Poland, says Wappa, who was awarded an award in August 2022 in recognition of her work by the Polish Grand Press Foundation in Gdansk.

Reviled by the government

The hatred of her and other human rights activists was fueled by the government in Warsaw. Since its election victory in late 2015, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been carrying out its right-wing populist agenda without regard for the rule of law or the protection of minorities.

Since then, the independence of the judiciary has been massively curtailed, abortion rights restricted, LGBTQ people marginalized and insulted, and migrants from the Middle East and Africa labeled as terrorists. While many in Poland support this policy, there are also courageous civil rights activists who are unwilling to accept human rights violations.

“Inhumane Policy”

One of these activists is lawyer Marta Gorczynska. Ten years ago she joined the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw. Last fall, when she saw media reports of Afghan refugees trapped for days at the Polish-Belarusian border without food and drink, she set out to see if she could help.

Around this time, the “Grupa Granica” (Border Group) was established in the region. The aim was to protect migrants who, Gorczynska said, “had fallen victim to the inhumane policies of the governments of Belarus and Poland”.

Food and a blanket

“I came to the forest to document human rights violations and provide legal advice,” she explains, before adding that it quickly became clear that most refugees needed a warm blanket and something to eat.

She accuses the authorities of refusing to engage in any dialogue with non-governmental organizations. “Instead,” she says, “we are dismissed as traitors and enemies of the homeland.”

loss of life

Though there are few moments of success, sadness is always present at the border. Authorities say 16 people have died there. According to Gorczynska, at least 20 have died, probably many more. “Who is entitled to asylum and who is not is a completely different matter,” she says. “But we cannot allow people to suffer and die at the border.”

Members of the Polish security forces patrol the border wall with Belarus

The border wall between Poland and Belarus is high, but not high enough to stop desperate migrants

Gorczynska received the Human Rights Prize from the German PRO ASYL Foundation in early September 2022.

Catholic Church watches from the sidelines

Jakub Kiersnowski is head of the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK), a respected organization better known for its lectures and encounters with prominent figures than for its spectacular campaigns. “We just couldn’t sit back and do nothing,” he tells UKTN. When he called on members to take action; hundreds responded. Within a week, a relief center was established in eastern Poland. Then, on October 16, 2021, the group set to work at the border.

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Kiersnowski makes no bones about his disappointment in the Catholic Church. Although a bishop publicly called on people to help migrants, the church did not become directly involved in any way. Kiersnowski believes the Church’s inactivity is due to its close ties to the ruling PiS.

Catholic helpers targeted by authorities

“It’s a shame the men who studied for the priesthood were not involved in our outreach. Washing a refugee’s feet would be a practical application of the gospel message,” he says.

Jakub Kiersnowski

Jakub Kiersnowski is head of the respected Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK). He and other members of the organization have been helping migrants at the border since October 2021

Members of the KIK have also personally experienced the disapproval of the government. In December 2021, the police arrested four volunteers and stormed the KIK relief center. Charges of complicity in illegal immigration were filed but later dropped. In March of this year, a 20-year-old activist was arrested and taken away in handcuffs.

Wall did not stop migrants

During the summer, a 5.5 meters (18 feet) wall was built along the Polish-Belarusian border. This does not stop several dozen migrants from entering Poland every day. Human rights activists say the wall has not solved the problem, but has made it worse. They have noticed an increasing number of refugees with broken arms and legs, injuries sustained while climbing over the wall.

The activists are already bracing for the winter and the misery and danger it will bring for refugees at the border.

This article has been translated from German by Aingeal Flanagan

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