Yemeni refugees say they are being left to die in swampy forests or abused by border guards
Travelling between Poland and Belarus was relatively easy back in the 1990s, and the illicit cross-border trade was a crucial source of income for many locals. "I used to go back and forth almost daily... bringing back alcohol and cigarettes," said one woman from the Muslim Tatar community in the Polish village of Bohoniki. Today, her community helps to bury those who have died attempting to cross the border without authorisation.
Polish border guards reported that there were more than 15,000 attempted border-crossings from Belarus last year, and more than 40,000 in 2021. At least 34 deaths have been documented along the Polish-Belarusian border since August 2021, though the real death toll is likely to be much higher and may never be known, with some bodies likely scavenged by animals before being discovered.
Among those attempting to make the crossing are Yemenis, fleeing what the UN has described as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis".
Since 2019, I have been working on a research project that follows Yemenis' transnational migratory journeys. In our conversations, Yemeni refugees who have made it to Germany via Belarus and Poland have described the forests of eastern Europe as a graveyard. "You see dead people, you see people dying, there are people in all kinds of terrible states there," one told me.
But the prospect of death is not a deterrent for those who have been living in the shadow of violence and disaster. "We're already dead anyway" is a common refrain I hear.
Yemen has been ravaged for the past eight years by the Saudi-led war. Lives and livelihoods have been destroyed; the economy and infrastructure have been shattered; epidemics of cholera, hunger and coronavirus have swept through the country,
In areas governed by the Houthis, public sector employers work without salaries, people are disappeared, and children are drawn into militias. There is also a disastrous water crisis that may soon render parts of the country inhabitable, while ongoing gas, electricity and fuel crises make everyday life, irrespectively of occasional ceasefires, a challenge.
Desperate to leave the country, Yemenis are forced to embark on these life-threatening journeys because their passports give them little capacity to move safely and freely. For those wanting to claim asylum in Europe, travelling via Belarus and Poland is popular because Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka lifted visa restrictions in 2021, allowing people to fly there. Restrictions have since been reimposed, but Yemenis can still fly to Russia and pay to be smuggled into Belarus.
The dangers of crossing into Poland are partly due to the brutality of the Belarusian guards, who migrants say facilitate their movement but also abuse, extort and torture them.
One Yemeni refugee told me that when he pretended to be dead to avoid more beatings, Belarusian guards pushed an egg down his throat. Another man, who begged to be allowed to return to Minsk, said guards threatened to cut his fingers off with the bolt cutters they use to cut the barbed wire, through which they push the migrants into Poland.
Others have said they were made to repeat words in what they assumed was Belarusian, only to be ridiculed and hit with rifles or tree branches with each mispronunciation.
Yousef, 24, told me Belarusian soldiers crammed him and dozens of others into a van on top of a dying man, and instructed them to dispose of him on the Polish side of the border.
By this point, the man had already been in agony for a week, Yusef said, with guards on both sides of the border ignoring people's cries for help for him. Yet Yusef spoke of his guilt over the man's death. "He died because of us," he said, "because there was no oxygen in the van."
Belarus's Border Guard Service Institute did not respond to openDemocracy's request for comment.
On the Polish border
The inaction of Polish border guards speaks perhaps to Poland's departure from what some scholars of migration refer to as the EU's 'humanitarian border', where increasingly violent control is accompanied by forms of care. It manifests, for example, in efforts to save the lives of those whose immigration policies immobilise and expose to death in the first place.
Poland committed to the securitisation of borders but did so without much pretence of compassion. As refugees started to arrive, a state of emergency was introduced in Poland's eastern border region on 2 September 2021, transforming the area into a heavily militarised zone.
In order to detect and apprehend migrants, an area that includes more than 180 villages and towns was filled with border guards, dogs and drones. Soldiers, police and territorial defence forces were brought in from across the country. The area was put under lockdown; journalists, humanitarian organisations, activists and ordinary people were not allowed to enter.
Closing off the area also meant that those who did manage to cross into Poland couldn't easily progress further. They were forced to survive in the harsh landscape of the Bialowieża forest, full of swamps and rivers and covered in heavy snow in winter. Such conditions are used to displace responsibility and make migrants' frostbite injuries, miscarriages and deaths appear as accidental, attributable to geography rather than political decisions.
The state of emergency was finally lifted in July 2022, when a concrete and metal wall stretching for 186 kilometres through Poland's supposedly protected forests was completed - and quickly proclaimed a success. In reality, the wall has not stopped the movement of people, but increasingly those who make it across arrive with serious injuries from climbing over the wall or wading through swamps and rivers to avoid it. It also damages the environment of the Bialowieża forest (the oldest in Europe), splitting a fragile trans-border ecosystem in two.
The Polish Border Guard agency acknowledges that it has forcefully returned more than 50,000 people to Belarus. These include heavily pregnant women and critically ill people, some of whom were taken out of their hospital beds and sent to the border. The vast majority of those who are not pushed back end up in detention centres.
Asked for comment, the Polish Border Guard agency told openDemocracy: "From August 2021, Border Guard officers have helped all people who cross the border illegally. Our priority is always to help."
They continued: "Whether foreigners want to stay in Poland depends only on themselves. If they want to apply for international protection on the territory of Poland, such applications are always accepted, but the Polish Border Guard will not allow the creation of an illegal migration route through Poland to other Western European countries."
Choosing the politics of incarceration over reception, Poland opened three new detention centres in 2021, bringing its total to nine. As the number of refugees grows, the allocated space per person has reportedly been reduced to just two square metres - less than in a prison cell. The Polish ombudsman has described conditions as life-threatening.
But the story of suffering and violence is not the only one that can be told about the border. There is also solidarity, generosity and kindness, which in the face of state violence can sustain people's mobility and lives. After all, despite all the efforts to deter them, tens of thousands of migrants who pass through Belarus manage to arrive in western European countries of their choosing.
When my Yemeni interviewees told me their experiences of hiding in Polish forests, they spoke of strangers becoming companions who cared for each other, shared resources, and looked after the most vulnerable.
Hussein nearly drowned in a swamp, but was pulled out and offered a dry set of clothes by fellow travellers he had met only a few days earlier. Putting it bluntly, he said: "I couldn't have done it alone". It is thanks to this mutuality that people survive in and advance through the woods.
Two Yemeni friends described how they carried members of an Iraqi family, including a toddler and a woman whose leg was injured. "We couldn't abandon them, we thought they would die," they said. Before finally parting ways, they left the family their sleeping bags: "They didn't want to accept, but we told them that we are young and in good health and we will cope, but you are sick and have children with you, at least you need to stay warm."
As they spoke, I thought about how these 'fit young men' - the objects of so much moral panic in discourses around migration - refused to let people die, while the Polish government, with the EU's backing, deliberately allows deaths to happen.
Activists and residents of the border zone region also counter the state-manufactured harms. Despite the criminalisation of solidarity, with Polish activists trying to help refugees accused of people smuggling, and efforts to make their work impossible, an impressive network of people and organisations have emerged on the ground. They distribute hot soups, water, snacks, clothing and power banks to migrants stranded in the woods. Those who need medical attention are treated by volunteer paramedics and doctors, because calling an ambulance would mean the arrival of the border guards.
Activists also provide the legal representation, which migrants rely on to submit asylum claims, and follow those intercepted into hospitals and border guard headquarters, hoping their presence will make pushbacks more difficult.
It is because these abuses are documented by grassroots solidarity networks like Grupa Granica (Border Group) and Fundacja Ocalenie (Ocalenie Foundation) that we have a sense of the scale of a humanitarian crisis that would otherwise remain hidden.
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