The Białowieża forest in northeastern Poland is one of the last vestiges of the vast primeval forest that once covered the European plain. Stefan (not his real name) (1), an activist who helps migrants trying to make their way west via Belarus, had a GPS and his destination’s coordinates, but it was still hard to tell which way to head. The deeper he went, the thicker the stifling, bristling vegetation seemed to grow. He listened out for border patrols and helicopters as he pushed his way over fallen trees and through nettles as tall as saplings, clouds of insects and foul-smelling bogs.
Stefan was searching for a group of Indian migrants who had texted him their position after clandestinely crossing the border into Poland, wondering if they had been picked up by the army, border guards or police.
Loudspeakers along the border remind migrants they are unwelcome here, endlessly repeating the message in bad English, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French etc: ‘The border is closed. This is the end of your journey. You have been cheated and your money is gone. This is not what you were promised. You must go back to Minsk. The Belarusian authorities will send you back to your own country. It will be the end of your nightmare.’
To top it all, there is a 200-km wall to keep migrants out, built through the middle of the forest between January and June 2022 for an estimated $400m. Last September Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (from the national-conservative Law and Justice Party, PiS) visited the border post at Czeremcha and boasted to journalists as the setting sun glinted on the barbed wire that this impenetrable barrier was ‘proof that the PiS is strong on security’ (2).
What with state propaganda and the exclusion zone and people’s fears as they see their purchasing power being eroded, the plight of migrants on the Belarusian border attracts little interest in Poland
This tough talk began with the migrant crisis that led to a standoff between Poland and Belarus in late 2021, when thousands trying to cross into the EU gathered in the Białowieża forest. The EU accused Belarus of weaponising migration in retaliation for sanctions the West had imposed on Russia in 2020. On a visit to Washington in November 2021, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said this was not a migration crisis, but ‘a challenge to the whole of the European Union … the attempt of an authoritarian regime to destabilise its democratic neighbours’. During a European Parliament debate the same day, European People’s Party president Manfred Weber went further, talking of a ‘hybrid war’ on the EU. Brussels and Warsaw have used every available means to keep the migrants out, including pushbacks – systematically and illegally sending straight back any who make it across the border. They have even turned water cannon on them in winter.
Though the influx has slowed since the 2021 crisis, Poland has not been able to close this route and several thousand migrants still cross the border each month. Most come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India or Yemen, but there are also many from sub-Saharan Africa, China and even Cuba. Their numbers are nothing compared to the millions of Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Poland since February 2022, but while the Polish government is relatively welcoming to Ukrainians (3), it is hostile to those attempting to enter the country from Belarus and is criminalising the activists who help them. During Poland’s Army Day celebrations on 15 August 2022, President Andrzej Duda called them ‘idiots and traitors’.
‘We can’t stand by’
Jan didn’t look up as the helicopter passed over his garden yet again. He carefully switched off his phone before saying how he deplored the way some activists have become resigned or even discouraged. He had tears in his eyes as he described how tense life has been for the past year: ‘You’d think we were in a war zone. Our nerves are in shreds. We’ve done a lot to help, and we’re still doing everything we can, but there are too few of us. We know people are dying in the forest. The government treats us like criminals if we help them, but we can’t stand by and do nothing. The forest is a hostile environment, and what we’re doing is dangerous and emotionally draining.’
The Białowieża forest has become a place where human rights do not exist and the Polish government does whatever it wants, in defiance of international law. On 2 September 2021 President Duda declared a state of emergency, which enabled him to keep curious eyes and cameras out of areas along the Belarusian border and restrict access for NGOs (Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International etc), the UN, and even the EU border agency, Frontex, not known for its hospitality.
How many people in Poland are willing to help us? We’ve been abandoned. No one cares if we die in this forest. Very few people want to risk their lives to help us. Are we worth so little compared to Ukrainians?
A Cuban migrant
By lifting the state of emergency and other restrictions on 1 July 2022, the Polish government has been able to keep its migrant management policy out of the limelight. It’s a simple one: drive all intruders back over the Belarusian border. This suits the EU, which is able to shift responsibility for guarding its borders onto Poland while condemning it for failing to respect migrants’ rights – though it shows less concern for those rights when it sends migrants back to Libya.
‘Shame on you!’ an Iraqi migrant shouted at the Polish border guards who had just forced him and his family back into Belarus. One child was crying in his mother’s arms after being sprayed with tear gas. ‘You’re supposed to be Europeans,’ the father said. ‘Even in my country, no one would do what you’ve done to a child!’ According to Monika, who works for the Grupa Granica migrant support network, most Poles approve of the government’s policy, and this discourages many would-be volunteers.
It has not put off Andrzej, however. Though just a teenager, he spends all his spare time searching the Białowieża forest for migrants, bringing them food and medical supplies. On this occasion, he was looking for a group of African migrants. Picking his way through the vegetation, just a few hundred metres from one of the region’s prisons, he checked the GPS on his phone. ‘Is it really a migrant crisis,’ he asked, ‘when less than 50,000 people a year try to cross the border? Poland has taken in four million Ukrainians since the war started, which has given it leverage for getting the EU to lift some of the sanctions [imposed over Poland’s failure to respect judicial independence]. The EU was punishing our government for ignoring the rule of law; now they’re letting it do just that.’
Andrezj finally found the group of 11 men and women. They were terrified by their journey through the forest and just said, ‘Get us out of here! If we stay, we’re going to die.’ Initially, many migrants aren’t interested in offers of medical help: all they want is to apply for asylum and get documents. A woman from Togo said, ‘We’ve been lost for over a week. The forest is making us ill and it’s even rotted our shoes. We’ve got cuts from broken branches and we’re sick from drinking swamp water. And our cuts and insect bites are infected.’
‘We’re being hunted down like animals’
She explained, ‘We started out from Brest [Belarus] and we’ve only got $180 left. We’ve already lost two people who were too weak to keep up. We know no one in Poland will respect our human rights and we know we’re being hunted like animals. We can’t ask for asylum here: if they find us, they’ll automatically send us back to Belarus.’ She hadn’t noticed a human thigh bone sticking out of a tattered pair of trousers near her backpack on the ground. The migrants were counting the minutes to nightfall, when their journey westward would begin again. The constant buzz of mosquitoes mingled with the sound of drones searching the border zone.
The next day, a group of activists found four Cubans in a clearing. One asked, ‘How many people in Poland are willing to help us? We’ve been abandoned. No one cares if we die in this forest. Very few people want to risk their lives to help us. Are we worth so little compared to Ukrainians? We’re fleeing our country just like them!’ A few days later, news came that the four men had managed to get to Spain. They had paid nearly $1,600 each to a people smuggler (no one knew if he was part of a network or acting alone). People smugglers charge for everything: water costs over $20 a bottle in the forest.
Magdalena Chrzczonowicz from the independent investigative journalism website OKO.press is one of the few people who defied the government ban on visiting the Białowieża region during the state of emergency. ‘What with state propaganda and the exclusion zone and people’s fears as they see their purchasing power being eroded, the plight of migrants on the Belarusian border doesn’t attract much interest in Poland,’ she said. The PiS uses the situation to appeal to conservative voters, portraying itself as tough on security issues and emphasising its determination to defend Polish sovereignty. It has also used it to get more lenient treatment from Brussels, in the same way that it uses the help it is giving to Ukrainian refugees.
As historian and political scientist Jean-Yves Potel points out, ‘the Polish government has shown solidarity with Ukraine, implementing the temporary protection directive invoked by the European Commission on 3 March 2022. It has passed legislation under which every Ukrainian refugee is quickly granted – sometimes in a matter of hours – protected status for 18 months on a renewable basis, with welfare benefits, temporary housing, the right to work, a social security number, and access to healthcare, schools for their children and many social services’ (4).
By offering Ukrainian refugees a decent welcome that encourages integration, Poland and the EU have shown that they can do (for them) what they claim they can’t do for people from elsewhere. More than ever, migration policy is governed by double standards. Across Europe, from Poland to France, governments are attempting to discriminate between ‘those they want to welcome, whom we should integrate, and those who don’t deserve to stay and should be sent back’ (5).
https://mondediplo.com/2023/04/07poland Poland pursues double standards on migration, by Tristan Coloma (Le Monde diplomatique