Stranded on the EU External Border Poland Turns to Questionable Methods to Turn Back Migrants
She travelled thousands of kilometers by plane, by car and on foot from Syria to Lebanon then Turkey and, finally, to Belarus. She waded through swamps and slept in forests. Bushra al-Muallem, a 48-year-old English teacher from Homs, tried to cross the border into Poland 12 times. Each time, she was stopped by Polish security forces and sent back to Belarus. Now, on her 13th attempt, she is running out of strength.
Early on a September morning, Muallem once again wandered into the Belarusian-Polish border area. By then, she had been stuck in Belarus for several weeks. She no longer wanted to remain in the Syria of dictator Bashar Assad’s and learned from acquaintances that Belarus was handing out tourist visas to people from the Middle East. She told us her story later over the phone.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 40/2021 (October 2nd, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.
For Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, the refugees are a way of heaping pressure on the EU. In recent months, he has had several thousand migrants brought to the borders of Lithuania and Poland to force the EU to loosen its sanctions against his regime.
The smugglers assure people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq that the path to Europe via Belarus is open. But in fact, Poland – led by authoritarian PiS leader Jarosław Kascyński -- is using soldiers to seal off its border against asylum seekers. Women, children and people with serious illnesses are also being turned away.
Poland has used violence to ensure that no refugees cross into the country from Belarus.Foto: Wojtek Radwanski / AFP
In a video posted on Facebook, Muallem captured how a group of migrants pleaded in vain for Polish border guards to at least help a man in diabetic shock who had fallen unconscious. She says there is almost no way through. Even so, she claims the Belarusian security forces chased her and the other migrants repeatedly towards the border, sometimes several times a day.
According to Polish government estimates, several thousand refugees from the Middle East are currently waiting in Belarus to reach the EU. The situation is especially dramatic for the dozens of migrants who have been stuck – some of them for several weeks – in the no-man’s-land between Poland and Belarus because Belarus isn’t taking them back. Some of them have barely had anything to eat or drink for days and are subsisting on leaves and sleeping in the open. According to the Polish government, at least five people have died since September 19, likely due to hypothermia and exhaustion.
And yet, this humanitarian crisis on the EU’s eastern border is attracting hardly any attention.
On her 13th attempt at crossing into Poland, Muallem was so weak, she says, that she could barely stay on her feet. An Iranian, with whom she was travelling, had to support her. When the refugees encountered Polish border guards, they tried to hide, but the security forces attacked them and pushed them back towards Belarus, their weapons drawn. This time, though, the border guards had mercy. Muallem ended up in a hospital on the Polish side of the border.
Bushra al-Muallem, an English teacher from Homs, Syria
Since then, she has been housed in an emergency shelter of a Polish NGO, from which she spoke to DER SPIEGEL by phone last week. "The 20 days in the border area were the worst days of my life,” Muallem says. "We fled from the repressions of a brutal regime, and ultimately encountered the same repression from security forces here.”
Muallem doesn’t know how things will continue for her. She would ideally like to travel onwards to Belgium, where her brother lives. To be able to do so, though, she would first need to apply for asylum in Poland. Nevertheless, she is relieved to have made it over the border at all – unlike so many refugees who are still stuck in Belarus.
The EU is holding Belarus responsible for the crisis. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda has described it to DER SPIEGEL as a "hybrid attack.” He says the migrants are being used as "weapons” by Lukashenko. But Nausėda and other European leaders prefer not to talk of their own failures on migration policy.
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukaschenko is using the refugees as a way to apply pressure against the EU.Foto:
EU member states are vulnerable to blackmail from despots like Lukashenko largely because they never managed to agree on a new common asylum system in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis. Despite the repeated calls for a fair distribution formula for refugees by the European Commission, no solution has yet been found. There is also a lack of uniform standard for housing or for legal and secure paths to immigration.
Instead, EU member states are sealing off their borders against asylum-seekers, and they are doing so with increasing brutality. Croatian security forces mistreat migrants to prevent them from crossing the border from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Greek border guards are illegally dragging refugees back to Turkey in the Aegean Sea under the eyes of Frontex, the European border protection agency. And whenever new movements of migrants develop, for example, in March 2020 on the Greek-Turkish border or now in Eastern Europe, violence threatens to escalate.
The presence of hundreds of migrants on the border was enough for the Polish government to declare a state of emergency in early September and to ban journalists, aid workers and doctors access to the migrants.
Research by Amnesty International conducted using satellite images and geodata suggests that many of the migrants rejected by Polish border guards had reached Polish territory. According to European law, Polish authorities would have been required to take them in and allow them to apply for asylum. Instead, they apparently forced people back into Belarus. At the same time, members of the Polish government have denigrated refugees as criminals and even claimed that bestiality porn and jihadist material was found on the migrants’ smartphones.
The EU has done little to challenge these legal violations by its members. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, to be sure, sporadically criticizes illegal pushbacks. In reality, though, many in Brussels are likely quite pleased that countries on the EU’s external borders are are keeping the refugee numbers so low.
Meanwhile, the situation of the refugees on the Polish-Belarussian border continues to deteriorate. It is unclear how many people are currently holding out in the strip of land between Poland and Belarus. According to media reports, there are 32 Afghans who were apparently joined for a time by several Yezidis from the Sinjar region of Iraq.
Fadel Hassan, a Yazidi living in Germany, has relatives that were apparently trapped in the border area, including his mother and three sisters. He says they were part of a group of 15 people, and that he lost phone contact with last Tuesday. Just before losing contact, his relatives left him a voice message via Whatsapp in which they told him about the dramatic conditions at the border.
The family fled from Essian, one of the 15 refugee camps that was established after Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazidis in the northern Iraqi region of Sinjar. Fadel Hassan’s uncle Khaled still lives there. His wife and two children were also among those stranded in the Polish-Belarussian border region, he says on the phone. "There are small children among them, the smallest, a three-year-old girl, became sick, and when they asked the Polish border police for water, he turned them away,” he says. "Even IS terrorists would offer a three-year-old girl water!” Khaled pauses the phone call multiple times because he is crying.
In the meantime, the Yazidis have paid a smuggler to get them across the border – not to Poland, but back to Belarus.