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In Poland, migrants describe help from Belarus forces to cross border amid battle with Europe – The Washington Post

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.

“Hello.”

“We need help.”

It was from a group of Syrians stuck in the forest. They tapped out their appeals, sometimes in broken English: They hadn’t eaten for days; they needed water; some needed 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. The migrants’ accounts also expand claims that Lukashenko’s military and others have key roles in moving people to the border — and can punish those who don’t manage to cross or are sent back.

Lukashenko’s regime — which is under E.U. sanctions — has eased entry requirements for arrivals from the Middle East and elsewhere who pay for Belarus-organized packages including visas, flights and hotels in Minsk before getting in taxis or buses to the border with Poland, an E.U. member state.

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. They also accuse Polish guards of harsh treatment, including smashing their phones before sending 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 said Saturday that the body of a young Syrian was found near the border. There were unconfirmed reports in Polish media of the death of an Iraqi teen on the Belarusian side a day earlier.

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. That means the migrants can be reached. The activists prepared flasks of hot water, warm clothes, heating pads and soup to take to the group stranded in the forest.

The aid workers eventually find the migrants cowering under a group of trees. One woman is curled up on the forest floor in pain. She said she was six weeks pregnant and had suffered a miscarriage.

People in the group are terrified and jump at every movement. “No police, no police,” they implore. They said they came on a direct flight from Damascus, Syria, and spent three days at the “camp” that Belarusian forces built at the border. They were given no food or water and were beaten, they said.

‘Rush to the border’

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 hit with sanctions for the audacious diversion of a Ryanair flight to detain a journalist. At first, the flow of migrants was focused on Lithuania before it picked up in Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice party has a hard-line stance toward 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 last month passed a law that effectively legalized “pushbacks” of people attempting “illegal” entry, permitting the ejection of those who cross the border without having their asylum claims 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. is expected to announce a new raft of sanctions related to Belarus on Monday. The United States could follow next month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after meeting with President Biden in Washington on Wednesday.

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. On Friday, Turkey — a major hub for migrants heading to Belarus — banned citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen from flying to Minsk. Iraq suspended direct flights in August and has said it will organize a rescue flight for citizens trapped at the border who want to come home.

But others are ramping up flights. There were five direct flights from Egypt touching down in Minsk on Friday, according to its airport arrivals. Some refugees say they fly via Dubai, from which one flight arrived Friday. Others have come direct from Damascus and Beirut. Those making the trip are mainly from the Middle East, but have come from places as far away as Cuba and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to Polish groups working on the border.

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. One in Turkey said that arrangements were easier and cheaper a few months ago, but prices have risen because of increased demand as Lukashenko’s government opens the door wider for runs to the E.U. border. A ticket that used to cost between $550 and $600 on Turkish Airlines or Syrian carrier Cham Wings now costs $1,800, according to Abu Mohammed Feras, the agent in Turkey.

“People are staying in the hotel a day or two [in Minsk], and then they are relying on Allah [and moving],” he said. “The young men are restless; they usually just stay for one night, sleep and shower. 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, 8½ 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 Poland and Lithuania — including one instance when he said Belarusian forces pulled aside Polish barbed wire barriers to clear a path.

“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. “The Belarus army then sent us to Lithuania,” he said. After that failed attempt, he said, the family was driven south to Brest, near Belarus’s border with Ukraine.

There were three families, two Iraqi and one Syrian, in that group. They drank from swamps and found some discarded bread teeming with insects that they fed to the children. They had sleeping bags, but they were soaked through.

“It was so cold,” he said. They were picked up in Polish territory two weeks ago and taken to the center in 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. She had been expecting to deliver the baby in the forest. She brought some painkillers just in case.

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. “We will do it again until we die,” she said.

A 27-year-old Syrian from Daraa said he was among seven Syrians on his flight from Damascus in late October. The rest were Iraqi Kurds. Everyone was heading to the border, he said.

“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. The group he was with heard they should shake the barrier: a signal for the Belarusian army to take them to enter the “zone” — the no man’s land between the two countries.

No one arrived. So they cut through the fence themselves, a move that drew the wrath of the Belarusian forces, who set their dogs on them, the Syrian man said.

“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 around 15 miles, they gave up and lit a fire. But then Belarusian forces loaded them into vans and drove them to a military camp further south and around 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. “Our feet were bleeding,” he said.

He managed to get far enough into Poland to call a smuggler to meet him outside the “red zone,” but was picked up at a police checkpoint. He was fingerprinted by Polish authorities, but does not know if he has applied for asylum. He was told he would be deported if he didn’t sign papers, but didn’t understand them.

Few want to stay in Poland, preferring to press on to countries seen as more accommodating, such as Germany and France. The numbers arriving in Germany have surged. 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. “But as a Syrian, I see it as an opportunity. The situation there is so bad.”

Humanitarian groups say it shouldn’t make a difference, and 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. But the woman who suffered the miscarriage was told by a medic that she needed a proper examination.

A hospital visit, however, meant the police would be called. Activists explained to her that she could claim asylum in Poland, but that’s no guarantee that she won’t be sent back to the Belarusian border or deported.

She considered it, but changed her mind about the hospital. She eventually wants to get her son, whom she left back in Syria, to Germany for medical treatment.

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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