A corpse in a frozen river, spinal injuries after falling from a wall, a pregnant woman punished after being turned away – this is what is happening on the EU’s eastern border, while the Commission European Union calls for a “tough” approach in Poland.
The body of Siding Must Hamid Eisa, a Sudanese, was found in the Supraśl River in Poland on October 25, bringing to 27 the number of documented deaths on the Belarusian migration route in the past 14 months.
But there could be many more, given that 186 people who tried to cross have so far disappeared without a trace, according to Polish relief NGO Grupy Granica.
Poland has built a 320 million euro, 5.5 million high and 180 km long fence to stop migrants after Belarus transported tens of thousands of people last year and forced them to travel to neighboring European states to stir up trouble. The EU has threatened the airlines concerned with sanctions.
But people continue to flock, more and more, despite the risk of accidents, hypothermia or violence.
They now come first to Russia, before crossing into Belarus and continuing on their way, said two Arabic-language Telegram groups used by migrant smugglers and seen by EUobserver.
A Telegram group offered people a tourist visa to Russia for €1,000, transit to Belarus for €500, and further help getting to Germany for €5,950.
A second group offered Russian student visas or long-stay medical treatment for $2,000.
Grupy Granica currently receives some 160 calls for help from migrants every week, compared to around 50 a week in August, spokeswoman Aleksandra Łoboda said.
“People go around the wall. They dig under it or climb over it, cut themselves with razor wire and take serious falls,” she said.
“There is already a humanitarian crisis and it will get worse as winter temperatures drop,” she said.
Another Sudanese injured his spine in a fall on Oct. 23 while trying to scale the fence, she noted.
But he and his group refused to call an ambulance, fearing Polish authorities would force them to return.
“He was afraid to do it, because [injured] people are often sent back to Belarus [by Polish guards] straight from the hospital, or they don’t even go to the hospital,” Łoboda said.
Pushbacks – deporting people without giving them the chance to seek asylum – are illegal under EU and international law, but Grupy Granica hears more than 70 stories of such incidents every week, Łoboda said.
“Polish services use euphemisms. They say they ‘return people to the Belarusian border’, but in reality they often use force, putting people’s lives in danger, for example by making them cross high rivers current,” she added.
And once back on the other side, they risk being beaten by Belarusian goalkeepers as revenge for their failure.
A pregnant Ethiopian woman said she was “beaten” by Belarusian officers after being fired three times by Polish guards, Łoboda told EUobserver.
For its part, the Polish border guards confirmed that the number of irregular crossings was increasing.
But he said the spike was likely temporary as migrants attempted to cross before a new electronic detection system around the Polish wall was activated.
A border guard spokeswoman, Anna Michalska, contradicted Grupy Granica, saying anyone wishing to seek asylum in Poland was allowed to do so.
But she said people trying to get to other EU states via Poland were turned away.
“Sorry, but we are not a taxi service for Germany. We are here to protect the Polish border and the Schengen zone,” Michalska said, referring to Europe’s passport-free travel zone.
Asked what happens when people are taken back to the border, Michalska said they return to Belarus on their own because they have no choice. “We’re standing in their way, so they can’t come back,” she said.
Meanwhile, there is little love lost between NGO activists and the Polish authorities.
Asked about the pushback allegations, a Polish diplomat said: “Evidence please: where exactly? Which border guard unit? Photos. Videos and [names of] involved persons”.
“If they have evidence, they must inform the competent institutions,” he added.
Polish officers were actually rescuing migrants, like a group of 10 people stuck in a swamp last week, instead of pushing them back, he added, and any allegations of human rights abuses by Poland was Russian disinformation, he said.
“Orderly and firm”
The European Commission has also downplayed the seriousness of the situation.
“The number of irregular border crossings remains limited,” he told EUobserver.
The Commission’s policy is that all allegations of refoulement must be “fully and credibly” investigated by EU countries.
But he expressed more sympathy for Poland’s security concerns than for the vulnerable people in the border forests.
“The European Union firmly rejects attempts to instrumentalize people for political ends and works closely with the Polish authorities to support them in this complex task,” he said.
“Orderly and firm border management in full respect of European asylum law and the fundamental rights of migrants is the only effective and humane way to manage this situation,” he added.
Grupy Granica said it had “extensive visual documentation” and other documents to back up its claims.
The NGO Łoboda also noted that Poland had taken in more than a million Ukrainian refugees since the Russian invasion in February.
“It could be a great example of how Polish society can accommodate migrants, but the Polish government hasn’t changed its strategy when it comes to the Belarusian border,” she said.
Most people passing through Belarus were “not genuine refugees”, like Ukrainians fleeing war, Michalska of the border guards said.