Danuta Kuroń rushed to prepare emergency supplies for two refugees after receiving their call for help. They were hungry, wet and lost in the vast Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus.
“I know if I forget something it could be disastrous for them,” Kuroń, a longtime activist, said as she packed underwear, warm clothes and cereal bars for the two of them. Kurdish men who used a phone number distributed among refugees to reach support groups. A handful of Kuroń’s colleagues headed for the forest with his supplies and a GPS tracking device.
The men are on the front lines of a refugee crisis that Kuroń and other activists say has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by the millions of Ukrainians who fled to Poland after Russian troops launched their invasion in february.
Yet tens of thousands of displaced people, mostly from the Middle East, have also tried to enter Poland from its eastern neighbor Belarus since last summer. But as Poland took in refugees from Ukraine, last month it completed construction of a steel fence to prevent illegal crossings from Belarus, prompting accusations of a double standard.
“Our government has used Ukrainians politically to show that we are a great people, responding to a crisis whose magnitude makes it easy to forget racism towards very different people who cross Belarus,” said Agata Ferenc, an activist of the Ocalenie Foundation, a non-governmental organization.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has encouraged migrants to try to enter his EU neighbors – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – in a bid to destabilize the region by facilitating visas and travel from the Middle East .
Brussels has condemned Lukashenko for using refugees in retaliation against trade and financial sanctions imposed on his authoritarian regime. In November, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU faced “a hybrid attack, not a migration crisis”.
The Polish response was forceful. Border guards pushed back the refugees, while the government in six months built a 353 million euro steel fence – which locals call “the wall” – and imposed a state of emergency across the border area. The restrictions have temporarily barred access to journalists and aid workers, but also to nature lovers drawn to an ancient forest and its wildlife.
During a visit to the border area, access to which was restored on July 1, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki praised Poland for ending a refugee crisis organized by Lukashenko which he described as ” first sign of this war” in Ukraine.
The five-metre high wall, which stretches 186 km, has slowed refugees rather than stopping them altogether while encouraging more people to cross dangerous wetlands where no fence can stand, activists say . Monika Matus, spokesperson for Grupa Granica, an association that works with local NGOs and volunteers, said more than 90% of calls for help now come from people who had been turned away before.
Since the start of the year, around 6,200 refugees have tried to enter Poland illegally, compared to 40,000 attempts in 2021, according to Katarzyna Zdanowicz, spokesperson for the Polish border guards.
Guards also accuse their Belarusian counterparts of providing ladders and helping refugees dig under the wall. Poland will soon add an electronic surveillance system to counter such attempts to circumvent the wall, she said.
Around Białowieża, some houses display “No to the wall” signs, but locals complain more about how the state of emergency has ruined tourism than about the wall itself.
“This wall is a good way to prevent refugees from being used by Putin and Lukashenko to provoke more war,” said Mieczysław Piotrowski, a national park guide. “Boys from Afghanistan or Syria are in a completely different category from Ukrainian women and their children, and if Russia helped transport these boys here, who knows if some weren’t also trained by the KGB. “
More refugees have traveled via Russia recently, but sub-Saharan Africans now outnumber those from the Middle East, according to Grupa Granica.
Małgorzata Tokarska, a geneticist who studies bison roaming the forest, said the EU and Unesco turned a blind eye to a Polish wall that was “the biggest and worst human intervention” suffered by a unique forest protected since medieval times. as a royal hunting ground. Białowieża became a national park in 1921 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Amnesty International accuses Poland of “racism and hypocrisy” in its mistreatment of asylum seekers from Belarus over its embrace of Ukrainians, whom Polish employers have sought to hire.
Polish border guards deny allegations of abuse and their spokesperson said Amnesty’s accusations “were not reflected in the facts”. His unit rejected a request to visit one of the six guarded refugee centers in the country.
Reached by telephone, a Cameroonian detained in the center of Białystok described his poor living conditions as well as his difficult journey after leaving Moscow where he resided with a student visa. After being pushed back at the borders of Poland and Lithuania, he said he finally reached Warsaw, only to be arrested on his way to Berlin. “I need to be protected, not kicked out,” he said.
Brussels should take legal action against Poland over its pushback policy, according to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. “This is now Europe’s forgotten refugee crisis, in which cases of violence and pushbacks are completely unacceptable,” said Katarzyna Czarnota, a sociologist at the Helsinki Foundation.
Some of those helping refugees said they did not expect this challenge. Suffering from burnout, Wojciech Sańko quit his job in Warsaw to return to his border town in August last year, just as the refugee crisis boiled over.
“I really needed to rest, but I also couldn’t stay home while people were dying in my beautiful forest,” he said. “That’s where I like to hike, but for them it’s a death march.”