People on the move continue to be stranded in a forested border region in need of medical care and assistance, where they face freezing temperatures. At the beginning of 2022, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) made the difficult decision to withdraw from the Polish border area after being blocked for months by the authorities from entering the restricted area.
At least 21 people lost their lives trying to cross the Belarus-Poland border in 2021. Today, people continue to face freezing temperatures without food, water, shelter, warm clothing or access to healthcare health. As EU policies and restricted access for organizations offering support to migrants continue, more and more people are at risk of dying in these harsh conditions.
Below we share the concerns of those left behind to help the most vulnerable people hiding in the forest in dire conditions. These are the voices of some people we spoke to.
How has your life changed since the situation at the border began?
“The biggest change was when people started coming to our neighborhood. At first we just heard of people crossing the border and seen pictures because people couldn’t cross our area because there were swamps everywhere. But I’m afraid there are bodies in these swamps,” says Zosia*, a resident of a village in the border region.
“Then the state of emergency was instituted. I live outside the state of emergency zone, but close to the zone and so I have passed through the zone several times. But for my friends who live inside the area, I think it’s much more difficult, because they meet armed soldiers all the time. The children are often scared,” says Zosia*.
“Our life has changed in many ways: restless nights, nervous tension, fear that helping refugees will be seen as involvement in human trafficking and smuggling. Fear that far-right circles will take revenge on the people who help them,” says Marek*, a resident of a village in the restricted area.
“Freedom of movement has been restricted and normal tourist activity is impossible. Despite everything, we grew closer to our immediate family. We talk about it a lot, I have a lot of anger about it, I take care of my thoughts, but I have the support of my wife and our eldest son comes home more often,” says Marek.
Have you encountered any problems when helping people on the move?
“I was helping a group of people in very bad condition and we called an ambulance. We knew the ambulance would come with the border guards, but it was impossible for us to leave these people alone [without medical care]knowing the attitude of border guards towards migrants,” says Zosia.
“A group came, they were border guards, but they had no badges or the signs were hidden and they started threatening us. They said we were there illegally, that we were smugglers. They were also very hostile towards the refugees. We felt like we were in a trap. We were afraid – not for ourselves, but for these people; that they would be pushed back into the forest.
You have distributed vital items to people on the move. Do people in your community support this?
“People in my village know what we are doing through word of mouth. We don’t talk about it and I can imagine what they think about it. But on the other hand, we got incredible support from our friends, many of whom came here to help us,” says Zosia.
“Many have come into the forest with us, delivering things to people stuck there. It’s very important for me, when I go to the forest, I feel that I’m not alone,” she says.
“The community is again divided between those who are satisfied with the services that defend the border and those who cannot remain indifferent”, explains Sylwia*, a resident of a village in the restricted area. “The military would like no one to talk about anything and everyone to sit quietly and pretend not to see anything.”
Do the inhabitants of the villages in the restricted area benefit from psychological support to deal with this situation?
“I know several people who have been traumatized by seeing families hiding in the bushes, seeing them captured by border guards and later finding out they’ve been taken behind the chain-link fences again,” says Marek.
“People who work with Grupa Granica (Border Group) have access to free psychological assistance. Groupe Frontière helps volunteers in the region. Without them, the situation would be very difficult,” he says.
What do you think should be done?
“The most important thing is that the government stops the pushbacks. And we need the government to change the law and wake up,” says Zosia.
“We need a decision from the government and the border guards that will provide assistance (medical and legal) to those in need, in accordance with civilized standards and with respect for human rights. We also want an end to movement restrictions for local residents and an end to the extreme militarization of the border area,” says Marek.
“We don’t want people dying in the forest. We don’t want them to die behind our fence. We want to help people in need, no matter where they come from. We were brought up with certain values and we have to live by those values – and help those in need,” says Marek.
“We need a humanitarian corridor, we need support to let people at home and around the world know what is really happening,” says Sylwia. “Those in power and those who give orders must see migrants as people and give them dignity and respect – as people in need.
*Names changed to protect identity.