Poland criticised over stranded migrants after seventh death at border
Polish police have found another body near the border with Belarus amid fresh allegations that Warsaw is breaking international law in its treatment of migrants stranded in harrowing conditions on the EU’s eastern frontier.
The man’s body was spotted in a field by a helicopter crew, police said, bringing to seven the number of people reported by Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Belarusian authorities to have died trying to cross the border since the summer.
Identity documents found on the body indicate that the man was a 24-year-old Syrian, a local police spokesperson said, adding that a date stamp on a visa suggested he first arrived in Belarus in mid-September.
Thousands of people from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and African countries have been trying to cross from Belarus into the EU but have found themselves trapped in a densely wooded border zone with no food or shelter from plunging temperatures.
In posts and audio published by a friend on social media, a Syrian man named Ahmad who has reached Germany said he was stuck in the forest in eastern Poland for 19 days, pushed back repeatedly by Polish and Belarusian border guards.
He fled Syria’s civil war in 2011 for Lebanon, where he spent 10 years helping fellow refugees with the Norwegian Refugee Council. Last Saturday, he was admitted to hospital in Poland suffering from exhaustion but discharged within three hours.
Ahmad said the Polish border police then pushed him on to the Belarus side of the border in the middle of the night and with the temperature below freezing.
“So I’m now in the forest, in [the] isolated area between Poland and Belarus,” he said in an emotional voicemail left on the friend’s phone. “And now the Belarusian army will keep me, and send me back to Poland, and this until I die.”
Another man, Mohammed, 26, from Yemen, told a Reuters reporter in the border area that he had flown to Belarus from Malaysia in August. In October, he spent two weeks near the border, where he said most of his belongings were stolen, and he was forced across the border 11 times by Polish and Belarusian guards.
Poland has sent thousands of troops to the border region, erected a razor-wire fence and declared a state of emergency barring non-residents including journalists, aid workers and foreign observers from the strip. On Thursday, MPs backed a government plan to build a €350m wall, which will be submitted to the senate.
Polish and international aid groups have vehemently accused the conservative government of illegally turning back migrants, sometimes on several occasions, and failing in their fundamental humanitarian duty of providing essential medical support or adequate food and shelter.
The European Commission has been pushing Warsaw for observers to be allowed to enter the border area but has yet to receive any such assurances.
Warsaw and other EU capitals blame Minsk for the situation, accusing it of offering migrants free tourist visas and cheap flights as part of a “hybrid war” on the bloc in response to its sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
Organisations including Amnesty International and the UNHCR say Poland is breaking international law by pushing migrants back to Belarus instead of offering them asylum, but Warsaw insists it offers help when needed, is accepting requests for international protection, and is defending not only its own border but the EU’s as well.
Polish authorities say more than 15,000 attempts to cross the border have been made since early August, mostly by Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian citizens. The attempts are becoming more frequent, rising above 500 a day in recent weeks.
“The idea is that if you make it difficult to enter EU territory where they can ask for protection, and you throw them out repeatedly, now with the frequent risk of death, that eventually they’ll give up and go back to their country,” said Piotr Bystrianin, of the Polish NGO Ocalenie Foundation.
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