Standing in the middle of a dark Polish forest, covered in snow that had been falling all evening, Ali, a 32-year-old teacher from Syria, had one wish: Not to be sent back to Belarus.
He guessed he’d been in the woods for three weeks, crossing the Polish border five times, being caught by border guards with each new attempt and pushed back into Belarus.
The sixth time, he was luckier. He was found by activists who arranged for Ali and his two companions, Hassan, 42, a former judge, and Mido, 25, who worked in human resources, to meet up with three Polish members of the European Parliament visiting the border area last week along with a group of journalists.
The goal was to put pressure on Polish border guards to actually process their asylum claims, instead of sending them back to Belarus in violation of international law.
Ali is one of thousands of people who have flown to Minsk from the Middle East on the encouragement of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, and who have tried to cross the border with the European Union.
He said back in Syria “people talk” about a new route into the EU. The trip, depending on the final destination, costs around $2,500.
What people don’t talk about in Syria is that migrants can get trapped for weeks in the border zone, living in freezing swamps and forests; at least 13 people have died trying to make the crossing.
“We didn’t expect that they’d put us between borders and that we’d be stuck there, without food, without water, in bad conditions, like sleeping in a wet place. Some nights we were freezing,” Ali said in fluent English.
In Belarus, migrants said they were kept in a makeshift camp by soldiers, who would group them together every couple of nights and push them into Poland. “They try to push the fence and make people running,” he said. The soldiers also gave migrants rocks to throw at the fence and Polish border guards.
The three were bitter about their experience. “Very bad people in Belarus, very bad people,” said Hassan.
They said Belarusian troops robbed them, beat them up and gave them dirty water to drink, which made them ill. The Belarusian government says it is providing migrants on the border with humanitarian aid.
“Sometimes they were beating people. They were feeding [people] with pills sometimes, they use dogs to follow people in the forest,” said Ali. He said Belarusian guards forced them to strip, searching through their clothes for items to steal, and then set their clothes on fire. At this point in the story, Mido turned away and began to cry.
Whenever they would successfully pass the barbed-wire fence erected on the border after Lukashenko began sending migrants into the EU, the three would live on food and water they found in the forest or that they got from local people and activists, who also gave them new clothes and sleeping bags. In their first attempts they were unable to get past the closed border zone — a 3-kilometer-wide strip of land along the Polish-Belarusian border where it’s difficult for reporters and activists to enter — before being picked up by Polish authorities and sent back to Belarus.
Last week’s meeting with activists took place just beyond the zone.
Lukashenko unleashed the migration crisis as a way of retaliating against the EU for sanctions it imposed after he stole last year’s presidential election. The EU calls it a “hybrid attack.”
Although the Polish government has come under fire from human rights groups for its treatment of migrants and its general refusal to process asylum claims, Warsaw says it’s simply trying to police the border. The EU last week allowed countries bordering with Belarus to toughen asylum procedures.
“It is clear that if we are not able to keep thousands of immigrants at bay now, soon hundreds of thousands, millions, will be moving toward Europe. If we do not resolutely protect and defend our borders in Europe, hundreds of millions from Africa and the Middle East will try to get to Europe, especially Germany,” Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, told Germany’s Bild newspaper in November.
The crisis is easing, as the EU has put pressure on airlines and Middle Eastern countries to stop flying people to Belarus. Now there are flights taking people back to Iraq and Syria. In October, there were 17,500 attempted crossings, according to the Polish Border Guard, but last month there were 8,900.
However, many people remain in the dark forests along the border.
Maria Złonkiewicz with Grupa Granica, an NGO trying to help migrants, said they’re getting fewer requests for help. That’s likely due to the Belarusians organizing migrants into larger groups, thousands of Polish troops, police and border guards patrolling the frontier and extreme weather conditions.
“Less and less people are able to cross,” she said.
‘A safe place’
Ali, Hassan and Mido all insisted they want asylum in Poland, holding up signs to that effect as border guards picked them up and drove them away in an open military truck. Warsaw is obliged to process their requests, but if they don’t meet the criteria they can be deported.
The following day, the Border Guard said on Twitter that the men had asked for asylum.
Before being driven away, Ali was asked by reporters if he would encourage anyone else to copy his journey to Poland.
“You could die there, or you could die here,” he said. “We’re here not to hurt anyone or to cause any problems, we just wanted to be in a safe place.”