In the freezing forests that cover the borders between Poland and Belarus, in addition to the drama of the migrants who have been camped in the snow for weeks, there are also minors. Some of them are traveling without their families, as in the case of Ali, a 15-year-old from Iraq. “It was his parents who made him leave after one of the many local armed militias killed one of his brothers,” said Ali’s father over the phone, who acts as an interpreter for him since he doesn’t speak English well.
The story is told to us by Ewa, a Polish volunteer who for months has been collecting requests for help from refugees stranded in this corner of Europe. She is part of one of the associations of the Grupa Granica alliance, which was formed in August to respond to the humanitarian crisis triggered by an unprecedented increase in the number of Middle Eastern and African refugees arriving from Belarus and which the Warsaw government is treating as a threat to internal security. We reached Ewa by phone and she replied in the tone of someone in a hurry: “I have to focus on the SOSes I am receiving from the border,” she said. Among the people to be assisted, Ali is at the top of her list: “I am always worried,” she continues. “I have been working on him for weeks. A few nights ago I couldn’t sleep at all because he wasn’t answering his cell phone.”
Ewa tells us that the 15-year-old wandered alone for days, first among the forests on the Belarusian side of the border, then entering Poland a week ago, where he continued the journey together with an older migrant. ”According to his story,” Ewa says, “it was the Belarusian military that forced him to cross the border and enter Poland. A few days ago, he was found by the border agents, who, instead of receiving him, rejected him back to Belarus. Now he is over there, and he has a fever.” Ali’s father told Ewa that “the Polish agents laughed so much while his son was crying and begging them not to reject him.”
Since the humanitarian emergency at the Belarusian borders began, various groups have been created on social media to connect refugees with volunteers. Scrolling through the various posts, stories like Ewa’s are frequent, but not fully verifiable, because since September only the military and state media have had access to the border area, and anyone who tries to get close—whether politicians, journalists or aid workers—risks a fine of up to 500 zlotys (a little over €100, in a country where the average salary is around 2,000-3,000 zlotys) and arrest.
Among the various stories circulating online is that of Eileen, a 4-year-old Iraqi girl who was reportedly left alone on the Polish side of the border on the night of December 6-7. The parents told Grupa Granica that they had lost their little daughter when Polish border agents intervened to repel their group. The search by volunteers was fruitless; then, on December 10, the Byalistok police made it known that they had found some children, without clarifying whether Eileen was among them. As the Polish media highlighted, there are wolves in that forest. “This humanitarian crisis is of enormous proportions,” says Anna, an independent Polish volunteer. “We don’t have exact estimates, but we know that there are hundreds of people hiding in the forests, including some teenagers without families.”
While international law prohibits the forced repatriation of refugees fleeing from wars or dangerous situations, there are even more responsibilities on the part of states when it comes to UNAMs, unaccompanied foreign minors. But the presence of minors, whether they are alone or with their families, whether children or teenagers, doesn’t actually reduce the risk of rejections: “A few weeks ago, the Polish border police guaranteed they would receive mothers with children,” says Anna, “but we have no way to verify this. On one hand, we hope this is the reason why we are receiving fewer calls from families with small children; they might have decided not to venture into the forests in these temperatures. But we also fear that there is another explanation.”
Some volunteers, Anna says, have reported being tailed by agents in civilian vehicles. “If it has already happened that volunteers led the agents to migrants without their knowledge, and the latter were arrested or rejected as a result, it’s normal that now others are afraid to contact us.” After all, it’s more difficult to escape with children. But the volunteers themselves also live in the fear of being “kept under watch by the military”: this is the reason why both Ewa and Anna don’t reveal their surnames or the areas where they work.