“Poland is a safe place, Poland is freedom,” sings a young Iraqi man with his head between the bars of the border wall that the Polish right built to keep him out. Beside him is a 6-year-old girl who could squeeze through the bars if she wanted to. A few meters away, Polish border guards with their faces covered are watching to make sure that the dozen or so activists present don’t get any closer than the 15-meter security perimeter and, most importantly, that they don’t give anything to those on the other side of the “wall.”
As of last week, 24 people have been camping out in the Bielowieska forest for four days, on the Belarusian side of the wall, aiming to obtain asylum in Poland. It has been more than a year since anyone has camped in front of one of the gates of the wall – those who try to get through usually do so under the cover of secrecy. Among them is a 1-year-old boy, three other young children, a few teenagers and several women, one of them 5 months pregnant. One boy has a fairly serious injury caused by a bite from one of the Belarusian border guards’ dogs.
We know all this thanks to Maria, an activist who knows Arabic and serves as an interpreter for all the other activists who take turns to talk to us under the trees of the “oldest forest in Europe.” The “wall,” finished in July 2022, was built on Polish territory; the state border with Belarus is only a few meters away.
“What’s absurd is that these people are already on Polish territory – according to international laws and also according to Polish legislation, they should be able to apply for asylum,” one girl explains. “And they even did it, we registered them.” Did they do so verbally? “Polish law says that as long as it can be proven, the request is valid even if made verbally, and the guards would have to record it.” But, of course, they don’t.
This is not surprising, as there are countless stories of migrants being passed from one country to another by the various police forces of Europe, including those of Italy, to make them apply for asylum in another country. Under the Dublin Accords, the first state in the Union that the asylum seeker enters must register their claim.
In practice, not making a record means no asylum claim. The activists – as almost all of them are women of various ages – have been here for more than 40 hours and relieve each other in shifts. They even sleep here: “I promise I won’t leave until a solution is found,” says Maria, who is perhaps the most indispensable presence here at the moment. Every now and then, someone from the migrants shouts “Mariaaaa,” with their hands on the bars, and after a while she ends up telling them the same phrases over and over again, peppered with many “habibi,” “sorry,” and “inshallah.”
When are they going to let us in? Habibi, I don’t know if they will let you in, sorry, but we’re staying here with you. Can you give us food? Habibi, we can’t, sorry, we have to wait for the guards to give us permission. And the guards are refusing to give it: they are on the other side of the big road, leaning against their big green pickup truck and watching the scene.
Every so often, a large military eight-wheeler truck pulling two trailers passes by. “That’s the truck they use for rejections. When they find someone, they load them in it and take them outside the wall, threaten them and tell them not to come back,” one girl explains.
“Last Christmas, in the kindergartens, the children were asked to make something for ‘our heroes protecting the homeland,’“ says a woman. “Drawings, little letters, which the teachers then had to send to these people here. The awful thing is that later they went to the schools with those big military trucks and got the children to ride on them – on the same trucks they use to drive these people back, you know? Meanwhile, the streets are full of posters thanking ‘the heroes who are defending the homeland.’ But isn’t this madness? Isn’t this fascism? Look at them – do they look dangerous to you?”
As the big truck rumbles past, the activists start singing to distract the children. They sing ditties, traditional Polish songs, even something resembling the “Duck Dance” complete with miming. The children laugh and then clap. To reciprocate, a boy from the other side sings stanzas in Arabic. “I’m a famous singer,” he says at the end, “Everyone in Iraq knows me.” Maria tells him that when he’ll manage to get through, they’ll do a duet. “But is he really famous?” I hear someone ask. “Yes, he gave us his Instagram profile, he has a lot of followers.” Anyway, he sings beautifully.
A group of older ladies approaches: they are Polish tourists, like many others who come here to admire the beauty of the forest. They ask what’s going on, then some of them join in the singing, including a woman with hair dyed bright red. One friend calls out to her as she starts leaving, bored by the goings-on. The older woman with red hair tells her “You go,” and for half an hour she keeps entertaining the children with singing and dancing.
The activists are enthused by that little spark of life – but the guards don’t like it. They get into the jeep and start going back and forth on the narrow road separating the wall from the forest. Each time they pass between the activists and the heads sticking out between the bars, they hit the gas, raising a cloud of dust. After a short while, a group of men also arrive, perhaps the husbands of the older ladies. Most of them watch from a distance, ask no questions, and leave.
One of the activists tells us that sometimes shady-looking men can be seen just behind the asylum seekers. “They have their faces covered, they’re dressed in black. We think they’re Belarusian guards who go there to put pressure on those people, remind them what awaits them if they go back.” The Polish military watches impassively and doesn’t lift a finger.
The lawyer handling the migrants’ case has filed a petition with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) under an urgent procedure to force the Polish government to let them in to seek asylum. Last time, the ECHR only went as far as forcing Warsaw to provide aid, outside the wall.
This is why the lawyer has now requested that the court force the government to let them in and accommodate them while they seek asylum. It would be the first such decision, setting a precedent for all borders with walls. Normally the ECHR responds within a day, but this time they’re stalling, with more than 24 hours with no response. “It’s definitely because of political issues,” the activists say.
Evening sets in and it’s starting to get cold. On Monday the temperature dropped down to zero degrees. In the meantime, border guards have been handing out water bottles, small containers (probably yogurt) and some kiwis – inshallah. But they only give them to women and children. They don’t want to give anything to males in their teens and up. Some of them insist and finally get a kiwi, but there are few to go around. The children start crying and the parents set up their sleeping bags for the night.
They tell us that they tried to start a fire on Monday, but weren’t able to. The activists also begin to get ready for the cold, putting on fleece and jackets over their T-shirts, with some wearing woolen hoods. On the other side, the migrants have no more clothes to put on.
Along comes a group of young men, Polish tourists, on bicycles. They stop puzzled in front of the sign saying “Military zone – forbidden entry.” As we leave and pass them by, we watch them as they observe the people beyond the bars. They look like they’re at the zoo, watching as indifferently as they would look at animals. One says something that sounds like a joke; someone else chuckles. Then they all turn their bicycles around and start off, ringing their bells.