We met with K, an activist from Grupa Granica, in a Warsaw park, between two stalls selling intertwined Polish and Ukrainian flags. The Grupa Granica collective works to help migrants crossing the border between Belarus and Poland, which has been the scene of a silent humanitarian tragedy for the past two years. K calls it the “forgotten border,” because no one seems to care about the fate of these refugees who risk their lives daily to enter Europe.
In July 2022, the Polish premier, Mateusz Morawiecki, a member of the far-right Law and Justice party, and senior national security officials held a pompous press conference at the border to announce the completion of “the wall”: 186 kilometers of steel grating up to 6 meters high that, according to the intentions of the Warsaw government, was supposed to stop the “invasion” that was being used by the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, as a weapon to destabilize the EU. Shortly before our meeting with K, Grupa Granica announced the discovery of the 45th dead body since the beginning of the crisis.
How many people are trying to cross the border per day?
I have numbers, but they’re not accurate, because the methodology for establishing them is not a simple one; but to our knowledge there are about 200 who make it through every week. That’s certainly an underestimate, because we can’t get in touch with everyone who comes in. It could also be that the information we have counts only half of the actual arrivals – it’s impossible to say.
Since when have there been such numbers?
It depends on the seasons: in winter the risk of freezing to death is very high. So most arrivals take place between April and May.
The crisis at the Polish-Belarus border started in 2021, in August. How did you react when you saw the images of all those people massing at the border?
I joined Grupa Granica in September, about a month after the first incidents at the border. We saw all these people arriving on TV and there was no one there to help them. The border guards were pushing them back all the time, and the Belarusian border area is a very wild area, the forests are so thick that in some places you can’t see farther than a few meters. In the winter, everything freezes. At first, I used to take part in collections of clothes, water and basic necessities here in Warsaw. The collected materials were then sent out into the field, to villages near the border. Later I decided to join the field workers directly and go into the woods myself to bring these supplies to the migrants.
And what do these people do after crossing the border?
Basically, they can’t apply for asylum in Poland because our legislation is very prohibitive in this respect. So most of them try to continue to Germany and cross the border there.
Have controls increased along the border over the years?
It’s the opposite: it was better guarded in the beginning because the “wall” wasn’t there. The government passed emergency laws that basically turned these areas into restricted areas into which only residents or people with well-documented reasons could enter. It was not a shining example of legality, but for the government at the time it worked. They basically cut out a strip of territory up to about 2 kilometers from the border and prevented activists from entering this area – and journalists, and anyone who wanted to go to the scene to see what was going on or to help out. In some sections, such as Białowieza Forest, the forest is so dense that the whole area becomes virtually inaccessible. There were constant patrols in this buffer zone. Then the army also arrived.
How do you help the refugees, in practical terms?
We help them here in Poland, when they arrive in the woods, by bringing them basic necessities, cell phones and SIM cards, because it often happens that border guards break their phones or steal their SIM cards to prevent them from going back or contacting other migrants.
Which guards? The Polish ones or the Belarusian ones?
It happens on Polish territory as well. We have testimonies of brutal rejections, of violence by the Polish police. We have many testimonies of migrants recounting that the border guards, police or army are using pepper spray. They stop them and then they use the spray, maybe to keep them from seeing what they’re going to do next. To our knowledge, this is common, it happens to most people when they’re caught.
Can we call it an environment of everyday violence?
Right now, I think that’s exactly what it is, everyday violence, and I think it’s actually gotten progressively worse compared to two summers ago. In the early days, we used to record the acts of violence, but it seems to me that today it has become normalized.
And then there’s the enormous difference in terms of reception between Ukrainian refugees and these other people.
It’s insane. It’s as if we’re living in two different worlds. In one, there’s us standing out in the woods at night with red headlamps trying to help these people fill out paperwork for applications to the Polish government, and in another there are the new Ukrainian refugee centers in Warsaw. I don’t see the difference between these two types of people, but instead it’s like we’re on two different planets. And it’s a realization that sometimes makes you feel like you’ve gone crazy. You try to keep the issue in public view as much as you can, to seek support, but in the end you’re always in a jungle, standing and filling out documents in a hurry.
What do you think of the European reaction to this crisis?
Awful. One of my first thoughts about the situation in political terms was, “Where is the European Union?” Why is it possible for some people to torture other people in Europe without anybody reacting?
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