Home Asia Will the Poland-Belarus Border Emergency Become Permanent?

Will the Poland-Belarus Border Emergency Become Permanent?

BOBROWKA, Poland—In this village on the Polish border with Belarus, clusters of homes and wooden barns stand next to hastily constructed military outposts built out of wooden pallets, steel barrels, and tarps, many of which are proudly flying red-and-white Polish flags. Beyond these reinforcements stands the border fence, fortified with several layers of concertina wire.

Wiera Aleksiejuk, a woman in her late 70s, can see across the Belarusian border from the door of her house, which lies less than 300 feet from the fence itself. Sitting on her front steps last month, she turned her attention to the wooden gate of her front yard, where a group of visiting journalists had started to gather.

“I see they finally let you in,” she said with a friendly laugh.

Ever since Sept. 2, 2021, when Poland’s government announced a state of emergency along its border with Belarus as a result of the ongoing migration and security crisis there, an exclusion zone has existed along the frontier that has barred journalists, relief groups, and nonresidents from accessing the area. New regulations were implemented on Dec. 1, and although the status quo on the ground has largely continued unchanged, the Polish Border Guard has begun granting journalists limited access to the border zone as part of supervised tours.

Foreign Policy joined one such tour of the vicinity of the Polish border town of Czeremcha. The Border Guard presented little that was unexpected—the shuttered border crossings, sleepy villages like Bobrowka where soldiers keep the peace, and fences damaged by Belarusian guards to allow groups of migrants to cross the border spoke to the significant security challenges that Belarus has presented to Poland’s sovereignty, and fit well with the government’s projection of strength around the crisis.

Yet another side of the crisis remained hidden from view during the official tour: people hiding in frigid forests after being coerced into crossing into Poland by the Belarusians, Polish authorities pushing migrants back across the border in contravention of international law, and residents risking condemnation in their communities and possible arrest for helping migrants make their way across the zone. Even though the number of crossing attempts has diminished over the last few weeks, Polish authorities will maintain the current security restrictions through at least March and have formally commissioned the construction of a permanent barrier along the border with Belarus.

Two Polish soldiers patrol near the Poland-Belarus border.

Two Polish soldiers patrol near the Poland-Belarus border on Dec. 13, 2021. Michal Kranz for Foreign Policy

The visit began at the Polowce-Pieszczatka border crossing, which has been fortified with barriers and barbed wire ever since early November 2021, when clashes erupted at the Kuznica border crossing between Polish police and migrants who were reportedly given stun grenades by Belarusian forces. As journalists snapped photos and filmed, two Belarusian border guards were visible trying their best to stay hidden from the cameras.

“Before this whole situation, relations were very good,” said Border Guard Capt. Krystyna Jakimik-Jarosz, speaking about previous levels of cooperation between the Polish and Belarusian border guards in front of a tangle of concertina wire at the crossing. “Every year, we even took part in kayaking meets together.”

This relationship is now a distant memory. Since last summer, Belarusian border guards have been facilitating illegal crossings of the Polish border as part of Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko’s ploy to foment a migrant crisis on the European Union’s eastern border in order to extract political and economic concessions from Europe—something he has failed to achieve so far.

In the weeks before the media visit, the Czeremcha area saw frequent confrontations between Belarusian border guards and their Polish counterparts. The seven-day period preceding the tour saw nearly nightly crossing attempts, during which the Belarusians damaged the fence and used lasers to temporarily blind Polish guards—a tactic they have reportedly used frequently throughout the crisis.

The tour group soon arrived at the location of such a clash that took place on Nov. 16, 2021. Here, the chain of barbed wire ran over a set of train tracks that were surrounded by wooden shards and other debris that had apparently been thrown at Polish Border Guards by migrants while their Belarusian hosts had assisted with their lasers.

“If we have a patrol at night, then [a forced crossing attempt] happens every night,” said a border guard at the site who wished to remain anonymous. “The question when we leave for patrol is just where.”

The average number of daily forced crossings in which Belarusian guards help migrants across the border fence has fallen since this past November and early December, but during the visit, the border guard said that when people do manage to cross the border, they are usually quickly apprehended. He said in most situations, these migrants are registered, given a decision to leave Poland, and then taken back to the border, where the guard said they cross back into Belarus.

Pushbacks of this sort are illegal under international law but have become official policy in Poland since October 2021. According to a Human Rights Watch report released in late November last year, there have been cases in which people who requested asylum in Poland were forced to return to Belarus, where authorities have been accused of beating, coercing, and stealing from migrants. In a case that grabbed headlines in Poland, a 16-year-old Syrian boy with epilepsy was pushed back to Belarus on Dec. 30, 2021, according to the Polish humanitarian coalition Grupa Granica.

Aras Palani, an Iraqi Kurdish translator working with Grupa Granica, has witnessed his own family being pushed back numerous times by the Polish authorities after they arrived in Belarus to try to make it into the European Union. Palani, who fled Iraq two decades ago to the United Kingdom, came to Poland last year in hopes of helping his family finally join him in Europe.

He said that daily realities affecting his family and hundreds of others like his along the border are always obscured from public view.

“You would never see a Polish guard pushing someone in front of you,” Palani said in a phone interview. “You would never see by the fence a refugee standing on the other side. You will never see someone in the woods, hungry, [who] hasn’t eaten for days.”

Aleksiejuk stands in front of her home, with the barbed wire border fence visible behind her.

Wiera Aleksiejuk stands in front of her home, with the barbed wire border fence visible behind her yard on Dec. 13, 2021. Michal Kranz for Foreign Policy

Reporters interview Wiera Aleksiejuk in the border town of Bobrowka, Poland.

An impromptu news conference takes place in front of Aleksiejuk’s home in Bobrowka, Poland, on Dec. 13, 2021. Michal Kranz for Foreign Policy

The most recent location of a forced crossing attempt that the press tour visited was in Bobrowka, where a tangle of wire and stakes bent at odd angles lay mere feet away from Aleksiejuk’s house. Surrounded by journalists and Border Guard functionaries on the tour, she said she hadn’t heard anything on the night of Dec. 10, 2021, when the attempted crossing took place.

“I feel just as protected as the president,” she said about the militarization of daily life in the border zone.

But other residents of the zone felt differently.

“In the beginning it was kind of interesting, kind of exciting in a way,” said a resident of the Bialowieza Forest area. “But then a week later you realize that that’s going to be your life for the next couple of months.”

Residents of the zone must pass through checkpoints when traveling into and out of the closed area, and they often have to explain where they are going and why. The Bialowieza Forest area resident mentioned that even having “too many” water bottles in the car can be seen as suspicious by police.

Both countries’ border posts and damaged piece of the fence.

Both countries’ border posts and damaged piece of the fence are visible on Dec. 13, 2021, at the site of a recent attempted crossing. Michal Kranz for Foreign Policy

“We get stopped, we get searched, we get harassed, just for being there and having a connection to that place,” said another resident. “A lot of people keep trying to not see certain things, not hear certain things, and keep trying to make it normal for themselves, but I know from a lot of conversations that I’ve had that it’s not that easy to do that.”

Both of these residents are active volunteers who work to provide potentially life-saving assistance to migrants making their way through the zone, and they provided comments over the phone on the condition of anonymity. According to certain interpretations of Polish law, it’s possible that if caught, they could be imprisoned for their activities.

By and large, individual residents of the border zone have found it difficult not to be sympathetic to people showing up on their doorstep seeking aid, regardless of their politics or their stance on the border crisis. Jacek Sloma, a farmer living in the border town of Krynki, is supportive of the military’s presence in the area and the Border Guard’s handling of the crisis, but he has also tried to lend a helping hand during several interactions he’s had with migrants.

Sloma does have his reservations, however. He recounted one encounter where a man he met accepted his offers of water and food but seemed more interested in getting help with transport westward. After providing him with basic necessities, Sloma notified authorities about the individual.

“I understood help to mean something different; to simply give him what he needs, but to nevertheless contact the Border Guard,” Sloma said during a meeting in Bialystok, the local provincial capital. “If I’m looking at a border crisis, in the first order I have to look through the prism of a Polish citizen. And I have to ensure safety for Polish citizens.”

Sloma acknowledged that the state of emergency has inconvenienced him and his family somewhat, but in his view, it remains a necessary annoyance.

Soldiers stand on the Polish side of the Polowce border crossing.

Soldiers stand on the Polish side of the Polowce border crossing on Dec. 13, 2021. Michal Kranz for Foreign Policy

At the last stop on the tour in the border village of Opaka Duza, Border Guard Lt. Izabela Greczan insisted that the exclusion zone was necessary to guarantee journalists’ safety and argued that allowing independent medical services into the area was unnecessary, as the Border Guard always allows ambulances into the zone for migrants in need.

Yet both Palani and the volunteers living in the border zone challenged this assertion. They said that not only are some migrants hesitant to call for ambulances for fear of deportation, but also, in some situations, migrants have been pushed back by the Border Guard before they could receive medical care at local hospitals.

After months of pleas to enter the border zone to help migrants in need, the international organization Doctors Without Borders finally gave up trying to gain access to the area. The status quo has made some residents feel solely responsible for the welfare of people who pass through the zone, even though individuals like the volunteer from the Bialowieza Forest area said they were totally unprepared for the gravity of the task at hand.

On top of the implications the status quo in the zone presents for humanitarian efforts and life-saving interventions, it also sets a potentially dangerous precedent for information control, especially because authority over it now lies solely with the Ministry of the Interior without parliamentary oversight. According to Polish analysts, the introduction of the state of emergency in the current crisis may make it easier for it to be implemented in future contexts for political ends.

The most recent extension of these security regulations was also likely unconstitutional under Polish law, according to legal experts such as Witold Klaus, a professor and member of the administration of the Poland-based Association for Legal Intervention.

“The lack of a journalistic presence means that the government can build its own narrative,” Klaus said. “Controlling all means of transmission allows for the controlling of the transmission itself, and for the transmission of its own point of view to the world.”

Klaus added that the portrait the state is painting of the situation on the border is directed primarily at the government’s domestic base, which has responded well to its “us and them” rhetoric on the issue and its efforts to portray security forces as the only bulwark keeping residents in the area safe.

If one were to judge the situation based on the media tour alone, however, one would be forgiven for buying into this narrative. The press junket showcased legitimate challenges to the integrity of Poland’s sovereignty and security and contrasted these threats with the calm guaranteed by the Border Guard’s presence. But lost were the nuances of the crisis, and in this version of events, the exclusion zone was only big enough for Poland and its enemies.

For the volunteer from the Bialowieza Forest area, the securitized existence of residents in the border zone has slowly given rise to a creeping sense of danger at every turn.

“They turned a humanitarian crisis into just a political conflict,” the resident said. “And all of that creates this tension all the time that people clearly feel and see in the village, regardless of what side they are on. You’re waiting for something, but you don’t know what that something is.”

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