Polish soldiers building a fence along the border with Belarus | Photo: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/picture-alliance
Polish soldiers building a fence along the border with Belarus | Photo: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/picture-alliance

More than 30 Afghan migrants stuck at the border between Poland and Belarus are sick, according to a Polish aid group. The migrants have been camped out for weeks near the town of Usnarz Gorny, east of Bialystok.

Poland is continuing to refuse entry to a group of 32 migrants who have been stuck at the country’s border with Belarus for nearly three weeks. Polish border guards, police and military have reportedly sealed off all access to the migrants and turned back anyone trying to help the group.

The Polish non-profit refugee organization Ocalenie (Rescue) Foundation, which has been monitoring the blockade, has warned that all of the migrants are sick and their health is worsening. "Many of them are suffering from fevers, vomiting and diarrhoea," a spokesperson, Kalina Czwarnog, said on Monday, August 30.


Migrant women in Poland near the Belarusian border on August 20, 2021 | Photo: STR/NurPhoto/Imago Images
Migrant women in Poland near the Belarusian border on August 20, 2021 | Photo: STR/NurPhoto/Imago Images


One of the migrants, a woman in her 50s, is said to be seriously ill with a kidney condition. Czwarnog told the German press agency, dpa, that Polish border officers had prevented an ambulance from reaching the sick migrants.

The TV news channel TVN24 had also reported last week that Polish security forces had stopped volunteers, including church workers, from delivering food and medicine to the migrants on Thursday evening.

Polish authorities say the migrants are from various countries of origin. But in an interview with the Polish news agency OKO Press, Ocalenie Foundation's Marianna Wartecka said that all 32 migrants had given Afghanistan as their country of origin. All spoke Dari (a language of Afghanistan) and gave the names of the specific provinces they were from, Wartecka said.


Razor wire fence

Work is underway on the construction of a razor wire fence along the border to keep out migrants trying to enter Poland from Belarus. The 2.5-meter-high barrier is intended to run 180 kilometers – nearly half the total length of the forested border between the two countries.

On Sunday, 13 activists were arrested on the Polish side for trying to destroy part of the fence, according to the AP news agency. Poland's Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said that what the protesters had done was "absolutely unacceptable'' and that those detained would "bear all the legal consequences of their actions.''

The activists include 12 Poles and one Dutch citizen, media reports said. According to AP, the activists issued a statement saying: "We do not agree to humiliation, inhumane treatment and refusal to provide medical assistance to refugees, and we do not agree to the use of illegal push-back procedures.''


The migrants are camped near Usnarz Górny (location marker), but the Polish Prime Minister has said that they are inside Belarusian territory | Source: Google Maps
The migrants are camped near Usnarz Górny (location marker), but the Polish Prime Minister has said that they are inside Belarusian territory | Source: Google Maps

Mounting pressure

The Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko announced at the end of May that Minsk would no longer prevent migrants from crossing the borders into Europe, in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the EU in June. Large numbers of migrants have since attempted to cross from Belarus into neighboring EU states, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Polish border guards on Friday said that they had prevented 3,059 attempts to cross the border so far in August, including 55 in the last 24 hours. But human rights groups say the Polish authorities are conducting push-backs – illegal expulsions – against migrants. The Polish Helsinki Committee is collecting evidence of individual cases of push-backs and plans to sue the government of Poland, according to Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer. She told journalists from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) that a legal amendment allowing Poland to forcibly return migrants caught near the border – passed by the government in Warsaw on August 20 and known as the "Implementing Act" – was in breach of national legislation and international laws, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention.

On August 25, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Poland and also Latvia, where a group of Iraqi Kurds is stranded on the border with Belarus, to provide the migrants with "food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter." Poland, which was given ten days to answer questions from the Human Rights Court, has so far insisted that the migrants are on the Belarusian side of the border and are not its responsibility.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic and the UN aid agency (UNHCR) have also appealed to Poland to allow aid through and enable the migrants to apply for asylum.

Also read: Human Rights Commissioner urges Poland to protect rights of trapped migrants

Public support for refugees 

Some analysts believe that Poland’s right-wing government is using the issue of the migrants at the border to regain public support – it recently lost its Parliamentary majority and the ruling Law and Justice Party recently fell by three points in public opinion polls to 26%, equal with the main opposition group, Civic Platform.

Adam Szostkiewicz, a political commentator for the weekly Polityka, says that public opinion has changed since 2015, when the government secured Polish voters‘ support with its strong anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"At the time, around 70% of Poles said they were opposed to letting in refugees. Today, it is 55%," Szczesniak told AFP.

The fate of the group of migrants currently stuck on the border has even prompted the Catholic Church, traditionally close to the government, to speak out. Poland's leading figure in the Catholic clergy, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, has appealed to political leaders "to be guided above all by the spirit of hospitality, respect for new arrivals and goodwill."

With agencies

 

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