People from as far as Cuba are heading to Belarus to try to enter the European Union. But pushbacks and violence along the Polish border mean that fewer migrants are succeeding with their plans. The EU believes that Belarus is deliberately sending migrants across the border to destabilize the bloc.
People from all over the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa try to make their way into the EU. An estimated 16,000 migrants and refugees have been stopped by Poland's border patrol for illegally crossing the country's 250-mile-long border with Belarus since August alone. Following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August, the number of Afghan nationals showing up on the border has witnessed a particularly sharp rise.
But recently, there have also been reports of Cuban nationals joining the scores of would-be asylum seekers waiting for the right opportunity to make clandestine journeys into EU-member Poland.
They abandon the Caribbean climate of Cuba usually by plane, heading for the Russian capital Moscow, where people smugglers have reportedly arranged to collect them to transport them into Belarus -- a key ally of Russia -- under the watchful eye of the authorities.
"(T)hat’s where our journey got a lot worse," a malnourished and injured Cuban national named Doniel Machado Pujol told Washington-based National Public Radio (NPR) after being caught by Polish police while trying to sneak into the EU.
Violence used as a deterrent
Pujol highlights that with each time he is forcibly returned to Belarus, he faces increasingly brutal beatings by authorities on either side of the border: His legs are bruised and cut after Belarusian soldiers reportedly beat him with metal pipes, threatening to do worse if they were to see him again. There have even been allegations of shots being fired along the border.
"Don't send me back! They'll kill me! Look at what they've done to my legs," he begs as he is being processed to be sent back. "They have no respect for human dignity or human rights," the 29-year-old tells NPR.
"We are like footballs in a game between Poland and Belarus. Nobody wants us."
A manufactured crisis
EU leaders have been alleging for a several months that the humanitarian crisis on the bloc’s external borders is orchestrated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's government. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel is among those who have accused Belarus of illegally pushing migrants over the border into European Union territory.
They all accuse Belarus of organizing the illegal passage of migrants into Poland and other EU neighbors in retaliation for economic sanctions placed on Belarus and in a bid to destabilize the bloc.
The EU alongside various other governments and international bodies around the world allege that the authoritarian leader stole last year's election while intimidating his opponents with the widespread use of violence on any dissenting voice. Lukashenko denies all the accusations.
Humanitarian groups have meanwhile also criticized Poland for pushing some of the migrants back to Belarus rather than reviewing their asylum applications and allowing them due process in violation of EU law and United Nations conventions on refugees.
Marcin Przydacz, deputy foreign minister of Poland, has meanwhile defended that policy, saying that "(i)f we allow more and more people to cross the border, then Mr. Lukashenko, who's also doing business on this, will invite even more of those people."
Death and suffering along border
Kalina Czwarnog from the Polish humanitarian organization Ocalenie Foundation, says that a growing number of people are being lured to the Polish-Belarusian border under false pretences.
"There are many Iraqis, Kurds, there are people from Yemen, Syria, there are people from African countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, and now we've got people from Afghanistan," she told NPR in an interview.
She agrees with the assessment that the government of Belarus is deliberately orchestrating a humanitarian crisis on its borders: "They are inviting them to Belarus, saying that they can cross the EU border from there. And they are getting a seven-day visa or stamp," she explains, adding that from there, Belarusian soldiers escort them to the border and help them to get across.
Instead of allowing migrants to apply for asylum on the Polish side, however, Czwarnog says Polish border guards put most of the migrants in vans and take them back to Belarus, where soldiers often beat them and send them back to Poland again.
Polish officials say that at least five migrants have died from the harsh conditions along the border. Czwarnog meanwhile fears that more people will die along that border as the weather is bound to turn colder in coming weeks. She says that she recently found a group of migrants from Iraq with three young children suffering from severe hypothermia.
After calling an ambulance in the emergency situation, she says that Poland's border patrol took two children and two adults, but sent a 6-year-old child with five adults back to Belarus, potentially separating the family irreparably.
An expensive journey
The dangerous journey through Eastern Europe comes at a high price not just for the morale of those that are forcibly returned.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Syrian family told NPR that the journey to Belarus and on to the Polish border came at a price tag of $16,000. After securing visas, Belarusian soldiers reportedly helped him, his wife and their two young children to cross a river along the Polish-Russian border.
After hiking through dense forest for 12 hours, the family were caught by Polish border guards. However, the Syrian family were taken to a shelter in the city of Bialystok instead of being returned to Belarus.
The Syrian man believes that Poland didn't send his family back because they, too, were suffering from hypothermia. He believes his family has a good chance of being granted asylum in the EU. Others are far less lucky, with push-backs becoming increasingly common along the border.
Belarus involved in trafficking
However, there is mounting proof that Belarus has indeed helped to build the needed infrastructures to manufacture this crisis: At the beginning of 2021, there was only a single flight from Iraq to Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Now there are several flights a week from multiple Iraqi cities -- all sold out through November, according to Iraqi Airways.
A Polish journalist named Patryk Michalski, who works or the digital news outlet Wirtualna Polska, says he also found evidence of Belarus' government profiting from the human trafficking activities. He has shared documents with NPR left behind by a group of migrants along the border. Among the torn up pieces of paper were lists of travelers from Iraq, with passport numbers and receipts of payments made to Belarusian travel agencies.
There were also invoices of stays at five-star hotels run by the Belarusian government, as well as documents signed by Belarusian officials helping to facilitate the trips.
Even Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko has indirectly acknowledged the country’s involvement in the current crisis: "If someone thinks that we will close the border with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a filtration camp for fugitives from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, they are mistaken at least."
"We will not hold anyone. We are not their final destination after all. They are headed to the enlightened, warm, cozy Europe," he said sarcastically in July 2021.