Caritas Europa appeals for lifesaving support for migrants on Belarus borders
By Linda Bordoni
Thousands of migrants are stranded, in freezing temperatures, on the border between Belarus and Poland as they attempt to enter Europe in search of asylum or a better life.
But Warsaw has reinforced its border with a razor-wire fence and soldiers blocking their entry. Footage shows many families, young children, and babies among the people stuck there.
The European Union is accusing Belarus of encouraging the migrants – from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa – to try to illegally cross the frontier in revenge for earlier sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses.
Embattled Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, backed by Russia, denies using the migrants as pawns and blames the EU for the crisis. Like Poland, neighbouring Lithuania has also imposed a state of emergency and is turning back migrants.
Catholic humanitarian agency, Caritas Europa, is doing its best, liaising with local Caritas offices and dioceses near the Polish and Lithuanian borders in an attempt to provide life-saving humanitarian aid.
But because of the state of emergency, it does not have access to the border itself. In an interview with Vatican Radio, the Secretary-General of Caritas Europa, Maria Nyman, described the situation as critical and warned of possible deaths if the situation is protracted, but said local Caritas offices are doing everything possible in very challenging circumstances.
Maria Nyman said Caritas Poland has mobilised, supporting the dioceses near the border “to act as aid points that provide backpacks with blankets, energy bars, water.”
She said it also financially supports the diocesan Caritas offices who are in constant contact with the refugee centers operating in the area, organizing humanitarian transport to the centers with items of basic need.
Nyman explained they are also discussing border issues with the parishes that are close to the area where the emergency is unfolding, “because it is important to know that Caritas Poland cannot have access to the border itself because of this emergency law that prevents Caritas from providing support there, and directly on the border.”
“So, whilst we are doing all we can to help provide immediate relief, we also try to call on our leaders to make sure that every human being is always treated with respect and dignity,” she said.
The threat of freezing winter conditions
The Caritas Europa Secretary-General warned that every hour that passes the situation gets more critical as “winter is approaching and people are stuck in forests. These include families and children, sleeping rough in freezing temperatures, without access to medical aid or to humanitarian support.”
Asked whether she sees similarities between the crises experienced by Greece, Italy, and Spain in the last years, and the current standoff between Belarus, Lithuania and Poland, Maria Nyman said, “Yes and no: No because the political situation is different, with the political tensions between the EU and Belarus,” but yes regarding the situation of vulnerability in which the migrants on the border find themselves.
“They are stuck in very challenging situations in which their dignity and their rights are violated,” she said, explaining that not only are they braving freezing temperatures and sleeping rough in the woods, they are also unable to lodge an asylum claim, and many are victims of push-backs and violence by state authorities and border guards.
Another common point, she noted, is that regardless of how they arrived at the border of the European Union, many of them are fleeing conflict and have experienced traumatic conditions along the way.
Appeal for dignified conditions for migrants
Just like Spain, Italy, and Greece, she said, Lithuania and Poland need European solidarity because these are European issues: the focus “must not be on building walls but on human rights and on the right to asylum, as well as providing humanitarian support to allow for dignified conditions” for the migrants.
Maria Nyman said Caritas Europa’s first appeal to EU institutions would be to find ways to grant access to the border to provide emergency aid and support for organizations such as Caritas, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration, as well as for EU agencies like the European asylum support offices and Frontex, in order to allow them to operate at the borders and ensure transparency and support for the people there, whom she said are risking their lives.
She also said a Caritas appeal would also regard the right for persons to have their asylum claims processed and the need to de-escalate tension between Belarus and the EU.
“As Caritas Europa, we really want to remind our leaders that all human beings, regardless of their origins, regardless of the reasons for their travels, should see their rights respected,” she said.
Geopolitical tensions, she added, cannot be the pretext – so to say – “to literally let people die as they try to cross the border because that is what is happening, and right now.”
The Church's voice
Nyman said Caritas joins its voice to those of Church leaders, recalling that the President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference on Tuesday called for material and spiritual assistance for the migrants at the Poland/Belarus border; and that the Archbishop of Vilnius, Gintaras Grusas, who is also the President of the European Bishops’ Conference, conceded that EU member states have a right to protect their borders, while insisting “they must do that with humanity.”
The Caritas Europa Secretary-General concluded reiterating the utmost urgency of the situation from a humanitarian perspective: “We cannot, in any way, let this difficult situation be to the detriment of the people on the move who are in vulnerable situations, the people suffering. They need our support and they need to have their rights respected.”