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A woman talks to a Polish border guard on 20 August 2021 A woman talks to a Polish border guard on 20 August 2021  (AFP or licensors)

Migrants freezing to death at Polish-Belarus border

At least five people have reportedly died along the Polish-Belarus border, where migrants fleeing war, persecution, and poverty are pushed back from the European Union.

By Stefan J. Bos

Polish troops stand guard near barbed wire at the fortified border with Belarus. European Union members Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have each declared a state of emergency. They want to stop a surge of thousands of people trying to cross from Belarus.

Brussels has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants as a weapon to destabilize the EU.

Lukashenko has been outraged by sanctions imposed by the EU over his crackdown on dissent following last year's controversial presidential elections.

The EU says Belarus invites migrants to come to the country and helps them enter the EU, for instance, through Poland. However, in recent days dramatic footage has emerged of migrants freezing to death.

Michael, a Catholic father of three from Sri Lanka, was close to tears when recalling the icy reception from Polish border guards. "I asked to call my wife. 'Please one single minute call,' I asked. But they refused," he recalled. "I pray to God that I will make it [into the EU]. I am a Catholic. And I've made it," he said, his voice trembling.

Illegally deported

Migrants say they've been illegally deported from the European Union by Polish border troops.

Kelly and his brother Owen from Nigeria told the BBC network they were pushed back and forth by Polish and Belarusian forces for the past three weeks.

"They are playing us like football. First, the Belarussians beat us and pushed us to Poland. Then the Poles catch us, beat us, and push us back to Belarus."

The brothers thought they would die. "They threatened us with a gun. There was a time when they released a bullet. We're scared; we don't want them to shoot us."

21-year-old Megelan from Cameroon explains that it is difficult to survive.

"We crawl from Belarus under the wire, and then while we go inside, maybe if the Polish police happen to see you, they will take you back."

However, Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has defended his government's tough stands towards migrants he says enter his nation illegally.

He blames Belarus for their difficulties. "There is an organized assault on the Polish border," the prime minister claimed. But he warned: "We will certainly not budge. We cannot be subject to blackmail."

Aid banned

However, journalists and aid groups have now been banned by Polish authorities from key areas after reports that several people already died here in sometimes freezing temperatures.

That worries Marta Gorczinska, a human rights lawyer. "We don't know how many other deaths are there in the forest," she explained.

The lawyer added: "Politicians are talking about politics."

However, "what we can see is just people. It's not politics at all. It's just people that need assistance, people that need international protection not to be returned to the country where they face danger." 

Yet, for now, her plea for more compassion remains unanswered.

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26 September 2021, 14:10