Fears are growing for a group of Afghan refugees who fled their country last month, before the fall of Kabul, and arrived in Europe to find themselves trapped on the border between Poland and Belarus, in a Kafkaesque political confrontation.
EU leaves Afghan refugees in the hands of Iran and Pakistan in exchange for aid
The 32 asylum seekers – women, men and a 15-year-old boy – have been stranded in a small muddy patch between the two countries for almost three weeks, without access to clean water, adequate shelter and intermittent food supplies, according to one Polish non-governmental organization.
Despite requesting international protection in Poland, the border guard does not allow them to enter the country. Nor do they give them the green light to return to Belarus, from where they came with the hope of joining the European Union.
According to the Ocalenie Foundation, which has been monitoring the situation for the past week, a member of the group, a 53-year-old woman, is ill and needs urgent medical attention. Mariana Wartecka, the NGO spokeswoman, has said that the border guard has denied her access to professional medical assistance. “Right now it is a humanitarian crisis,” he says. “They don’t have adequate shelter. They don’t have access to clean water. They drink water from a nearby stream that is very dirty.”
EU countries have accused Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko of seeking to destabilize the bloc encouraging refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere arrive in the country with tourist visas. Then, they say, he sends them to the border with Poland and the Baltic countries in retaliation for the sanctions imposed by Brussels in June.
The group of Afghans is stranded near the town of Usnarz Górny, about 55 kilometers east of Białystok, and is at the center of this confrontation, according to human rights monitors.
“They are victims of the political game between countries,” reflects Aleksandra Fertlińska, an activist with Amnesty International Poland. “But the most important thing is that no matter what the origin of this political game is. They are refugees and they are protected by the Geneva convention, and what we must do is accept them.”
Last week, the European Court for Human Rights ordered Poland and Latvia to help refugees and migrants on their borders, to provide them with “food, water, clothing and adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter. “. It did not require, however, that any of the countries “allow asylum seekers to enter their territories.”
A group of Iraqi Kurds find themselves in a similar limbo on the border between Latvia and Belarus.
In response to the interim decision of the Court, the right-wing government of Poland has stated that its Foreign Ministry has repeatedly offered bring humanitarian aid to refugees found in Belarus. “These people are on the Belarusian side of the border,” said a spokeswoman for the Polish Interior Ministry.
Agnieszka Kubal, a migration researcher at the City University of London, notes that the offer has been, at best, insincere. “We are in a situation where the Polish border guards are in a tight cordon, literally meters from these people and the Polish authorities send a truck to Belarus to search for these people from the other side. It is a Kafkaesque situation. It is so ridiculous that I can’t find words. ”
While the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan pushes hundreds of thousands of people to flee to neighboring countries, the EU – still affected by its failure to manage the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015– prepares for the arrival of new refugees.
Fertlińska has urged Warsaw to be prepared to receive refugees fleeing their country hit by the crisis and to “not close its borders and not build fences, because we have already seen in 2015 that this type of policy made no difference in terms of to the number of people trying to reach Europe. ”
However, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made harsh comments during his visit to the border last week, accusing the Belarusian regime of exploiting refugees. “Poland must protect its borders,” he declared.
“I really sympathize with the migrants who have been through an extremely difficult situation, but it should be clear that they are a political instrument,” Morawiecki added.
Belarus has denied sending the refugees to the border. In May, Lukashenko warned the EU that if he imposed new sanctions, he would encounter more “drugs and migrants” than his country had detected so far.
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies.