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Białystok, Poland – Mahir* and Hasan* wove their way through a forest in eastern Poland. It had been a dry start to the spring, and the branches and leaves rustled and cracked under their boots.
Just a week earlier, the two had met for the first time at a mutual friend’s dingy student accommodation on a sunny March afternoon in Moscow.
Mahir, a 40-year-old computer engineer from Yemen, had immediately warmed to the 30-year-old Sudanese architect’s cheerful disposition and forthright attitude. A meticulous planner, Hasan, who turned up dressed in jeans, hiking boots and a white jacket, exuded an air of confidence and optimism that had immediately put Mahir at ease.
But now, as they stopped to catch their breath and scan their unfamiliar surroundings, Mahir noted a flicker of concern flash across Hasan’s face. They had just succeeded in crossing into the European Union via Belarus, the final stage of a journey that had started in their respective homelands, where they had faced persecution and political unrest. This was the part they had not planned for. As they stood silently in a sprawling ancient wilderness, they felt a growing realisation that their journey to safety was far from over.
Route from Russia
Six years ago, Mahir, an earnest man, with a wiry frame, and neatly trimmed curly hair, survived a politically motivated assassination attempt in Yemen.
Initially, he had planned to seek asylum in the EU or Canada, but the process could take considerable time, something he did not have. Instead, he managed to secure a temporary student visa in Russia and immediately travelled to Moscow. He eventually became embroiled in the bureaucracy of the Russian asylum process, which he describes as “designed to make it so hard for you that you give up”. So, after two years, he went into hiding, waiting for an opportunity to make it to the EU.
Then, in early March 2022, Mahir says he received a tip from a friend that it was now possible to enter the EU from Russia via Belarus and was introduced to Hasan, who had escaped recent political unrest in Sudan. Hasan believed that, unlike Russia or Belarus, a number of countries in the EU would fairly consider his request for asylum. A few days after meeting, the two men boarded a train to the Belarusian capital Minsk, where they stayed for three days in a hostel before heading to the Polish-Belarusian border.
At the hostel, Mahir heard that Belarusian border guards were helping people cross into Poland. When they arrived at the border, Mahir says he touched the fence, which he saw was rigged with sensors. Within minutes a vehicle with four border guards screeched to a halt in front of them.
Hasan and Mahir asked if they could enter Poland. They think that their relaxed and honest approach took the guards by surprise. They broke into smiles, they say, and provided them with detailed instructions on where to find a hole in the border fence. They also told them where to find a gap in the Polish border wall that was not yet fully installed and lay on the other side of the fence and across a 100-metre-wide (300 feet) buffer zone separating the two countries. Work on the 5.5 metre-high (18 feet) wall began in January. When complete, the wall will run for 186km (116 miles), cutting through valleys, wetlands and forest.
At first, the advice proved sound. The pair were able to cross into Poland and avoid Polish border guards, who have been accused of “pushbacks” of non-European refugees and migrants entering their country via the “red zone” – a 3km-wide (two-mile) strip running along the roughly 400km (249-mile) border with Belarus. The zone is off-limits to the public, including aid workers and journalists.
They had earlier received a tip that if they were to survive the long, bitterly cold nights in and around the “red zone”, they would need to contact an underground network of volunteers for help. So as soon as the pair were sure they were not being followed, they sent their location to the number their contact had provided.
A few hours later, a group of locals arrived with blankets, food, drinks, and warm clothes. But the volunteers became agitated when Mahir and Hasan asked if they could help them move further into Poland, responding that it was considered “highly illegal” by the authorities. Just by providing basic aid, the volunteers could face up to eight years in prison.
The two men walked through the forest for five days.
Hasan would use his words sparingly, focusing his attention on the journey and the decision-making. Initially, this irritated the talkative Mahir, but it soon became a quality he admired. Despite their different personalities, a close friendship began to blossom.
Eventually, the wooded areas that provided cover thinned out. They looked out on a flat landscape, dotted with small villages along the horizon. They could only hope that no one would notice them and call the police. Mustering some courage, they stepped out.
An hour later, on a quiet meandering country road, a patrol car belonging to the Polish border guard pulled up beside them.
The two men hadn’t heard the gentle hum of the car’s engine, so they knew there was little point in running when it appeared. As two Polish border guards calmly stepped out of the vehicle, Mahir pleaded, “Please let us go,” to the guards, who displayed no emotion. “I knew it was hopeless to beg,” he recalls, “but it was devastating to be caught, and I began to act illogically.”
Mahir and Hasan were searched, their phones and documents confiscated, before being driven to a small base for border guards.
At the base, staff scrupulously rifled through their documents. Mahir says they were then presented with two documents; the first, in English, informed them they could not enter the EU for three years, and the other was in Polish.
Mahir says he told the guards, in near-fluent English, that they would not sign the Polish document as he did not understand the local language and laws, declaring instead that he wanted to seek asylum in Poland. When they refused to acknowledge his request, he asked to speak to a lawyer, his embassy, or a human rights organisation.
Well-informed and articulate, Mahir was proving to be a difficult case for the border guards, and the atmosphere grew tense.
Eventually, he says a guard with a short buzzcut and a tall, hulking frame stormed into the room. He pulled out a baton and shouted at the two men, who fell silent. A female border guard laughed, commenting sarcastically: “Oh, now you do what we say.”
Mahir and Hasan claim that a border guard pulled the Polish documents from their hands and signed them himself. A spokesperson for the Polish border guards did not respond to a request for comment about this incident but said that relevant documents are translated into a language that “they [the refugees] can understand”.
The large, intimidating guard then pushed the men towards two vehicles, according to Mahir, swinging a baton and barking out monosyllabic instructions in English: “Now go. Go, go, go.” Accompanied by guards, they were driven to the border and ordered into the buffer zone between Poland and Belarus.
The ongoing border crisis
Mahir and Hasan found themselves caught in a border crisis that started in mid-2021 and resulted in thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, and the Kurdish region of Iraq, attempting to enter Poland via Belarus.
Belarusian authorities, mainly via tourist agencies in the Middle East, promoted travel to Belarus while people smugglers led refugees and migrants to believe they could easily enter the EU. Thousands of people were issued tourist visas to fly to Minsk and then headed to the border with Poland.
The EU, NATO, and the US all accused Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, of manufacturing the crisis in retribution for sanctions imposed on him after his disputed re-election in 2020 and his crackdown on mass pro-democracy protests.
Following the protests, more than 27,000 people were detained and arrested, while hundreds were beaten and tortured in detention by Belarusian security forces, some fatally. In addition, several high-profile figures, including Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who had taken part in the protests against Lukashenko’s regime fled to Poland, creating tensions between the two countries.
Poland’s right-wing government responded to the influx of migrants and refugees crossing into their country by declaring a state of emergency. The “red zone” was set up, dozens of checkpoints erected, and 13,000 soldiers and border police assigned to protect the area.
Refugees and migrants who were caught in the so-called “red zone” were pushed back to the Belarusian border. They were often beaten and robbed by Belarusian border guards and physically forced back into Poland. In November, when the crisis reached its height, thousands of people were trapped in the ‘red zone’, facing starvation, dehydration, and hypothermia. At least 19 people died attempting the crossing in 2021.
In late November, the crisis appeared to dissipate after the Belarusian authorities began to allow people to travel back to their countries of origin. To house others, a transport and logistics centre was also converted into a makeshift shelter in the Belarusian village of Bruzgi. The number of people attempting to cross began to dwindle, the media spotlight moved on and the situation appeared to stabilise.
On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and Poland opened its borders to refugees escaping the brutalities of war in Ukraine. Poland has been heralded for its positive and welcoming response to the refugees crossing its southeastern border from Ukraine. Humanitarian organisations flooded the area as Polish border guards and police helped transport Ukrainians to safe housing.
But just a few hundred kilometres north, non-European refugees and migrants are still being pushed back in the forest and detained by the same border authority while the state touts the construction of a border wall.
Broken ribs and aching legs
Mahir and Hasan, shaken and discouraged, decided it was best to scale the fence into Belarus and rest there for a few days before attempting another crossing.
But 2km (1.2 miles) into Belarusian territory, a group of Belarusian border guards approached the pair, shouting and swearing in Russian. Mahir describes how a tall, muscular guard knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the ribs. “Does it hurt?” he shouted in Russian. Mahir, who had learned the language during his time in Russia, screamed, “Yes!” in response, only for the guard to kick him with increased ferocity.
Meanwhile, they say, two guards dragged Hasan’s slight frame to the muddy floor and kicked him multiple times, leaving him writhing on the ground. “They beat us hard, kicked my ribs, beat my legs; it was violent, vicious, and without mercy,” Mahir recalls, his voice shaking.
The pair were taken back to a stout, middle-aged Belarusian border official. In contrast to the behaviour of the border guards, Mahir noted he had a kind face and listened quietly to their story. He was impressed with Mahir’s Russian and took the opportunity to ask why so many people were attempting to reach Poland.
The pain emanating from Mahir’s ribs brought him to tears as he spoke. He later learned he had sustained a series of fractures, and his legs would be discoloured from bruising after being beaten with batons. The official comforted Mahir, telling him if they moved further south, he could get them back into Poland.
Half an hour later, 30 more people, including many children, appeared. Mahir says they were split into three groups and led to separate vans. Mahir and Hasan, along with 10 men and three women from Sudan, Egypt, and Yemen, were driven for an hour before being led to a new fence. Belarusian border guards then pulled a quiet unassuming Egyptian man from the group, handed him a phone with an offline map on it, and gave him instructions on how to traverse the difficult terrain on the Polish side.
“The second crossing was very, very terrible,” says Mahir. “I thought we crossed three rivers, but I found out later that the Egyptian was lost and led us across the same river. We then walked for 3km (1.9 miles) totally wet. Can you imagine with broken ribs and aching legs? I was really suffering.”
Eventually, they made it out of the swampy land and into the secluded forest. Six members of the group were exhausted and immediately settled down to rest.
Mahir, Hasan, and the others continued to walk until morning came. “We soon realised we needed help because we were freezing to death as we had wet clothes,” he recalls.
When searched by the Polish border police, Mahir had managed to hide a spare phone, and one of the others in the group had a SIM card and the number of a people smuggler. They called him, and he said it would cost $2,500 per person to transport them to Germany. Mahir, who says he had all his possessions stolen by the Belarusian border guards, had no money left.
At 10pm, the smuggler arrived. Hasan and Mahir shared a warm goodbye and promised to contact each other when they could. Mahir was left alone in the forest.
He had managed to send a request for help before the others left, and the next day a local volunteer arrived with a new SIM card.
Four days later, as snow began to fall on Mahir as he lay freezing on the forest floor, Maria*, a local woman, arrived and transported him to a secret safe house.
“Maria, her family, and friends, they took care of me, made me comfortable, and gave me painkillers,” he recalls. “I think they will be my friends forever. Thank God these people exist.”
A culture of indifference
Kalina Czwarnóg, from Fundacja Ocalenie, a rescue foundation helping refugees, immigrants, and repatriates in Poland, believes that after a hiatus during the winter months, nearly as many people are attempting to cross now as there in November last year.
However, she has noted that the demographics have changed; now, it is mainly families, women, and children, whereas it was predominantly young men trying to cross last year. It is a trend she cannot explain.
Czwarnóg believes the crossing is now more difficult as the Polish border force and military are better funded by the government, better trained, and have more equipment, including drones and infrared cameras, to spot and catch people in the woods. As a result, many local volunteers working along the Belarus border have moved further south to the Ukraine border, where they can operate without being harassed by the authorities.
On March 22, Polish police arrested four volunteers who helped a family with seven children in the forest. They have been charged with organising illegal immigration and could serve eight years in prison. The same day Polish police arrested a 20-year-old volunteer who was waiting to meet other volunteers to provide aid to a group of Cubans in the forest.
Silvia Cavazzini, a volunteer at the Gandhi Charity who has worked with migrants and refugees stuck at the Poland-Belarus border, says the closure of the Bruzgi camp on March 20 left some of the most vulnerable people, who could not return to their home countries under any circumstances, with no choice but to head to the forest.
“There are many families with sick children in the forest now, some old men, some are disabled. I know of two with only one leg, one man with no legs, and another with cerebral palsy,” Cavazzini says.
Gosia Tokarska, a local activist who provides basic food and aid near the zone for refugees and migrants, believes that the people trapped in the forest now are more vulnerable as they come from poorer backgrounds. “Many people just paid smugglers last year, so they passed into Germany safely, but I am really worried about the people now because they don’t have the money for this,” she says.
Maria, the woman who helped Mahir, believes the Polish border guard is purposefully hemming refugees and migrants into an inaccessible location, a “swampy area enclosed by the river Narew, a small lake, a guarded railway line, and a wire fence”.
The location is too difficult for local volunteers to reach, and Maria believes that people may have died there because humanitarian workers cannot reach them and as a result of what she sees as a culture of indifference among military personnel, border guards and emergency rescue services toward people trapped along the border.
“So many families [outside] are looking for relatives in the forest, and it’s just unbelievable to me that people can be lost and no one cares about them,” she says.
‘Welcome to Guantánamo’: Poland’s closed detention centres
Not all migrants and refugees are pushed back to Belarus. Instead, some are placed for indefinite periods in overcrowded detention centres designated for convicted criminals awaiting deportation and closed to outside visitors.
A recent Amnesty report describes squalid conditions with up to 24 men detained in rooms of just eight square metres (86 square feet). People in the Wędrzyn detention centre, located in the west of the country, told Amnesty that guards had greeted new detainees by saying, “welcome to Guantánamo”.
The Wędrzyn detention centre is situated next to an active military base. Many of the 600 people at the centre have experienced conflict and torture in their home countries, according to the report. The constant sounds of armoured vehicles, helicopters and gunfire from military exercises are re-traumatising them, according to Jelena Sesar, a researcher for Amnesty who compiled the recent report. They are also subjected to “strip searches and constant uncertainty” resulting in “high levels of trauma from the detention centres”.
In Bialystok, the largest city in northeast Poland, there is one so-called “open detention centre” operated by the Fundacja DIALOG, a charity providing support for refugees. The detained people there are free to come and go as they please. In November, the centre’s courtyard, carefully tended to by a local gardener, was filled with the sound of playing children, mainly from the Kurdish region of Iraq and Syria. Today it sits in relative silence.
When Al Jazeera visited the centre in April 2022, the authorities had allowed only one person who entered the country via Belarus to stay in the facility.
The Senegalese man, who was in his early 20s, had lost two of his brothers in the forest. The memory was still too raw to recount, his voice cracking as he politely declined to speak.
“I am sorry. Hopefully, one day, I will be ready to speak to you,” he said before heading back to his room.
A tale of two borders
Many volunteers who have worked along Poland’s border with Belarus observed a clear contrast in how Ukrainian refugees are treated on the country’s border with Ukraine compared to non-European refugees and migrants crossing from Belarus.
Since the war started, more than three million Ukrainians have fled across the border into Poland, which also opened its borders to non-Ukrainian nationals fleeing the country, provided they moved on after 15 days. The government almost immediately granted Ukrainians access to the same healthcare and education services as Polish nationals.
Rafał Pankowski, a sociologist and head of Never Again, a Polish anti-racism organisation, believes that Poland’s reaction to the Ukrainian refugees is both “unprecedented” and “positive”.
“The basic fact that they opened the border and welcomed those refugees would have been impossible for me to imagine, even on February 23, the day before the war,” he says.
But this positive movement has also resulted in what he describes as a “paradox”. That the rules have changed on the Ukrainian border, but the policy towards those coming from Belarus still applies “makes no sense”, he says.
Tokarska, the activist, is visibly angry when she describes this different treatment and finds it unacceptable that the same guards helping Ukrainians do not view people with “darker skin as the same quality of person”.
Cavazzini says it is jarring to hear accounts of Polish border guards giving toys, hot tea and food to Ukrainian refugees and playing with the children while “receiving videos every day of children begging Polish border guards for food and water and being screamed at by Belarusian border guards who would unleash dogs on them”.
Lieutenant Anna Michalska, a spokesperson for the Polish border guard, says the difference in treatment between the two groups is because the people coming via Belarus are “illegal immigrants”, whereas all Ukrainians are refugees. “On the Ukrainian border, people are evacuating and running away from war. They ask Polish border guards for help and feel happy they are safe. But on the Poland-Belarus border, immigrants try to avoid us because they do not want to stay in Poland,” she says.
Michalska claims the people who have crossed into Poland from Belarus have attacked Polish border guards with stones, branches and sharp objects.
Marta Bivand Erdal, co-director of the Migration Centre at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, believes it is important to analyse Poland’s “open-hearted” response to Ukrainian refugees with some nuance. She believes proximity and shared historical grievances towards Russia, dating back to the Russian Empire, have played a significant role in the generous welcome Ukrainians have received in Poland. Erdal, who was born in Poland and is half Polish, says there is a “high sense that we might be next and when there is a real threat, you pick sides”.
Relentless xenophobic campaign
Pankowski believes the mistreatment of non-European migrants along the Poland-Belarus border is rooted in the 2015 refugee crisis, which was exploited by the country’s newly elected right-wing populist government.
“If you look at sociological data, Polish society was quite open to refugees before 2015,” he says, “but that very sharply changed after a campaign in the summer of that year by the government against an imagined threat from refugees”.
For the next six years, the government ran a non-stop “xenophobic propaganda”, relentlessly painting refugees and migrants, especially from the Middle East, as “terrorists”, according to Pankowski.
When refugees and migrants began to cross into Poland from Belarus in 2021, it was an opportunity for the government to “finally demonstrate their toughness against a threat they had talked about for six years”, says Pankowski.
Tokarska is convinced that if more locals were to meet the people crossing from Belarus, it would change their views. “In October and November 2021, when many locals met refugees in the forest or on their doorstep, they realised they were not ‘terrorists’ and changed their attitude towards them,” she says.
Pankowski would like the sympathy and solidarity exhibited towards Ukrainian refugees to eventually result in a more welcoming response to non-European refugees and migrants.
However, in a recent report produced by his organisation, he noted that far-right nationalist politicians and civilians are “already mobilising against Ukrainians” on social media. The issue, he says, is that the government spent so long demonising refugees that were barely visible in the country. Now, millions of Ukrainian refugees are walking around the major cities, something he says far-right nationalists will inevitably “see as an opportunity”.
Mahir believes there is an “obvious” contrast in how “different races” are treated along Poland’s borders.
Mahir’s current whereabouts cannot be revealed, but he says he feels relatively safe in his basic accommodation. He is in touch with Hasan who is safe for now. Mahir is in the process of trying to reach a country that he feels will process an asylum application in a fair and just manner. “I hope one day, the humanity we read about in the papers, will match reality,” he says.
*Name has been changed to protect the interviewee’s identity