Trapped in a Forest, About 30 People Try To Apply For Asylum in Poland
By Brian Dooley
For three days now, deep in the dense Białowieża forest that straddles the border between Belarus and Poland, about 30 people have been camped against a huge fence, hoping to get asylum in Poland.
They have come through Belarus, and are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other places. About a dozen of them are children. Their calls for asylum, made through the bars of the fence, are made from Polish soil, as the huge barrier recently built by the Polish authorities is just inside Polish territory.
Unless given exceptional permission to approach the fence and talk to people through it, human rights activists in the forest are kept about 15 yards away from the fence and mostly shout to those on the other side through the bars.
Human Rights First was in the forest with the activists yesterday and today, as the people on the other side pleaded for medical attention and other help.
Over the last two years, tens of thousands of people have attempted to cross from Belarus into Poland. Most come from the Middle East or Africa and are often fleeing conflict. Many are women and small children.
The Belarussian government, a close ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, has lured many of them with promises of taking them to the border of the European Union. Belarus aims to cause problems for the EU by pushing people across its borders with Poland (and, less frequently, Latvia and Lithuania.)
People attempting to come into Poland from Belarus – unlike those fleeing the war in Ukraine – have often been met with hostility and violence by Polish border guards and other security forces.
Polish authorities also continue to target local human rights activists who give humanitarian aid to those crossing. In recognition of their work, last year Human Rights First presented activists at Grupa Granica working on these issues with the William D. Zabel Human Rights Award.
Many of those trying to cross into Poland are forced to spend days or weeks in the forest, as they face real danger if they return to Belarus, where they are likely to be violently attacked by Belarussian guards. Since August 2021 dozens of people have died trying to make it through the forest, which is dense with rivers and swamps.
Activists from Grupa Granica, journalists, and others have been in the forest over the last three days trying to help those in this group seeking asylum.
Today, I was in the forest close to the fence with Aleksandra Chrzanowska of Grupa Granica and the Association for Legal Intervention, as kids on the other side pushed their hands through the bars hoping for food or water, and the adults pleaded in broken English for legal and medical help.
“We’ve clearly heard them through the fence, dozens of times, ask for asylum in Poland,” she said. “They’re desperate and exhausted. And they’re already on Polish soil if they’re up against the fence. According to the law if they are applying for asylum they should be allowed to make a claim and have their case heard.”
So far, the standoff continues, and the families are preparing for another night in the forest.