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And all walls shall fall? Humanitarian crisis on the EU’s frontier leaves asylum-seekers stranded, six dead

A group of refugees outside of a border patrol station in Michałowo, Poland on 27 September, 2021. They were pushed back to Belarus the same night.
Photo by Agata Kubis/ Courtesy of the Author.

Popular among the anti-communist dissidents in Poland, Mury (English: Walls) was a protest song written by singer songwriter Jacek Kaczmarski in 1978 to the music composed by a Catalan, Lluís Llach. Mury/Walls was an anthem of those yearning for political freedom and civil liberties. “Pull the teeth of the bars from the walls! Tear off the shackles, break the whip” the lyrics go, and the chorus hopefully anticipates the pending demise of the old anti-democratic and inhumane regime: “and the walls shall fall down and bury the old world.”

For that generation of oppositionists in Eastern Europe, a wall separated them from freedom both materially and symbolically. In 1989, that Wall fell, followed by Poland, along with other post-communist countries in Eastern Europe, becoming a member state of the European Union in 2004. For many, this was a celebratory historical moment in which Poland finally “joined Europe.” Self-mythologized as the Antemurale of Europe in the times of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th century, a bulwark protecting Christian Europe against Muslim Turks and Tatars, Poland now formed the external border of the European Union and its eastmost outpost. Despite the project of the “European integration,” the border between the West and the East of Europe remains very much existent, if elusive – the “West” remains the aspirational standard while the “East” is a shifting concept always projected farther out eastward. In this imagined geography, Eastern European countries do not always register or count as “Europe” at all.

Today, the border between Poland and Belarus is a site of an unfolding humanitarian crisis of critical proportions. Asylum-seekers suffering from high fever, COVID-19, exhaustion, and hypothermia are left without medical help; children are rough sleeping in the forest with no food to eat nor warm clothes to protect them from temperatures dropping below zero; migrants beg for help as soldiers roll out barbed wire around them. In villages of Usnarz Górny, Giby, and many other places, the murderous logic of nation-state border regimes is on full display and yet remains largely unseen by the international media and the public.

“They are playing us like a football”

Since the beginning of August, a group of 32 people fleeing Afghanistan, has been caught up in a stand-off between Belarusian and Polish border guards without access to food, medication, or shelter, on a strip of land in Usnarz Górny. Both countries vehemently deny them entry. Human rights activists and medics were waiting on standby, trying to reach the stranded people with food and thermal blankets but to no avail; no one is being let through to provide even most basic assistance or medical help.

The group is being kept hostage in a political clinch in which Belarus refuses to take them back in, and the Polish authorities claim that migrants remain in the territory of Belarus and hence refuse to process their asylum claims. One of the asylum-seekers, referred to as Ms. Gul, told activists from the Ocalenie Foundation who had been in contact with the group over the phone and text messages: “We are stranded between the fence of Poland and Belarus. What are we to do? You know whose hands Afghanistan has fallen into. Our country was taken over by the Taliban and what are we to do? We are surrounded by barbed wire here. We are pleading with Poland. If you don’t want to protect us, please, at least save us from dying here. We can’t go back to our country. If we could, I would do it in a heartbeat.” (Full original recording is available here).

According to the data released by the Polish Border Guard, 3 500 people tried to illegally cross the border with Belarus in August this year, followed by over 4 000 in September. The migration route leading through Belarus and Poland is currently extremely dangerous and the situation is quickly worsening. Six people died in the past few weeks in the border area, with five found on the Polish side of the border and one in Belarus. On the night of September 23, 2021, some 500 meters from the crossing with Belarus, border troops came across a group of asylum seekers, including one in a very severe condition. Despite CPR being performed on him, the man died. In a separate incident, a body of an Iraqi man was found near Giby village. He had died of hypothermia. On the eastern side of the border, near the village of Lesnoye, a body of a woman was found. She had tried to cross into Poland with a group of three children and two adults. The number of casualties among those attempting the increasingly more deadly journey is likely to rise, watchdog organizations alarm.

Under the Geneva Conventions, an illegal crossing of the state border does not cancel the person’s right to apply for a refugee status and the receiving country is obligated to process the claim. Poland – albeit the officials deny the practice is taking place – has been unlawfully expelling migrants from its territory, forcing them back over the border without the possibility to file for asylum status or access to any legal procedures or protection. The same is happening on the eastern side of the border in Belarus, leaving exhausted immigrants being repeatedly and brutally forced out by both states, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and other international laws stipulating pushbacks. “They are playing us like a football,” a Nigerian migrant told a reporter.

On September 2, 2021 Polish President Andrzej Duda declared a 30-day state of emergency, now extended by 60 days, for a border area consisting of a 3 kilometer-wide strip and including 183 villages in the Podlaskie and Lubelskie voivodeships in the east of the country. Journalists, aid workers, medical personnel, and activists are prohibited from entering the area, curtailing any efforts to aid asylum seekers in Usnarz Górny and other places, and reporting on the possible human rights’ violations. Media blackout helps the government to control the narrative through an intensive smear campaign against migrants in state-controlled public media.

No way out

Photo by Agata Kubis/ Courtesy of the Author.

A usually rather idyllic village of Białowieża, whichcounts a population of 2 600 whose main source of income is nature tourism, is now one of the villages where the emergency state was imposed. A local community newsletter Wspólna Białowieża (Białowieża for Everyone), published by a group of volunteers covering local issues and announcements, recounts how everyday life has changed for them: “There are border forces at the entrance of the village from the side of Pogorzelce and Hajnówka. There has always been border patrol presence in our village [due to the proximity of the border, only about three kilometers from the village], but never have we seen that many border troops, soldiers, and police; the noise of whirling helicopters and police sirens has never before been a part of our village life.” The piece goes on to instruct the residents on what to do, should they encounter stranded asylum seekers who managed to cross over to the Polish side: “1. Don’t be scared. Remember that the people you have just met are probably much more terrified than you are.  2. It is not illegal to help. You can provide food, warm clothes, or medical aid. However, you may face legal consequences if you give someone a lift or let them use your phone.” Activists have been putting up posters with a similar message on notice boards and street posts in affected villages.

Migrants caught in Poland by the border patrols face imminent danger; instead of being directed to processing facilities or, in case of those who need medical attention, to a hospital, they are being sent back to Belarus.

One of the women stranded at the no-man’s-land strip, unable to cross in, shared a video recording documenting the situation. Reporter Ewa Wołkanowska-Kołodziej in a Facebook post from 25 September 2021 described what happened to family from Iraq she is in contact with; Ali, his wife, two brothers, and a 18-month old baby girl remained stranded, hungry and exhausted, on the Belarussian side. Ali’s text messages to the journalist give account of cruelty of border troops’ tactics on both sides of the fence: “Twice I tried to cross to Poland. Border guards beat me up and pushed me back to Belarus. Belarusians told me to go back to Poland. We lost my wife and I don’t know how to find her. My daughter is cold and hungry. (…) My brother is vomiting blood.” A couple of days later, Ali’s 16-year-old brother was found dead on the Polish side of the border.

Grupa Granica, an informal coalition of humanitarian aid workers, activists, human rights lawyers, which keeps monitoring the situation on the border, describes similar plight of many other stranded migrants. The exact number of people hiding in the freezing woods and trapped on the border, remains unknown.

Lukashenko’s pawns

Polish officials blame Belarussian authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko for orchestrating the crisis. Lukashenko, who back in May threatened to “flood” Western Europe with drugs and migrants, now “weaponizes” migrants to retaliate for sanctions imposed on Belarus by the EU by shifting migration flows towards the EU’s external borders. Lukashenko’s regime deliberatelyfacilitates transport of people to Minsk. Operating through its “travel agencies” set up in Baghdad, Beirut, Karachi, Abuja, and elsewhere, for a hefty sum, people are promised to reach western Europe. They are told the route is a safer alternative to the deadly sea passage that leads through the Mediterranean. Once in Belarus, migrants are sent across the border to neighboring countries, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. Grupa Granica estimates that, as of 24 September 2021, there were around 4000 people trapped on the Lithuanian border, 3000 on the Polish, and 300 on the Latvian border with Belarus. Caught up in this geopolitical ordeal are people fleeing conflict, poverty, and political instability. Many come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Iran.

“What Lukashenko is trying to do is destabilize the EU, and he is using human beings in an act of aggression,” Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, told the Financial Times. In a shared statement issued on 23 August 2021, Prime Ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland placed the sole responsibility for the situation of the migrants on Belarus. Migrants are being instrumentalized by “Europe’s last dictator” as part of a “hybrid attack” on the security of the EU’s external border. The European Union leaders, however, are also reluctant to let the migrants in. Citing the necessity of border protection, the EU readily assists its eastern member states by sending over the border management service Frontex border guards, (assistance which Poland has so far been refusing), to stop the influx of migrants into the EU territory. In this strategy of “migrant warfare,” migrants end up dehumanized by both sides – bargaining chips or weapons for political strongmen like Alexander Lukashenko and a “problem,” a “flood”, or a “surge” to be stopped at the gate of Europe.


If politics is to be understood more broadly than the governing done by nation-states, its meaning expands to reach and intertwine not just with questions concerning – human, refugee, women’s – rights, but also with those concerning ethics: What is ethically right and wrong, what are care, empathy, responsibility, hospitality, and solidarity, and how race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and other social markers of difference, play into rendering some lives worthy of protection whilst abandoning others. Poland cannot escape the ethical and political responsibility for the brutal crackdown on refugee and human rights on its border. As commentators familiar with the Polish cultural context have argued, not just the Polish government, but the Polish society has a moral responsibility towards refugees, being ourselves a nation of refugees, migrant workers, and economic migrants – most migrants today are motivated by economic opportunities in the wealthier North and West. Those who advocate accepting more asylum seekers as well as migrants, remind that the state of emergency introduced to protect the country from an irregular flow of migrants covers a region which in the past was a site of ethnic conflict, forced displacements, killings of civilians and partisans, and organized genocide of its Jewish and Romani minorities. It once was home to people who needed refuge and protection.

Globally, the response to the deadliest contemporary problems – from armed conflicts to pandemics – often continues to be one of erecting new barriers and walls. These border walls cut through partisan differences – from Trump’s border wall, family separations, and cages on the border with Mexico, to Haitian refugees being whipped by mounted border agents and deportations carried out amidst raging natural disasters and COVID-19 pandemic in Biden’s America. Some borders appear temporarily to address a crisis at hand – like the internal passport control and travel restrictions within the Schengen Area reinstated to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some are physical barriers, including the razor wire fences erected across Europe in response to the so-called “refugee crisis” on the borders of Hungry, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Greece, and France, and more recently – Lithuania and Poland.

Poland has now built 113 km of Concertina wire fence and a 57 km of 2,5-meter fence imitating the fence constructed on the border between Hungry and Serbia. These barriers scar both human and nonhuman bodies of those who intend to cross them. (Issues of national security and border protection supersede the existing legal environmental protections and prevent possible construction of wildlife corridors. Barbed wire in service of national security trumps animals’ right to passage). As social justice scholar Raj Patel suggests, cutting through “the web of life” – the deep connections running through various forms of life, from microbic to human, necessary for common survival – is a temporary fix to the repeated crises caused by colonial capitalism. In times that call for global solidarity – in face of climate emergency, global health crisis, political instability, and ever more refugees, human and otherwise, seeking new homes, the response too often remains – a wall.

Olga Cielemęcka is a postdoctoral fellow at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Turku in Finland. She works at the intersection of contemporary philosophy, feminist theory, and environmental humanities. Currently, she is working on a book about nature, nation, and gender in the Białowieża Forest in Poland.