The exact number of people is unclear. According to Amnesty International and the Polish refugee organization Fundacja Ocalenie it concerns 32 migrants from Afghanistan. The group is said to consist of 27 men, four women and a 15-year-old girl. Other sources say 24 people, or 37.
What is certain is that this small group of migrants has been the victim of a conflict between Belarus and the European Union since 10 August. For almost three weeks they have been trapped on a small piece of land, on the edge of a forest near the village of Usnarz Górny, on the border of Poland and Belarus. The countries argue over whose land it is.
They came to Belarus with a tourist visa and hoped to end up in Europe via EU member state Poland. On one side are Polish border guards who do not allow them, on the other side Belarusian border guards who do not let them return.
The situation is dire. The group has no food, water, shelter and medicines. Aid workers, doctors and priests are stopped on the Polish side. According to Fundacja Ocalenie, twelve people from the group are “seriously ill”.
Pressure on Poland to admit Afghan migrants is mounting. Last week UN refugee agency UNHCR called on the Polish authorities to comply with Polish and European legislation, which stipulates that refugees must be able to apply for asylum. “While we understand that the increase in the number of people entering Poland poses challenges, we call on the Polish authorities to provide these people with access to the area, immediate medical care, legal aid, psychological and social support,” Christine wrote. Goyer, the Polish representative of the UNHCR.
It European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) did on August 25 an urgent appeal to Poland and Latvia – where a group of 41 Iraqi Kurds are trapped in a similar situation – to provide the migrants with food, water, clothing, medical care and “if possible, temporary shelter”. The ECtHR ruling does not oblige Poland and Latvia to admit the migrants.
3.5 million Afghans
However small the group, the issue is a matter of great concern to the European Commission and other European politicians. They fear the stalemate at Usnarz Górny is a harbinger of a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, when Europe grappled with more than 1 million refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the European Commission, there are now more than 3.5 million ‘displaced and vulnerable’ Afghans in Afghanistan.
We learned from 2015, said Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, against Euronews. “We should not wait until we have Afghan refugees at our external borders. We need to intervene much earlier. And that includes money, of course.” Johansson is considering financial support for the UNHCR and for neighboring countries Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan. That EU money should prevent ‘many people from taking dangerous smuggling routes that end at our external borders’.
The fate of the migrants on the border between Poland and Belarus shows how effective the sabotage by the Belarusian ruler Aleksandr Lukashenko is. In revenge for European sanctions – in response to repression in Belarus – the Belarus regime has been letting migrants pass through the western border for months. Until now, this mainly concerned the border with Lithuania, where more than four thousand migrants have already crossed.
Also read this report on migrants on the border between Lithuania and Belarus
Lukashenko is using migration to disrupt the European Union, and it appears to be working. Poland’s ruling party PiS, leader of a politically vulnerable coalition, is reverting to its trusted anti-migration policy and putting the blame elsewhere. According to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Afghans are “tools in Lukashenko’s hands” and Poland will not give in to “this kind of blackmail”. Deputy Prime Minister Pyotr Glinksi, also of PiS, was equally adamant: “Poland defended itself against the wave of refugees in 2015, and it will now defend itself again.”
Poland has already sent 1,800 soldiers to the border with Belarus, is installing barbed wire and building a 2.5 meter high fence. “Of course Belarus is making cynical use of this situation, that is their strategy,” says Pjotr Bystrianin of Fundacja Ocalenie in the Financial Times. “What makes it so terrible is that Poland is playing the game.”