Teenage boy dies in freezing conditions on Poland-Belarus border

Official estimates claim that eight people have so far died on the border

Amanda Coakley
In Białystok, Poland
Friday 12 November 2021 17:48
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<p>Young children in a camp on the Belarusian-Polish border</p>

Young children in a camp on the Belarusian-Polish border

A 14-year-old boy has died on the border between Poland and Belarus after being exposed to the region’s freezing temperatures. Police in the regional capital Białystok confirmed the death to The Independent but did not issue any other details.

It’s estimated that eight people have died at the Polish-Belarusian frontier during the current migrant crisis on the border, although Polish activists believe that number could be higher. Temperatures have dropped to around minus three degrees Celsius at night.

The majority of migrants gathered on the border are Kurds, lured to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, as part of President Alexander Lukashenko’s most recent attempt to exert pressure on the EU after sanctions were imposed by the bloc following his clampdown on opposition protests in August 2020 after a disputed election, he is widely thought to have lost.

It’s estimated that approximately 2,000 people are seeking asylum in the European Union, with more due at the Polish border in the coming days. Many of the migrants are under the age of 10.

“If someone needs access to medication, or shelter, they should be able to get it, regardless of where they are from or where they are,” Michał Mikołajczyk, a board member of the Polish and International Red Cross, told The Independent. “We are asking all parties to stop this situation [on the border] and ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Minsk has denied any responsibility for the growing humanitarian crisis and its position has been supported by its sole ally, Moscow. Speaking at the UN before a closed-door Security Council meeting on Thursday, Russia’s deputy minister to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said his country was “absolutely not” helping to move people into the region and accused Russia’s European colleagues of having “masochist inclinations” for broaching such a subject.

Some 12,000 troops are now stationed on the Polish border. Migrants who are caught are often pushed back to Belarus, contrary to international rules on asylum.

To the south of Belarus, Ukraine’s interior minister, Denys Monastyrsky, said his country would deploy 8,500 troops and police officers to the Ukrainian-Belarusian border in the coming days to deter migrants from entering the country. This comes amid fears of a renewed build-up of Russian troops on the country’s eastern frontier.

Despite pushbacks, many people are still managing to make it into Poland and claim asylum. At a migrant shelter just outside the exclusion zone, which was set up after Warsaw declared a state of emergency along the border region in September, Shiro, a 37-year-old Kurdish man from Syria, recalled his journey through the dense forest between Poland and Belarus before he was picked up by activists.

Polish soldiers and police watch migrants at the Poland-Belarus border near Kuznica

“There are no words to describe how scared I was,” he said. “It was so dark; I couldn’t see my fingers. It was freezing. I could see big animals moving in the shadows. I had been pushed back to Belarus before but I was just hoping somehow that I would make it this time.”

For four days Shiro was in the forest wading through its characteristic swamps with other migrants.

A petite man with neatly parted silver hair, he left Syria after his brother was killed during the Syrian civil war. For a while he settled in neighbouring Lebanon, but its dire economic situation meant it was almost impossible for him to make a living. When he heard that a tour operator in Beirut was offering tickets to Europe via Minsk, he quickly bought one.

“It was easy and sounded so straightforward. I have lots of family throughout Europe, so I thought it would be a good idea to be with them and rebuild my life. I was wrong,” he said.

Having experienced the brutality of both Polish and Belarusian border police, Shiro said he would not make the journey again if he had the chance. “It’s too dangerous,” he added. “I really think that if I wasn’t found in the forest when I was, I could have died.”

Those feelings were echoed by another man at the shelter, Heshiam, a 36-year-old from Erbil in northern Iraq. “When you are having that experience [of walking through the forest] you think there is no God,” he told The Independent.

Migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere warm up at the fire

Leaving home in October, he was under the impression that the trip to Europe would be easy.

“I went from Iraq to Minsk,” Erbil said. “I spent three days in a hotel there. Then we were taken by bus to the border – from the moment we left that hotel things only got worse. On the border we didn’t have enough food and were pushed back many times.”

Despite similar stories circulating on the migrant community’s What’sApp, Facebook and Telegram channels, dozens more appeared to have arrived in Minsk on Thursday, hopeful of a new beginning in Europe. Shiro added: “What can we do? All we want is to work and build a life in peace.”

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