After 39 years in Poland the last few weeks have been some of the hardest in Dr Arsalan Azzaddin’s career.
Head of the emergency department at Bielsk Podlaski hospital, the physician has treated dozens of people who have crossed the treacherous border between Belarus and Poland and walked through freezing forests in the hope of seeking asylum in the European Union.
“They are usually in a very bad condition, dehydration and hypothermia mostly. Many have had bruises on their body which they said were from the Belarusian border police,” he told The Independent. “It’s been a real tragedy for me. I find myself coming to tears whenever I see these people.”
Dr Azzaddin is originally from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan – a part of the world where many of the migrants now trapped on the freezing European frontier are from.
“When I open my mouth and speak their language, they ask me to help them. But all I can do is treat them and then send them back to the Polish border police. I have to tell them: The law is the law,” he added.
After treatment the majority of migrants are picked up by the Polish authorities and sent back across the border to Belarus where they are stuck in no-man’s land as the two countries engage in a tense standoff at the meeting point of their two nations.
Since over 2,000 people were ushered by Belarusian police to the Polish border on Monday, the situation on the EU’s eastern front has deteriorated rapidly. Unable to travel back to Belarus’ capital and stopped from entering Poland, these people are effectively trapped.
About 8,000 migrants have entered the EU from Belarus this year, and border guards have prevented about 28,000 attempted crossings, according to European Commission figures.
Warsaw has called the situation a “new type of war in which people are used as human shields”.
Minsk has denied it orchestrated the mass movement of people in retaliation for EU sanctions after the country’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko held bogus elections last August and cracked down on the subsequent opposition protests.
The crisis has drawn in regional powers and also taken on new militarised dimensions after Moscow dispatched two Tu-22M3 bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace on Wednesday. The move triggered alarm across the region with the Estonian Defense Minister, Kalle Laanet, saying the potential for escalation was “extremely high”.
Germany has called on Russia - which denies being the mastermind behind the crisis - to intervene and the European Union is considering imposing further sanctions on Belarus authoritarian, Alexander Lukashenko, who, in turn, has threatened western Europe’s gas supplies.
The bellicose rhetoric however doesn’t change the situation for people trapped in the middle of these twisted geopolitical manoeuvres.
Temperatures are fast approaching sub-zero and winter snow is just around the corner. Many of the migrants are dressed in summer clothes and are sleeping in tents ill-equipped to keep out the bitter cold. Reports have circulated that a 14-year-old child has died on the Belarusian side after being subjected to the freezing climate.
To get into Poland most people have to make their way through the dense wet forest that separates the two countries. Activists are spread out along the border, dodging the authorities in the hopes of getting to the migrants first and offering them first-aid, food, and asylum papers.
“Locals or the people themselves contact us first, then we go to find them”, says Anna Chmielewska, an activist.
“What’s happening at the moment is that many people who are near Kuźnica, which is where they were directed to on Monday, are starting to spread out so we never know what their location will be.”
A state of emergency has been imposed all along Poland’s border with Belarus with no journalists, NGOs or activists are allowed to witness first-hand the situation. The Central European state is determined to deal with the crisis on its own terms and has so far not taken any help from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, which is based in Warsaw.
It has also pushed for Brussels’ support on its hardline migration policies which includes building an EU-funded wall to reduce the movement of people.
“These people have nothing, and they beg me not to be send them back to Belarus”, says Dr Azzaddin. “One man with diabetes was presented to me around two weeks ago. He hadn’t eaten in ten days and his life was in danger. He said he had been asked to pay $14 for a slice of bread before he left Belarus. All of this has been very difficult for me to see. Everyone should be helping with these people. No one should be left in a freezing forest.”
A psychologist in a hospital in the regional capital, Białystok, shares Dr Azzaddin’s views on the treatment of migrants. “The border police have access to psychological treatment but not the people who have had to crawl through the forest to get here”, they said. The Independent is not naming the practitioner upon their request due to fear of retaliation from the Polish authorities.
“At the moment I’ve a 22-year-old man who was admitted with a burnt esophagus and gastrointestinal issues on October 25th. He came in with no shoes, no phone and no papers and none of my colleagues told me. I think it’s fair to say... no one really cared about him and his situation.”
They added that two guards are continually with the patient despite him having claimed asylum and no information has been issued to the medical team about where he will be moved to next.
With tension mounting on the border there is broad support across the region for the Polish government’s hardline approach to the crisis.
In Sokółka, a sleepy town of approximately 10,000 people, there is concern that any breach would result in a rapid influx in people.
“This government doesn’t represent me and my beliefs and I’m very ashamed about what is happening and the support for it”, says Chmielewska, the activist, “Poland is a very homogeneous society and I guess many people are simply afraid of others.”
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