The first fatalities of migrants trying to enter the EU through Poland’s border with Belarus have been confirmed.
With the dire situation facing migrants stranded at the Polish border becoming a national scandal over recent weeks, four deaths announced by the Polish authorities have cast the humanitarian crisis in an even more distressing light.
“The bodies of three people who tried to cross the border illegally were found in the border region,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on Monday.
The Belarusian authorities, accused by neighbouring countries Poland, Latvia and Lithuania of shepherding migrants from the Middle East towards the borders of the Schengen Zone, meanwhile announced a fourth death.
They claimed the body of a 39-year-old Iraqi woman had been dragged from the Polish side of the border to the Belarusian side, with the Belarusian press agency quoting the woman’s husband claiming violence from a Polish border guard led to his wife’s death.
“My wife was feeling unwell. She was very tired, she was walking very slowly. One Polish border guard put on gloves, with metal on them. He pushed her hard and she fell,” he was quoted as saying by the Belarusian agency.
Morawiecki dismissed the Belarusian claims as a lie, saying the attempt to “slander” Poland is being orchestrated by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko in cooperation with Moscow.
At the same time, though, the deaths of three men on the Polish side of the border from hypothermia and exhaustion threw the lack of aid for desperate migrants into sharp relief.
The body of an Iraqi man was found near a village on the border; another man died in a field; and a third was found dead in a forest.
Polish authorities also had to rescue eight people, including children, who became trapped in a swamp. Seven of them had to be hospitalised.
Such stark examples of the danger facing migrants attempting to enter the EU from Belarus came as Polish border guards announced a record number of migrants trying to enter the country illegally from Belarus at the weekend.
With the number of attempted crossings only increasing, fears are growing that more people may die as the coming colder weather makes conditions even more harsh.
And with the Polish government introducing a state of emergency in an area three kilometres deep at the border, there are concerns that scrutiny of the dire circumstances being faced by migrants is being blocked.
The Independent spoke to Grzegorz Kukowka, the spokesperson for a group of Warsaw lawyers representing Afghan migrants stranded at Usnarz Górny on the Polish-Belarusian border, about the worsening situation.
“The Polish authorities have introduced a state of emergency in the border zone. This means media representatives and NGO workers have been banned from the area,” Kukowka said.
“This makes the situation even more complicated. We are now afraid for the lives of these people, in the context of ever colder temperatures,” he added.
Some relief is being provided for the group stuck in Usnarz Górny, but Kukowka says current efforts are not enough.
“Despite the temporary measure we obtained from the European Court of Human Rights, these people are still in a tragic situation, and Poland is not implementing provisions on the application of interim measures.”
Some Polish analysts are blaming international organisations such as the EU and NATO for their lack of support against “hybrid warfare” tactics being deployed by the Lukashenko regime.
It is believed Belarus’s attempt to shepherd migrants into Poland are intended to destabilise the Schengen Zone’s eastern border.
On the current evidence, with migrants dying in the open and a state of emergency declared in Poland for the first time since the fall of Communism in the country, the tactic seems to be working.
Morawiecki announced that an additional 500 Polish soldiers would be sent to the border region to strengthen efforts to stop migrants entering the country.
“We will defend Poland’s border with full determination,” he said.
Unfortunately for those stuck at the border, there is little mainstream political support for welcoming stranded migrants to Poland. Donald Tusk, the leader of the Polish opposition, has urged humanitarian aid but echoes the government’s stance on the need to ensure the safety of Poland’s borders.
And as a formidable border fence was recently erected to keep migrants out, a group trying to help the migrants declared that “barbed wire has become a new symbol of Poland.”
Poland’s tough stance against the influx of migrants may be driven by its determination not to be cowed by Lukahsenko’s aggression, but this will be scant comfort to those facing danger and death at the border. Caught in the crossfire of geopolitical tensions between Belarus and the EU, the stranded migrants face even greater danger as the days and nights became colder.
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