Deteriorating situation for Belarusian migrants stranded in death zone on EU border — global issue
Aid agencies say refugees caught on the Poland-Belarus border are facing a brutal backlash. Graphics: IPS
  • Written by Ed Holt (Bratislava)
  • interpress service

Organizations working with refugees say the crackdown on NGOs in Belarus has resulted in many organizations ceasing aid work for migrants and limited or no humanitarian assistance.

International organizations are also working in the country to provide some services to refugees, but NGOs are concerned that this is not enough.

“Since the beginning of this crisis, the level of violence has increased. But what is worse is that before there were many more people in Belarus trying to help these refugees, but there is no action inside the country. Now there are very few people who can help because they can face criminal penalties,” says Enila Bronitskaya, a human rights activist with a Belarusian NGO. Human Constanta, which was forced to leave the country and is now operating in Poland, told IPS.

Since the refugee crisis began on the Belarus-EU border in summer 2021, rights groups have spoken out about the brutal “pushback” of refugees by security agents on both sides of the border.

Some have accused Minsk of manufacturing the crisis in response to EU sanctions. They say Belarusian authorities actively organize, encourage and even force migrants to attempt to cross the border, while at the same time sanctioning violent and degrading treatment of these same migrants by border guards. It is said that there is.

But others have raised questions about the similarly violent and inhumane methods used by EU border forces in Poland, Latvia and Lithuania against these same migrants, and the systematic violation of their right to seek asylum.

“These people are exposed to various forms of violence by the Belarusian and Polish border guards. , I witnessed skin and eye irritation after being sprayed with chili pepper gas, and teeth marks after being bitten by a dog,” said Poland’s Bartek Rumienczyk. We Are Monitoring (WAM), an NGO that supports migrants arriving in Poland from Belarus, told IPS.

“We also tell people in Poland that they have the right to seek international protection, but in reality these pleas are often ignored by border guards. “We have seen many times that people are pushed back into Belarus despite the fact that they have the right to do so,” he added.

These practices leave people stranded in dire conditions between the two countries’ borders. Some aid workers describe it as a “death zone.”

“Refugees who have managed to get through speak of a ‘death zone’ between the EU border fence and the razor wire on the Belarusian side, and of border guards who do not allow them to return to Belarus. They are stuck in the middle of nowhere,” Joanna Radomirska, medical coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Poland, told IPS.

“This death zone stretches along the Belarusian-EU border and is vast, probably tens of thousands of square kilometers, and no one knows how many people have died there or whether there are people who need treatment. I don’t know. What I’m worried about is that no one, not even NGOs, can access this zone,” she added.

According to Human Constanta, at least 94 people have been confirmed dead in the border area since the crisis began. the studyHowever, it is believed that many more people may have lost their lives.

Those who manage to cross the border are invariably injured, some seriously. Exhaustion, hypothermia and gastrointestinal illnesses are common as migrants are forced to drink water from swamps and rivers, while nearly a third of migrants are trenchfoot and forced to drink from razor wire and barbed wire fences. Many people were seriously injured. Some have had to have parts of their limbs amputated due to frostbite, according to aid groups providing treatment for them.

While both international and local organizations continue to work to assist migrants on the EU side of the border, efforts are much more limited on the Belarusian side, officials working directly with migrants say.

Since massive protests following his 2020 re-election, authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has carried out a sweeping crackdown on the opposition. This has seen widespread prosecution of, among other things, civil society workers.

Many NGOs, including those that previously supported migrants, have been forced to close, leaving only a few major international organizations able to do much for migrants.

However, questions have been raised about how effective its management is.

“There are international organizations like the ICRC that cooperate with the Red Cross, but the Belarusian Red Cross only distributes food parcels in certain areas. It is not a regular and stable supply,” Bronitskaya said. .

“Basically, there is no one to provide them with the help they need. It is very likely that there will be even more deaths than before,” he added.

But it’s not just people stuck between borders who are struggling to get help.

Those who are unable to enter the EU and return to Belarus are classified as irregular migrants, unable to access health care, benefits or work legally.

Many quickly fall into poverty, live in constant fear of being discovered by immigration authorities, and are vulnerable to exploitation. Some aid workers told IPS they had heard of migrants being forced into prostitution to support themselves in Minsk and other cities in Belarus.

When faced with such problems, many people decide that their only option is to risk the crossing again.

Aid groups and global human rights groups say EU member states and the government in Minsk need to honor their obligations to protect the rights of these migrants.

“It is not the best approach to the situation for the EU to make it difficult or impossible for people to cross borders by building walls or putting up legal barriers. Nor is Belarus creating a situation where people are stranded. It is not a good thing,” Normar Shitari, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) manager of medical operations in Belarus, told IPS.

“To respond to the dire situation in border areas, we must ensure that independent humanitarian organizations, international organizations and civil society organizations have free access to border areas. We need to consider ensuring that these people have access to health care so that they do not have to do so or pay for it. We also need to consider legal protection for these people. “We need to consider how we can ensure the space and protection to assert our rights as individuals while on the move,” he added.

Last year, MSF, which had helped thousands of migrants during the crisis, stopped providing services to migrants after determining that migrants’ medical needs outweighed their needs for protection and legal assistance, although these were limited to specific specialized services. MSF insists that only a knowledgeable and professional organization can provide this.

However, political relations between Belarus and the EU are so strained that some doubt that the situation will improve soon.

“Governments need to do something, but the political situation complicates matters. EU governments will not negotiate with Mr. Lukashenko because of the repression that is happening in Belarus. Nothing major will change. Until then, nothing will get better,” Bronitskaya said.

But some are hopeful for change.

Officials of Poland’s new government, which took office in December, claimed that the number of backlashes had decreased under the new government and said they were developing new border and immigration policies that would prioritize human rights protections. . . Plans are also being made for border forces to establish a special search and rescue group to prevent a humanitarian crisis at the border.

“As a European country, we should respect European human rights law and provide access to security for our people. There is no need to negotiate with the Belarusian regime for that,” Radomirska told IPS.

“We hope that something will change with the new government in Poland. We are talking to them. Change is possible and the new government has a chance for that change.”

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All rights reservedSource: Interpress Service

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