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POLES SEND SOUP TO HUNGRY MIGRANTS ON BELARUS BORDER,Podlaskie%20region%20near%20the%20border.&text=Volunteers%20have%20now%20distributed%20about,NGOs)%20trying%20to%20help%20them.

WARSAW, Nov 18 (Reuters) – For Beata Zalewska-Stefaniak, it didn’t feel right to be sitting comfortably at home in Warsaw while migrants were going hungry in freezing forests some 200 km (140 miles) to the east on Poland’s border with Belarus.

So she decided to start “Soups for the Border”, a campaign to prepare thousands of jars of homemade soup, in what she jokingly refers to as “forest catering” for migrants.

“It’s a grassroots initiative of people like me who were conscious of sitting in their warm homes and being unable to do anything to help,” Zalewska-Stefaniak, 57, told Reuters.

Thousands of migrants, mostly Iraqis, have been trying for weeks to cross the border into the European Union but have been pushed back by Polish security forces. Around 10 migrants are believed to have died.

Poland and the EU accuse Belarus of encouraging the migrants to cross in revenge for EU sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses. Minsk denies the charge. read more

The first 600 jars of soup were prepared and shipped in late October from Warsaw to the Podlaskie region near the border.

Volunteers have now distributed about 4,000 litres of soup to the migrants and to people from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) trying to help them.


The soups, made from beetroot, lentils, zucchini and other ingredients, are prepared by families, scouts and others.

The Facebook group which helps to organise the initiative has grown to more than 1,800 people, increasing the diversity of the food available.

At first, all the soups were vegetarian, with the aim of making them easy to digest but still filling. Volunteers now also prepare freshly baked bread, meat dishes, and special lunches for small children.

They try to respect the dietary requirements of the mostly Muslim migrants, for example by leaving pork off the menu, said Zalewska-Stefaniak, who works as an English translator and mindfulness coach.

She said she wanted to show that ordinary Poles are keen to help, despite big cultural differences with the migrants.

“This is beyond politics, beyond all divisions. The hungry should be fed, (it is) a basic message not only of Christianity, but of humanity,” Zalewska-Stefaniak said.





The asylum seekers on the Poland-Belarus border are not aggressors: they are desperate pawns in a disgusting political struggle

One thought is a constant in my head: “I have kids at home, I cannot go to jail, I cannot go to jail.” The politics are beyond my reach or that of the victims on the Poland-Belarus border. It involves outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, getting through to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus. It’s ironic that this border has more than 50 media crews gathered, yet Poland is the only place in the EU where journalists cannot freely report.

Meanwhile, the harsh north European winter is closing in and my fingers are freezing in the dark snowy nights.

The border situation shows the chasm between what is legal and what is moral. It trumps the endeavours of those acting to save lives. All that we activists in the forests on the Poland-Belarus border can do is to bring water, food and clothes to desperate people. Yet to perform this basic humanitarian act requires stealth. We have to hide and sneak through the forests. Attracting the attention of the border guards, police or army would force another pushback.

I’ve met diverse groups among the trees: families, mothers with kids, fathers with disabled kids, elderly people and people from the world’s most vulnerable groups – ethnic, religious and LGBTQ+. They sought freedom, but find themselves being pushed backed into Belarus five, 10 and even 15 times since August until now, December.

On my night walks, I’m equipped with a big backpack full of flasks of warm soup, socks, boots, jackets, gloves, scarfs, hats, plasters, medicines and powerbanks. I walk in the darkness and hide behind trees when I hear helicopters or see the bright touches of the police. I hear the splash of the soup in the containers on my back, I hear the shortness of my breath – nobody taught me to be stealthy and invisible like a professional soldier. I have worked in human rights for years, visited most of the EU’s borders and refugee camps, but I was never afraid of crackling sticks underfoot or rustling the trees above my head as I move.

From personal stories and evidence collected by Minority Rights Group International with colleagues at Grupa Granica, an alliance of 14 Polish civil society organisations responding to the crisis, we know at least 5,000 people have been in the forests and that at least 1,000 are there currently. We’ve been in touch with all: desperate victims of a disgusting power game between states.

Every time we respond to a call from someone in need, or their mother still in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a cousin in Berlin, we shoulder our backpacks and go. Day and night – long after the world has lost interest. Sometimes, we look for people for hours. Sometimes, because of security issues, they change their location many times Sometimes elderly grandmothers or the little kids with no more energy to walk are stranded in Polish swamps. Now, since snow covers the forests and people cannot call us, because their phones have been destroyed by the Polish army, we use thermal imagers.

We meet scared eyes, exhausted faces, bodies destroyed by the cold, desperately short of immunity after weeks in the icy, wet forest. Freezing, thirsty, hungry humans. I had no idea what hunger meant. I’ve given a piece of chocolate to my kids when they complain before dinner. I’ve read poverty statistics and history books. I knew nothing about hunger.

People on the Poland-Belarus border have not eaten for weeks. Every few days, after a violent pushback over the barbed wire fence, they may get an old potato from a Belarusian soldier, if they have money. They will share that with the kids. They have nothing to drink for days. Or drink swamp or rainwater, which causes stomach cramps and a deadening headache, further weakening them.

We wish them care and luck at the end of our interaction. Leaving them with enough food and water supplies for a few days is impossible: no one has the strength to carry that much. We cannot take people with us or drive them to a safe place. That would be a criminal act. But it is not a crime to leave these people to their slow death.

Where is the Red Cross, the UN’s International Organization for Migration and the UN refugee agency? Those organisations that operate even in war zones? That take food and water to the most dangerous criminals? Is Elina, 5, more dangerous or less worthy? She has epilepsy but no medicine. I met her in the forest with nine other Kurds, all without boots. They survived wars and airstrikes back home but may freeze to death in the Polish forest. During every pushback Polish and Belarusian officers take away everything: money, clothes and footwear.

There was the group of nine women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably trafficked. When I explained the situation to them, they just cried and cried . Or the Yazidi sisters, who escaped genocide in Sinjar, Iraq seven years ago, but are still trying to find a safe place. Or the boys from Yemen, speaking perfect English. Or the three gay men from Iran, desperate not to be sent back to Belarusian soldiers.

We stay in touch. If they manage to hide their phones, we can communicate after a pushback. They share pictures and videos of Belarusian dogs. Show me bite wounds if we meet on the Polish side. They cry. They ask for advice. They don’t want to tell their families about their plight, but they need somebody to talk to.

“The fifth pushback. At six, I’ll kill myself.”

“I lost my son, he has asthma. [The] last time he called [was] three days ago. Do you know where he is?”

“When do you arrive? Do you have water? Even a drop?”

Subjected to a disinformation campaign, the refugees receive conflicting reports from Belarusian services, which distribute forms about the settling in Poland or Germany. This fosters hopes for a safe journey. But the real aim is to camp them on the Polish border to put pressure on the EU. Some disturbing reports suggest migrants are being forced to participate in violence as part of Belarusian attempts to provoke Polish officials.

With the risk of an escalation of violence, we, the activists in the forests, would like to remind the world that refugees are not aggressors. They are hostages to the Lukashenko regime, which is using them for its agenda.

Poles send me messages: “Where should I send warm and dark clothes?” “How is the situation on the border? Media shows us only videos by [the] Polish ministry or Belarusian authorities.” “I cry when I put my children to sleep. Please, write something that can help.”

Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, spent four days in Poland and came to the field with us. She said: “The greatest strength of the aid movement for refugees and refugees from the Poland-Belarus border are the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns – in the zone of emergency and next to it. It is their compassion and empathy that prolongs the life of people in the forest. Their courage and selflessness. Their good saves lives.”

Of course, others see it differently: people helping on the border are “enemies of the nation”, “agents of Lukashenko”, “guilty of destroying European values”, “inviting terrorists here”.

We are guilty of leaving water packs in the woods for the thirsty. We are guilty of sharing soup. Of putting shoes on cold feet that couldn’t move any more. If helping is illegal, do we even understand what crime is?

 Anna Alboth is volunteer at Minority Rights Group


‘“Ik ken een echtpaar dat in de zone woont”, zegt Karolina. “De man is een verklikker. Hij gaat dagelijks het bos in en belt de politie als hij iemand vindt. Intussen belde zijn vrouw mij, omdat ze heimelijk een berg sokken had gebreid voor de vluchtelingen.”




1 APRIL 2022

Terwijl hij aan de grens met Oekraïne soep krijgt – ze denken dat hij een Oekraïense vluchteling is – ziet schrijver Chris Keulemans hoe de politie aan de grens met Belarus vluchtelingen ‘door het prikkeldraad terug duwt; baby’s gooien ze eroverheen’. Een essay over racisme en hypocrisie aan de lange, Poolse grens.

In Polen sprak ik vorige week met negen criminelen. Bijna allemaal vrouwen van een jaar of veertig. Allemaal natuurliefhebber. Ze houden van het oerbos op de grens met Belarus: 150.000 hectare beschermd werelderfgoed, al eeuwen thuis voor de wisent, de wolf en de lynx. Als ze in het bos iemand tegenkomen die het koud heeft halen ze koffie, soep en dekens tevoorschijn. De grootste boef die ik tegenkom, de angst van de Poolse natie, is een tengere jongeman uit Senegal met een spleetje tussen zijn tanden.

Sinds september vorig jaar mogen deze ‘criminelen’ het bos niet meer in. De Poolse regering riep er de noodtoestand uit en het bos is nu een gemilitariseerde zone: er lopen 15.000 politieagenten, grenswachten en soldaten rond. Toegang verboden voor iedereen die er niet woont of werkt. Geen hulpverleners, artsen of journalisten. Wie er toch betrapt wordt met soep en dekens voor iemand met bevroren voeten gaat naar de gevangenis wegens medeplichtigheid aan mensensmokkel. De eigenaar van die voeten gaat een politiebus in, terug naar Belarus, waar de petten aan die kant hem eerst zijn resterende geld afpakken en dan meteen weer het bos in knuppelen. Sinds de Belarussische president Loekasjenko vorige zomer migranten uit andere crisisgebieden lokte met de belofte van vrije doorgang naar Europa en de grens openzette, wordt er gepingpongd met mensen uit Syrië, Irak, Koerdistan, Afghanistan, Jemen, Palestina, Senegal en Cuba.

Tweehonderd kilometer naar het zuiden, aan de grensovergang bij Hrebenne, zijn het de grenswachten die mij soep aanbieden. Omdat ze me aanzien voor een Oekraïense vluchteling. Er staan tenten en kramen vol voedsel, kleren, simkaarten en speelgoed. Er staan auto’s klaar. Maar het blijft rustig. De nonnen van de Knights of Columbus, de foodtruck uit Litouwen, de Engelse journalisten, de jongen van Lycamobile, de boswachters met hun berg waterflessen – ze hangen onderuit in de lentezon. Het gros van de mensen die meteen wegwilden is de grens al over, zegt een vrijwilliger, anderen wachten in West-Oekraïne af wat er gebeurt. Het is een macabere stilte; de grens houdt zijn adem in. Dan komt er een afgeladen bus langs, in uitbundige zebrastrepen – uit Mariupol. De chauffeur slaat een kruisje als hij de slagbomen passeert.

Polen vangt op dit moment ruim twee miljoen Oekraïners op van de bijna vier miljoen die al naar de EU vluchtten. Warschau alleen al telt opeens 500.000 nieuwe inwoners. Overal zijn gebouwen blauw en geel verlicht. Overal zitten mensen met gestreste gezichten aan hun telefoonscherm gekluisterd. Het is een ontzagwekkende inspanning. Burgers, ngo’s, stadhuizen en kerken zijn dag en nacht actief. Alleen de staat, zeggen de mensen die ik spreek, loopt achter de feiten aan. Iedereen die een Oekraïner opvangt zou €40 per dag ontvangen, beloofde de regering eerst. Dat is intussen teruggedraaid tot €10. Hotels, pensions en appartementengebouwen die ruimte aanbieden wachten nog op de toegezegde vergoeding.

Maar aan de grens met Belarus is de staat klaarwakker en wordt duidelijk welke dubbele standaarden Polen hanteert. Sinds de eerste migranten uitgehongerd de dorpjes rond het oerbos binnen wankelden, regent het maatregelen. Het hele gebied is nu een rode zone. Asielverzoeken worden geweigerd. De grenspolitie duwt mensen terug door het prikkeldraad; de baby’s gooien ze er overheen. Overal rond het bos staan politiecontroles langs de weg: mensen van kleur, op weg naar Europa, worden eruit gevist; de chauffeurs opgepakt. De regering wil zich terugtrekken uit het Dublinakkoord1, om te voorkomen dat de tienduizend mensen die tot Duitsland wisten te komen worden teruggezet naar Polen. En dwars door het werelderfgoed heen bouwen ze een muur van 186 kilometer. Kosten: bijna 400 miljoen, tien keer zoveel als het landelijke asielbudget. Van het bedrag dat de regering nu uittrekt voor NGO’s die Oekraïners opvangen kunnen ze precies 1,1 kilometer muur bouwen.

Langs deze muur is een eenvoudig gebaar van gastvrijheid een misdrijf. Zwaarbewapende mannen in zwarte uniformen rijden de auto’s van de ‘criminelen’ die ik spreek van de weg en breken hun schuur open op zoek naar hulpgoederen. Midden in de nacht krijgen de ‘criminelen’ bericht: mensen in het bos geven hun locatie door. Ze pakken hun spullen en gaan eropaf. Ze mobiliseren een clandestien netwerk van advocaten, artsen en opvangplekken. Moeders zijn het, boeren, boswachters, kunstenaars, overdag borduren ze kussenslopen, schrijven dissertaties of ontwerpen wijnflesetiketten. Zelf noemen ze zich activisten. Niet dat ze dat van nature zijn, ze worden het door zichzelf te blijven.

“Een Syrische jongen lag doodziek langs de weg”, zegt Anna*. “Zijn spullen zaten in een opgevouwen roze kinderjasje. De volgende dag lag alleen het jasje er nog.”
“Vandaag nog is er een man in het bos gevonden”, zegt Kasia. “Zonder gezicht en benen. Aangevreten. Wolven, honden?”
“Mijn twee broers hebben het niet overleefd”, zegt Mohamed, die in Senegal economie studeerde. “De een raakte vergiftigd toen hij moeraswater dronk. Bij de ander kroop een slang zijn jas in toen hij lag te slapen. Ik heb ze allebei in het bos begraven.”
“Een vrouw had pijn in haar maag”, zegt de arts. “Misschien een tumor, misschien was ze zwanger. Voor we haar konden behandelen ontsnapte ze uit het raam.”
“Ik herinner me elk gezicht dat ik ’s nachts in de moerassen heb aangetroffen”, zegt Anna. “Ik heb ze in de ogen gekeken. Ik vergeet ze nooit meer.”
“Er was een misverstand”, zegt de bosbeheerder, die wel met haar auto de rode zone in mag. “Ik reed eerst naar de verkeerde plek. Toen ik aankwam waar ik had beloofd een groep van negen op te halen waren ze weg. Eentje had me de vorige dag zijn oortjes gegeven, als dank voor de soep. Nu voel ik me daar schuldig over. Ik droom van de dag dat ik hem weer tegenkom. Dan geef ik hem zijn oortjes terug.”

Ik ken een echtpaar dat in de zone woont”, zegt Karolina. “De man is een verklikker. Hij gaat dagelijks het bos in en belt de politie als hij iemand vindt. Intussen belde zijn vrouw mij, omdat ze heimelijk een berg sokken had gebreid voor de vluchtelingen.”

“De grenswachten zijn vaak jongens hier uit de buurt”, zegt Piotrek. “Ze willen hun baan niet kwijt, maar soms kunnen ze niet leven met de orders die ze krijgen. Er hebben er al drie zelfmoord gepleegd.”
Monika, “De grenswacht tweet elke dag de aantallen: zoveel illegalen hebben we tegengehouden aan de grens met Belarus, zoveel gasten uit Oekraïne hebben we verwelkomd.”
“Mensen uit Irak ontvluchten ook een oorlog”, zegt de boswachter. “Het is hypocriet. Als westerling voel ik me ook verantwoordelijk voor de crisis daar.”

Die tot in dit oerbos reikt. En daar draagt niet alleen Polen de verantwoordelijkheid voor. Tot 2020 betaalde de EU Loekasjenko, die al sinds 1994 president is, om zijn grens te bewaken. Maar toen Loekasjenko in dat jaar de verkiezingsuitslag vervalste, legde de EU sacties op. Loekasjenko probeerde de EU probeerde te chanteren door migranten door te laten, waarop Charles Michel, voorzitter van de Europese Raad, overwoog de Poolse muur te financieren. Intussen is aannemer Budimex hem aan het bouwen. Verzekeraar Nationale Nederlanden bezit 9,2% van de aandelen in dat bedrijf. Het cement voor de muur wordt aangevoerd vanuit Belarus.

Hypocrisie. Dubbele standaarden. Paniek. Geldzucht. En klinkklaar racisme. Met een duistere echo, in een gebied waar vóór de Tweede Wereldoorlog bijna de helft van de inwoners joods was. “Ik documenteer alles”, zegt Kasia. “Dan hebben we straks zoiets als het Ringelblum-archief uit het getto van Warschau.” Ze staat op. Ze heeft nachtdienst in het hoekje van het station waar niet-westerse vluchtelingen uit Oekraïne zich kunnen melden.

Op de weg terug worden we aangehouden bij een checkpoint. De agent buigt zich voorover en kijkt naar binnen. Zijn blik veegt even door de auto. Vier witte gezichten. Een nonchalant handgebaar. Rij maar verder.


”Four activists from another group operating on the border, Grupa Granica, were arrested in late March on charges of ‘human smuggling’. The activists, who face up to eight years in prison for transporting the asylum seekers, stated they were providing humanitarian assistance to a family stranded on the border. ”




8 APRIL 2022

Families and refugees entitled to international protection are pushed back by Poland as it is simultaneously praised for welcoming Ukrainian refugees.

Sokolka, Poland – The ‘pinned’ location sent to the NGO’s phone leads the volunteers to a thick stretch of forest north of Bialystok, a western Polish city bordering Belarus. 

It’s an early afternoon in late March, and Bartosz Frackowiak parks the car at the edge of the forest, as far as possible from the nearest village. 

Just a few hours earlier, locals had alerted the border authorities to their presence, most likely after recognising their car as belonging to Ocalenie, the refugee rights organisation they work with. Travelling with him are Olga, another volunteer, and Ocalenie’s lawyer, Tomasz Pietrzak.

“We know that one of them is injured, so we [have] some medical equipment with us,” explains Bartosz, who is the director of an art space in Warsaw.

The three fill six backpacks with water, instant noodles, protein bars, dry fruit, hot water bottles, tea, socks, shoes, warm jackets and tents they will be delivering to Mahdi and Abubakar*, from Yemen and Sudan, who contacted them via a helpline after walking across the border from Belarus.

“They also asked for shoes, they probably [crossed] some kind of pond or river. And of course, water and food,” Bartosz says.

In just over a month, Poland has provided refuge to more than 2.3 million people fleeing Ukraine, more than half of the refugees who have left the country. The effort was largely led by volunteers and grassroots groups, who have flocked to the border to cook food, give rides and offer accommodation to the mostly women and children fleeing Russia’s aggression. 

The government is fully supporting  and encouraging the effort – a stark contrast to its refusal, back in 2015, to relocate Syrian refugees from other EU countries at the height of that crisis.

The number of people approaching the Polish authorities for asylum remains low in comparison to other EU countries despite a significant rise in 2021, when 7,700 people applied – compared to 2,800 in 2020. Applications from Belarusian citizens, evacuations from Afghanistan and the crisis at the Belarusian-Polish border late last year account for much of that rise. Only 2,200 were granted protection.

Mahdi, a 39-year-old with a slim and friendly face, greets the group. His travelling companion, whom he’s only met a couple of days ago, was  injured “jumping over the fence,” he says.

“Is it your first time in Poland?” Tomasz asks.

“It is, we were lucky,” Mahdi replies, implying it was their first attempt at crossing the border and the so-called ‘exclusion zone’ – a three-kilometre-wide strip of land the Polish government proclaimed a no-go area last September, when a state of emergency was declared in the area. 

Bartosz, Olga, and Tomasz proceed to lay the multiple backpacks dangling off their shoulders on the ground. “I can’t believe this, thank you so much,” says Mahdi, who is from Sanaa, Yemen, a country ravaged by war and famine for nearly eight years. “I am not used to this, thank you,” he says again, grabbing tea and a hot soup.

Tomasz takes a stash of papers out of his backpack. His job is to find asylum seekers before the Polish Border Guard does, and help them apply for international protection in Poland, preventing their informal return to Belarus. 

“We have a power of attorney document the [asylum seekers] can sign,” Tomasz explains. “We conduct a short interview to get to know their individual situation, and we send the information to the European Court of Human Rights.” The court, he says, will normally react relatively swiftly and grant an “interim measure” for the person, which will then be communicated to the Polish government and the Polish Border Guard.

“This is the only means by which we can prevent pushbacks of asylum seekers to Belarus,” says Tomasz.

Stranded and undocumented in Russia for the past five years, Mahdi looks forward to his chance to start a normal life – one where he doesn’t have to hide from the authorities. 

“I was doing everything, anything I could to survive really,” Mahdi recounts. “I got some help from my university friends. I was working in construction somewhere out of the city [Saint Petersburg], where there were no police checks,” he says, “I didn’t have [regular] work, each time it was for two, three weeks, or a month.”

Having landed in Russia in 2015 to study oil and gas engineering, Mahdi says he became undocumented once his student visa expired and his government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition to fight a war against Houthi insurgents, could no longer pay his scholarship fees. He became one of the many Yemenis studying at universities abroad who found themselves unable to pay fees and maintenance costs, and were forced to interrupt their studies.

“When I anticipated the situation, that I would become illegal, I went to the Red Cross and the UNHCR looking for help,” Mahdi recounts. But no help came, he says, and the only way out was to save up and get smuggled out of the country. 

When a helicopter starts hovering overhead, the group decides to move the camping gear to  an area where the foliage is thick and provides better cover. Then, amid hugs and handshakes, the three NGO workers pick up their empty bags and return to their car. 

“They are in a good spot,” Tomasz says, implying it will be difficult for the Border Guard to find them. “They don’t arrest people, they just throw them over the border.” 

Celebrated on one border, risking prosecution on another

The Polish government is planning to spend more than $400 million on a wall along the Belarusian border, whose construction started in January. Villages and towns have been cut off by the exclusion zone, leading to a decline in local tourism. According to the Polish Border Guard, more than 3,400 people have attempted to enter Poland from Belarus since the beginning of the year. 

A spokesperson for the Border Guard did not reply to TRT World’s request for comment about detention and returns to Belarus, which are informal and illegal under international law. According to its Twitter feed, Afghans, Syrians, Yemenis and others entitled to international protection have attempted to cross.

Last autumn, thousands of migrants and refugees gathered by the border after flying into Belarus, which was issuing temporary visas in what European Union officials called “hybrid warfare” in retaliation for EU sanctions against Belarus. Dozens of people, including families, have since been stuck in a camp in Bruzgi, a border area near the Belarusian city of Grodno. 

The camp was closed at the end of March, scattering the remaining asylum seekers in the surrounding forest. Simultaneously, the number of people attempting the crossing daily spiked, according to Polish authorities.

Four activists from another group operating on the border, Grupa Granica, were arrested in late March on charges of ‘human smuggling’. The activists, who face up to eight years in prison for transporting the asylum seekers, stated they were providing humanitarian assistance to a family stranded on the border. 

Back at the NGO’s guesthouse later that evening, Bartosz is tasked with responding to new messages and alerts. He receives a message from Mahdi: Abubakar is feeling unwell and appears to have a high fever. But calling an ambulance would mean the two would be detained and, most likely, sent back to Belarus.

Mahdi does not want the responsibility of something happening to his travel mate and leaves the choice to Abubakar. In the living room of their apartment, Tomasz, Bartosz and Olga wait nervously for about 30 minutes before receiving a message.

“[Abubakar] said he would rather die than be taken away by the border guard,” it reads.

A political game that has turned deadly

Near a Tatar village on the Polish-Belarusian border, the graves of five asylum seekers who lost their lives while trying to cross over are covered with flowers and pine leaves. One of them was an unborn child. The identity of another remains unknown. 

Not far from there, Tomasz and the volunteers find Ferhad*, a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurd. The former barber sits alone amid birch trees, wrapped in a sleeping bag and shivering in the early hours of the morning. He says he’s spent the night there, after crossing the border with eight others. In his backpack, all that is left is a broken power bank.

He says Belarusian border guards prevented the group from going back to Minsk after they’d left Bruzgi. It’s the second time he has attempted the crossing, after flying to Belarus alongside thousands of Iraqi Kurds late last year at the height of the border crisis.

“The first time I was arrested in Poland, and sent back,” he says. “Today the Belarusians prevented us from going to Minsk, they kicked us to Poland instead,” he says.

Despite the highly militarised border and police checkpoints, many asylum seekers manage to get picked up by smugglers and driven to other European countries, often after walking through the forest for days. Most see Poland as a transit country.

Many walk or wait in the forest for days before they are able to arrange for a smuggler to pick them up.

Not long after meeting Mahdi and Abubakar, the group receives a message on the foundation’s phone. It’s from Mahdi, and it’s sent from Belarus.

“I told [the Border Guard] I want to stay in Poland and apply for asylum. I told them I want a lawyer, I told them I want to call my embassy, I told them I want to call UNHCR. Nothing worked.”

*names have been changed to protect identities and safeguard asylum procedures






17 MAY 2022

NEW YORK — Human Rights First today announced that it will present Grupa Granica with the William D. Zabel Human Rights Award in recognition of its commitment to human rights at the Poland-Belarus border.

The award, presented annually for more than three decades, acknowledges the work of courageous activists on the frontlines of the struggle for freedom and human rights.

“Grupa Granica are front-line human rights defenders working at a flashpoint for human rights and freedom of migration,” said Michael Breen, president and CEO of Human Rights First. “We hope that Human Rights First’s presentation of the William D. Zabel Award provides additional recognition to the importance of their work and helps to stem this humanitarian and geopolitical crisis.”

Formed in response to the humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border, Grupa Granica is an informal network of Polish NGOs, activists, and inhabitants of the border region that provides humanitarian, medical, and legal aid to migrants stranded in the forests there.  They monitor the situation on the ground, provide assistance to people searching for missing family members, document human rights violations and educate Polish society on the situation at the border.

Human Rights First has been working for many years with one of the members of the network, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and our Senior Advisor Brian Dooley has been witnessing Grupa Granica’s work at the Polish-Belarusian border as recently as last month. 

“Our network was formed in August last year in response to the humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border. It consists of local inhabitants, activists, NGO staff, doctors, lawyers, interpreters, psychologists, public figures and many others working hand in hand to save the lives of migrants stranded at the border,” says Marta Górczyńska of Grupa Granica.  “This prestigious award sends a clear message to the public that despite the recent attempts by the Polish authorities, providing humanitarian aid and defending human rights must never be criminalized. We hope it will also make it more difficult for the international community to turn a blind eye to the violations at the border.”

The William D. Zabel Human Rights Award is presented each year to human rights leaders and organizations that have distinguished themselves for their work advancing rights, justice, and equality for those suffering persecution and violations of their rights. The 2022 award will be officially presented to Grupa Granica on June 8. 

Recent Zabel Award recipients include Karapatan, a Philippines-based alliance of human rights organizations; ALQST for Human Rights, which monitors and documents human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia; Miroslava Cerpas Hernández, who promotes the rights of migrants and refugees displaced by violence in Honduras; Friar Tomás González, who protects vulnerable migrants on the Mexican border; Yazidi human rights activists Khaleel Aldakhi and Ameena Saeed Hasan; European antisemitism activists Jane Braden-Golay, Siavosh Derakhti, and Niddal El-Jabri; Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who later went on to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; and human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng of China.




Grupa Granica claim activists simply gave humanitarian aid to family stranded in border forest amid deepening refugee crisis

Four activists were detained in Poland on 23 March for aiding migrants crossing the Belarusian border. They currently face three months of pre-trial arrest.

“When they helped refugees from Ukraine they were heroes, now for providing that same help in Podlasie, they are criminals,” said Grupa Granica, an organisation helping migrants and refugees, to which the detained activists belong.

The organisation said the activists were providing humanitarian aid to a family with seven children who had been stuck at the border for three months.

Prosecutor Jan Andrejczuk, from the regional prosecution office in Hajnówka, in eastern Poland, has told Polish media that the activists were arrested on suspicion of illegally smuggling people over the border, a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison. He added that he will petition the court for pre-trial detention of the suspects.

Grupa Granica denies that their activists aided the migrants in crossing the border, arguing that they simply provided help to people who had already entered Poland.

“The family had been in the forest for many days, without water, food or shelter. The activists saved their lives by providing transport in their cars,” the organisation said, “The accusations are absurd because none of the activists helped anyone cross the border. The aid they provided prevented exhausted people from dying on Polish territory.”

Jakub Boruta, a lawyer representing the activists, told Polish press that he hopes his clients will not face pre-trial detention, a measure he believes is unnecessary at this point.

Grupa Granica said that the refugee crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, engineered by Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko, has worsened in recent days as all the migrants staying in a camp in Bruzgi, Belarus, have been forced out. The most vulnerable, including families with children and those who are ill or have disabilities, are now trying to survive in the surrounding forest, according to the organisation.






8 APRIL 2022










8 APRIL 2022


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