Fears are growing for a group of Afghan refugees who fled their country last month and made their way to Europe, only to find themselves marooned on the border between Poland and Belarus in a “Kafkaesque” political standoff.
The 32 refugees – women, men, and a child of 15 years old – have been stuck in a small, muddy patch of land between the two countries for almost three weeks with no access to clean water, insufficient shelter and intermittent food supplies, according to a Polish NGO.
Despite seeking international protection in Poland, they are not being allowed in, with border guards preventing them from entering. Neither are they being allowed back into Belarus, where they came from in the hope of being able to cross into the European Union.
According to the Ocalenie Foundation, which has been monitoring the situation for the past week, one member of the group, a 53-year-old woman, is ill and urgently needs medical assistance. Mariana Wartecka, a spokesperson for the NGO, said border guards had refused her access to health professionals.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis right now,” she said. “They don’t have proper shelter. They don’t have access to clean water. They are drinking water from a stream near them that is really dirty.”
EU countries have accused the authoritarian leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, of seeking to destabilise the bloc by encouraging refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere to come into the country on tourist visas. Then, they say, he is sending them to the border with Poland and the Baltic states in retaliation for the sanctions imposed by Brussels in June.
The group of Afghans stuck near the village of Usnarz Górny, about 55km east of Białystok, find themselves in the crosshairs of this clash, say human rights observers.
“They’re a victim of the political game between countries,” said Aleksandra Fertlińska, a campaigner at Amnesty International Poland. “But what is the most important is that it doesn’t matter what is the source of this political game. They are refugees, and they are protected by [the] Geneva convention and what we need to do is … accept them.”
Last week, the European court of human rights ordered Poland and Latvia to help refugees and migrants gathered on their borders by providing them with “food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter.” It was not, it added, requiring that either country “let the applicants enter their territories”.
A group of Iraqi Kurds is in similar limbo on the border between Latvia and Belarus.
In response to the court’s interim, Poland’s rightwing government said its foreign ministry had repeatedly offered to take humanitarian assistance intended for the refugees into Belarus. A spokeswoman for the interior ministry said: “These people are on the Belarusian side of the border.”
Agnieszka Kubal, a migration scholar at UCL, said the offer was disingenuous at best.
“We’re in a situation where Polish border guards are standing literally metres from these people in a tight cordon and Polish authorities are sending a truck to Belarus to reach those people from the other side. It’s a Kafkaesque situation. It’s so ridiculous that I’m lost for words.”
As the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan prompts hundreds of thousands of people to flee to neighbouring countries, the EU – still reeling from its failure to manage the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis – is braced for a fresh influx of refugees.
Fertlińska urged Warsaw to be prepared to accept refugees fleeing their crisis-hit country and “not to close the borders and not to build the fences, because we [saw] that in 2015 this kind of politics didn’t make any change in terms of the numbers of people who were trying to get to Europe”.
But, when visiting the border last week, the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, struck a hardline note, accusing the Belarusian regime of exploiting the refugees and insisting: “Poland must protect its border.”
“I truly sympathise with the migrants who have been in an extremely difficult situation but it should be clearly stated that they are a political instrument,” Morawiecki said.
Belarus has denied it is sending refugees to the border. In May, Lukashenko told the EU that if it imposed new sanctions it would find itself with more “drugs and migrants” that his country would once have stopped.