Last autumn, Belarusian leader Alexandr Lukashenko decided to use people in need of protection for political blackmailing which led to an increase in the number of arrivals at the Polish-Belarusian border. The situation worsened with the declaration of a state of emergency by the Polish government and the creation of a three-kilometre zone where journalists and NGOs were barred from entering, leaving local residents with the huge task of providing humanitarian aid.
Refugees who travel to Belarus following promises of protection in Europe have to pass through Białowieża Forest, Europe’s last primaeval forest and therefore difficult terrain to cross. The route is made more dangerous by border guards on both sides. In an effort to stop refugees from entering Poland, Polish border guards are committing pushbacks and are reportedly destroying cell phones to prevent refugees from navigating and contacting help. According to a report by Amnesty International, Belarusian border guards use torture and abuse to force people to cross the border to Poland. A 186-kilometre-long border fence, that cost the Polish government 350 million Euros, is currently built through an environmental zone making the route even more dangerous for people seeking protection.
Our team met with volunteers in the border region close to Białowieża. One of our coordinators told us that: “We were able to see ourselves outside the restricted zone how impenetrable this forest is. On our way towards the border, we were stopped by the police. As we could not show the appropriate papers to enter the prohibited zone, we were not allowed to continue our journey and had to turn back.”.
Volunteers in this region told our team that the biggest issues right now are the decreasing number of volunteers who actually go to interventions, the inactivity of bigger organisations that are not allowed to enter the three kilometre zone, and the reduced public awareness of the situation.
Most recently, the Polish Minister of Interior and Administration, Mariusz Kamiński, announced on Twitter that the state of emergency in this border region will end on the 1st of July and that the authorities in the Podlasie region will announce a 200 metre no go area at the same time.