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Winter poses a new threat to thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans and others stranded in Belarus on Lukashenko regime’s false promise that they would be welcomed in EU

Polish soldiers guard an intersection of forest roads at the edge of the security zone near Poland's border with Belarus. Poland has declared a state of emergency along the entire frontier.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Amid the dense pine and birch forests of eastern Poland, one can find faint traces of the thousands of refugees who recently passed this way. At the end of one trail, where the thick forest meets a winding road, lies a collection of soggy sleeping bags, cheap plastic rain covers, water bottles, and an empty packet of a brand of chocolate biscuits sold only in Russia and Belarus.

It’s unclear whether the group of asylum-seekers that discarded these items found someone to give them dry clothes and warmer bedding – or if they were caught and sent back to Belarus by some of the 15,000 Polish soldiers and border guards deployed to the area.

Thousands of desperate Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans and others have been admitted into Belarus on tourist visas in recent months, then sent west toward Poland and the European Union on the false promise that they would be welcomed there. The unprecedented campaign is widely seen as an act of revenge perpetrated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who blames Poland and the EU for supporting a pro-democracy uprising that nearly toppled his regime a year ago.

Belarus elevated international tensions this week when it directed the new arrivals to gather in a large group that tried to break through the Kuznica border crossing in Poland’s northeast. Belarus’s apparent aim was to create a fresh refugee crisis inside the EU.

The move, which prompted Poland to further bolster its border security, hasn’t helped the would-be refugees. After several weeks during which a thin but steady stream of them was making its way across the border into Poland – and in some cases onward to Germany and other EU countries – now only a trickle emerges from the forests. Poland has declared a state of emergency along the entire frontier.

Polish military trucks patrol a road near Poland's border with Belarus. 15,000 Polish soldiers and border guards have been deployed to the area.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

On Friday, Polish troop carriers rumbled through the otherwise deserted roads on the edge of the security zone, which all but local residents are prohibited from entering. Soldiers wearing balaclavas and carrying assault rifles were stationed at major intersections, and at the ends of some forest trails.

“This whole area is sealed. No one can cross,” said Kalina Czwarnog, a co-ordinator at Ocalenie, one of a consortium of Polish non-governmental organizations that has deployed staff to the border region to aid asylum-seekers. Poland has reported some 33,000 illegal crossings of its border with Belarus this year, and more than half of those occurred in October.

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Organizations working with the refugees say at least 11 people have died, most from a lack of medical attention, in the border area over the past two months. It’s a number many fear will rise as the nights grow colder. Few among the estimated 4,000 people currently camped along the border at Kuznica have warm clothes or blankets. The makeshift camp is expected to swell, because thousands more would-be refugees are believed to be en route.

Ms. Czwarnog said that in recent weeks she had been involved in two or three “interventions” per day, where NGO staff meet a group of refugees and distribute food, clothing and legal advice. But her group had only received one call since Monday.

Oliwia Hurley, a 43-year-old teacher-turned-activist who lives six kilometres from the border, said local volunteers were aware of several small groups of refugees – 20 or 30 people in all – who had made it across to Poland before Monday’s incident, and no new crossings since then. The escalated military presence has meant groups have been forced to remain in hiding in the cold forest, hoping the situation somehow eases.

Anna Alboth founded Gruppa Granica, an umbrella group of the NGOs working in the border area to aid refugees coming to Poland via Belarus.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

The slowdown in crossings is ironically of Mr. Lukashenko’s making. “Because people are all gathered in one place, there are much less people crossing, and much less people contacting us,” said Anna Alboth, the founder of Gruppa Granica, an umbrella group of NGOs working in the border area. “The last three days have been the quietest in months.”

The opposite is true at the geopolitical level. Belarus and its ally Russia held unannounced joint military exercises on Friday, with 250 Russian paratroopers landing near Belarus’s borders with Poland and Lithuania. Lithuania, which is home to Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has also seen a surge in illegal crossings from Belarus in recent weeks.

Poland and Lithuania are both members of the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The alliance released a statement Friday saying it would “remain vigilant against the risk of further escalation and provocation by Belarus.” U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris – whose government has reportedly briefed European allies about its concerns regarding a parallel Russian military build-up around neighbouring Ukraine – told reporters the Biden administration was “very concerned” about the situation at the Poland-Belarus border.

Mr. Lukashenko and his allies in Moscow have been undeterred so far by the threat of more economic sanctions, but European pressure appeared to convince Turkey to end its indirect role in the crisis. Many of the refugees now at the Poland-Belarus border arrived on planes from Istanbul, which sends six flights a day to the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Turkey’s Civil Aviation General Directorate said on Friday that it would no longer allow Iraqi, Syrian or Yemeni citizens to board Minsk-bound flights unless they held diplomatic passports.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry also announced Friday that it was banning direct flights to Belarus. It offered to help repatriate Iraqi citizens who were currently in Belarus and wanted to return home.

The geopolitics are a side issue for Polish activists trying to help the asylum-seekers who make their way through the forests.

Sleeping bags, rain covers and a package of Russian-made biscuits found in a forest that refugees must trek through after entering Poland from Belarus.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Maciej Szczesnowicz, head of the Muslim community in the town of Bohoniki, prepares to distribute donated supplies to asylum-seekers.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Maciej Szczesnowicz, the head of a small Polish Muslim community in the town of Bohoniki, said he makes two trips a day into the restricted zone, his car packed with donated food, clothes and foam mattresses that he distributes to any refugees he encounters. As a local resident, he’s allowed to travel on roads that most Poles and foreigners are not. He takes along hot soup to distribute to the soldiers who are charged with guarding the forest as winter sets in.

“I pity the refugees, but I also feel sorry for the security services,” Mr. Szczesnowicz said, adding that while he thought Poland should do its best to welcome those asylum-seekers currently at the frontier, he worried that would simply encourage Mr. Lukashenko to import more migrants and escalate the crisis.

“It’s very difficult to watch. It doesn’t matter what colour is your skin, or what your religion is. The Lukashenko regime tricked these people. He promised them they could come to [Belarus] and everything would be taken care of and they could walk to Germany and have a better life. They weren’t told about the borders in between.”

Kasia Wappa, a teacher and translator in the southeastern town of Hajnowka, is another who regularly goes out into the forests around her home, looking for people she can help. The 40-year-old has welcomed some of those she has found in the woods into her home, offering them food and drink and a place to briefly get warm.

Teacher Kasia Wappa has invited refugees into her home to give them a meal and a brief respite from the cold.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

“My way of dealing with this reality is to go and help, because I think I have no other choice. If I hear that someone is dying in my neighbourhood, I feel I have to go and help,” she said. She said the crisis had been worsened by the Polish government’s militarized response to the refugees.

It’s a stance that’s offside with public opinion in Poland, which polling suggests heavily favours the tough-on-migrants stance taken by the country’s right-wing government.

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