Human rights a currency without value in Polish-Belarusian limbo

Estimated 4,000 people camped near border facing hunger, exposure and death

The greatest danger on the Poland-Belarus border is not the estimated 4,000 people camped in the forest, but the creeping threat of hunger, thirst, exposure and death.

With no tents, plunging temperatures and only limited food and water, the stranded people from Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Afghanistan hoped Belarus was their back door into a better life in Europe. Instead they find themselves trapped in a hellish geopolitical face-off between Minsk and Warsaw, with Moscow and Brussels looking on.

These people’s days are random moments of rest and rumour, their frozen nights are snatched moments of sleep between unexplained gunshots and Polish military helicopters hovering low overhead. Flying even higher, out of sight, two Russian nuclear-ready bombers are reportedly watching everything for the Kremlin.

Last September, as a trickle of border crossings turned to a flood, Polish MPs in Warsaw declared a state of emergency in the regions along its 400km border with Belarus. What was flagged as a security necessity has made it impossible, and illegal, for journalists and aid workers to enter the militarised border regions.


The few humanitarian teams who have been allowed in and out again say the situation is grim and getting worse. They are forbidden from distributing food or other supplies, meaning those camping out are dependent on donations from locals.

Kyle McNally is just back in Berlin from Belarus as a humanitarian affairs adviser for the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières. He is still haunted by the Syrian family he met in the forest, still there 21 says after they were pushed back violently into Belarus by Polish border guards. Such actions are a breach of international law but, in the chaos on Europe’s eastern wall, human rights are a currency without value.

“The family described being beaten with a rifle butt, being kicked in the ribs, electrocuted in the neck,” he said. “They showed me injuries, said they had their belongings taken or destroyed, mobile phones too, meaning they were unable to contact their family.”

With razor wire and about 20,000 Polish soldiers holding them back, Some say at least 10 have died here since September; others say the figure is much higher now that night-time temperatures are below zero.

Social-media messages

Social media is filled with short videos and voice messages pleading for help. One man says he and his family from Damascus have been trapped for six days in the no-man’s land on Europe’s eastern wall.

“We are dying here,” says the man, who calls himself Ibrahim. “I see children dying before my eyes and I can’t do anything to help them.”

Humanitarian organisations have condemned Belarus for, in their eyes, instrumentalising desperate people for leverage with the European Union. But they have castigated European leaders, too, for framing the crisis as a “hybrid war” that, they say, dehumanises the people and minimises their suffering.

On Thursday the United Nations refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration joined forces to restate their offer of emergency humanitarian assistance – and even to help Belarus assist and move away people from the border areas.

“In view of the alarming situation at the border,” they said in a statement, “both sides must uphold their obligations under international law and guarantee the safety, dignity and protection of the rights of people stranded at the border.”

The UN children’s fund, Unicef, has urged special consideration for minors. Special co-ordinator Afshan Khan said: “A child is a child, no matter the circumstances.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin