Meanwhile, rescues resume in the Mediterranean despite Libyan Coastguard’s efforts to stop them
PEOPLE trapped at the Poland-Belarus border are suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, hypothermia, frost bite and worse, some are even being sexually abused by border guards on both sides, activists warned today.
Grupa Granica, a Polish human rights and medical aid group, and Sienos Grupe, a similar group based in Lithuanian, held a one-hour briefing this morning on the current situation at the borders with Belarus.
In August 2021, the Belarusian government began encouraging asylum seekers in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere to come to the country in order to cross over its western borders with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
The Belarusian government sought revenge after the European Union had placed economic sanctions on the country following its brutal crackdown in 2020 of the huge protests against President Alexander Lukashenko’s sixth dubious election victory since 1994.
Instead of compassion, the governments of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania and the EU greeted the asylum seekers caught in the middle with new walls, barbed wired fences and drones.
“Some people have been beaten, mainly by the Belarusian border guards but also by Polish border guards too,” said Paulina Bownik, a doctor working with Grupa Granica at the Poland-Belarus border since 2021, at the conference this morning.
“Some people have wounds from razor wire. Some of them have been bitten by dogs.
“Some of the refugee have been tortured in Belarus, including sexual violence.
“Right now there are many pregnant women, including some who are in the third trimester of their pregnancy. There are families with little children.”
The conference’s organisers read out a few short testimonies sent by people who had recently crossed the border, or at least attempted to.
Hazan, from Afghanistan, said: “We were stopped on the road near the Belarusian border. A solider who said he had fallen in love with a girl in my group searched her bag.
“He took out a pair of her underpants and showed it to her. Claiming to already be in love with the girl, he took out a condom and invited her to come and make love with him. He said that she would then be free to go to Europe.
“The girl refused his advances, and the soldier vented his anger on me because he believed that I was her husband or boyfriend.
“He beat me so much that I lost conscious. I didn’t know her. When I woke up, she was not there.”
Another testimony, from a 25-year-old Syrian, read: “We spent weeks on the Belarusian side… We tried to cross four times. On the third, they [the Polish border guards] didn’t even ask where we were from.
“On the fourth time, my grandmother, who I was travelling with, lost all feeling and they took her to hospital. Thanks to this, we are now in a closed centre.
“I don’t know if the bombs in Syria are worse than the Polish and Belarusian armies.”
Aleksandra Łoboda, another member of Grupa Granica said the group has helped over 13,500 people since the crisis began.
“In last two months, over 1,100 people have asked Grupa Granica for humanitarian assistance,” Ms Łoboda said.
“We have provided humanitarian aid to over 600 people, legal help to 16 people, specialised medical assistance to over 100 people, we’ve documented over 200 illegal pushbacks, and we raised reports into 21 missing people.
“Since August 2021, 28 people have been confirmed to have died in the border zone.
“What is important is that these numbers do not represent the whole scale of the crisis because ask for help from other grassroots initiatives operating in the region.
“Only yesterday, we received a request for help from a person with a broken leg. Before we managed to provide them with medical and humanitarian assistance, they were violently pushed back to Belarus. And this happens every day.”
Meanwhile, activist-led rescue missions resumed in the central Mediterranean this weekend for the first time since early November, when the Italian government refused to allow 751 people rescued by two NGO ships to come ashore.
The Geo Barents, the ship operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), saved 74 people from an overcrowded and unstable rubber boat on Sunday.
The crew found another boat this morning carrying 90 people in international waters near Libya.
“Without the efforts of the civil fleet, in less than a day, 164 people could have drowned,” MSF said.
“This is our answer to the heinous migration deterrence policies supported by the EU – Italy and Malta. Humanity first.”
The Louise Michel also carried out a rescue operation in international waters yesterday that was made more difficult by the EU-supported Libyan Coastguards.
“Yesterday, the Louise Michel found an overcrowded rubber boat in distress with 103 people on it,” the organisation explained today.
“Our crew handed out life jackets, water and food as we were waiting for the Humanity 1, a much larger rescue vessel, to arrive.
“An armed Libyan vessel then approached, threatening with guns. People started to panic in fear of an interception, and the rubber boat began to sink.
“Our crew quickly took all 103 people, including several women, some of whom are pregnant, and children onto the Louise Michel.
“To ensure the safety of the survivors, especially as many were suffering from hypothermia, including the children, our captains decided together to transfer everyone onto Humanity1 last night, where especially the women, children and vulnerable people can be better cared for.”
The Libyans had made a bizarre attempt to intimidate the Louise Michel’s crew earlier that day by approaching the ship, telling them to leave international waters and playing music over one of their distress radio channels.
In worse news, a boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa last night. The Italian coastguards rescued 32 people, but four people, including two children aged six months and six years, are still missing.
Another boat carrying around 450 people is currently in distress south-east of Sicily, the activist-run distress hotline organisation Alarm Phone announced this afternoon.
“Alarm Phone was alerted by a group who fled Libya on a big fishing vessel,” the activists said on social media today.
“The people report that they urgently need help as they are out of drinking water and food. Authorities are informed. Rescue is needed NOW!”
Top image shows Poland’s border wall along its border with Belarus. [Pic: AP / Michal Dyjuk]