Poland completes Belarus border wall to stop migrants

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish Prime Minister Mattusz Morawiecki is expected to visit the border area on Thursday to mark the completion of the new steel wall, a year after migrants began entering the European Union from Belarus to Poland. .

On Friday, Polish authorities will also lift a state of emergency along the border that has prevented journalists, human rights workers and others from witnessing the human rights crisis. At least 20 migrants have died in the frozen forests and swamps of the area.

As Poland opens its doors to millions of Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion, work is well underway to build a 5.5-meter (18-foot) wall along its 186-kilometer (115-mile) northern border with Belarus

It aims to deter another type of asylum seeker: those fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa who are encouraged by the dictatorship in Belarus (a close ally of Russia) to try their luck as part of a feud with Russia. EU.

One was Ali, 32, who read on social media late last year that the easiest way to get into the EU was to fly to Belarus and walk into Poland and then leave Syria.

Ali, from a village outside Hama in western Syria, flew to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and set out to find an unguarded place in the forest so he could sneak into the European Union.

“I was looking for a place where I could live safely, away from the oppression and despair of home,” he told The Associated Press in Berlin this week.

Ali, who did not reveal his last name for fear of the impact on his family, was not prepared for the violence and sub-zero temperatures that awaited him in vast forests and swamps.

“There were nights where I slept on the bare ground in the woods thinking I would never wake up again,” Ali said.

Human rights activists argue that there is a double standard in the treatment of refugees from neighbouring Ukraine (mostly Christians, women and fellow white Slavs) and refugees from as far away as the Middle East and Africa, many of whom are Muslim and male.

“If you hitchhike a refugee at the Ukrainian border, you’re a hero. If you do that at the Belarusian border, you’re a smuggler who could end up in jail for eight years,” said Dom Otwarty or Dom Otwarty, a Polish NGO that helps refugees. Open House founder and CEO Natalia Gebert said.

Belarus had never been a major immigration route into the European Union before — until its President Aleksandr Lukashenko began encouraging potential asylum seekers from the Middle East to go to Minsk. Soon people from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and African countries were flocking to the eastern fringes of the EU, into Poland and neighboring Lithuania and Latvia.

EU leaders have accused Lukashenko of waging a “hybrid war” in retaliation for EU sanctions over the regime’s treatment of dissidents. Given Lukashenko’s alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Polish government says Russia is complicit.

Despite the slowdown in migration over the winter, people continued to try to enter the EU through Poland, a route considered less dangerous than crossing the Mediterranean, where many drowned in the past few years, Gerbert said.

Ali, whose small cosmetics business in Syria was destroyed when Sunni extremists learned he belonged to the Alawite religious minority, said he was repelled six times by Polish border guards.

But Belarusian guards beat him, stole his money and forced him to take off all his clothes in the big winter. He wanted to give up and go back to Minsk, but the guards wouldn’t let him. They laid him and the others on the icy ground, yelled at them, and approached with a growling dog and repeatedly kicked Ali in the chest.

He said Polish Border Patrol agents damaged his phone’s SIM card. He was without water and food for days and got lost in the swamp.

A Human Rights Watch report this month said Poland “illegally and at times violently pushed migrants and asylum seekers back to Belarus immediately, where they faced severe abuse, including being beaten and raped by border guards and other security forces. “

Amnesty International also detailed serious human rights violations.

A Polish government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the human rights group’s allegations.

While some Poles support the government’s hardline stance, many border residents have sought help through the winter and spring for migrants trapped in forests, some of whom need medical help.

A play “Responsibility”, which premiered in Warsaw this week, asked how Poland could accept millions of Ukrainians while refusing to offer help to thousands of others. One character asks: “Why does the Polish government ask children from Aleppo to sit in sub-zero swamps and deny aid to Mariupol children?”

Ali spent 16 days in the forest before he and others used pliers to cut a hole in the border fence. Some villagers gave him food and water, but he was soon arrested by the police and taken to the detention center.

Over the next three months, he was moved to several closed camps.

He said the guards, armed with batons and stun guns, would strip him and other detainees naked in public each time before transferring him to another camp. No one called him by his first name, but by his ID number.

In March, he was handed his papers and taken to the Debak Foreigner Centre in Otrebusy, southwest of Warsaw, where he was told: “Go away and go to Germany.”

Ali arrived in Berlin in April and applied for asylum. Rights activists and psychologists have documented his claims, along with those of other asylum seekers, who say they have been abused by Belarusian and Polish border guards.

“I feel better here. People are calling me by my name again,” Ali said. “But I was always worried that the Germans would send me back to Poland.”

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Grieshaber reported from Berlin.

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