Barbed wire and soldiers: Poland closes its border to keep out refugees. Now even a wall is being built. A site visit.
An article from
1.2.2022, 10:30 a.m
A jeep in camouflage colors stands in a snowy field. A few hundred meters further Belarus and a dense mixed forest begins. On the Polish side, the state border is secured with a thin NATO wire with razor-like barbs stacked in three to five rolls on top of each other. This is what we call here koncertyna. The border fence, hastily erected in the fall of 2021, will prevent refugees from entering the EU through the green border.
"Your journey ends here. Go back to Minsk. From there you will be taken home"
Suddenly, a jolt goes through the jeep, then a voice clangs out of the speakers on the roof: "Your journey ends here. This is not what you were promised. Go back to Minsk. Before there you will be taken home. Your nightmare will end." On the other side of the fence, there are no refugees to hear this. Nevertheless, the announcement is repeated inEnglish, French and three other languages in an endless loop.
A camera crew from the French press agency AFP shoots the jeep, two Polish crews are also present. Together we are eight journalists, accompanied and guarded by six border guards. Since last fall, the immediate border area with Belarus – 3 kilometers wide and 418 kilometers long – has been a restricted zone. Only residents of the 183 localities and commuters who work within the zone are allowed to move freely there. Humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross are strictly forbidden to enter, despite a ruling to the contrary by the Supreme Court in Warsaw. All place-name signs within the strefa, as they say in Polish, are marked with the warning "Do not enter". And already about 15 kilometers before the actual exclusion zone, border guards stop all those who do not have a pass.
For a few weeks now, the Polish Border Guard has been organizing tours for journalists. Foreign correspondents are checked by the secret service before they are allowed to join a trip. Details of the planned trip are not available in advance.
At the border near Usnarz Gorny
In the village of Usnarz Gorny, close to the border, dramatic scenes took place last fall: Belarusian security forces had brought a large group of women, men and children from Afghanistan and Iraq right up to the Polish border fence. There they left people without food and water in the open air.
On the Polish side, heavily armed border guards took position. Behind them, representatives of humanitarian organizations, lawyers and reporters tried to make contact with the people behind the fence with megaphones, cell phones and described cardboard boxes. Desperately shouted these "water!", "Hunger!". But the Polish border guards wouldn’t let food and drinks, warm clothes, teddy bears for the kids or powerbanks for charging cell phones through. The whole world learned about the drama of the refugees who had become hostages of Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko’s.
Everything under control: Jeep at the border near Usnarz Gomy Photo: Gabriele Lesser
Today, the makeshift campground behind the fence is deserted. Camera crews film the remnants in the snow, the barbed wire fence stretching for miles, and the soldiers patrolling in pairs and standing next to an open fire to warm up. They are not allowed to be questioned. Only a border guard gives information, anonymously and behind a face mask that leaves only a slit open for the eyes. "We do our work at a very high level," he says. And: "We protect not only the border of Poland, but that of the whole EU". Does he know what happened to the refugees?. "No," he shakes his head. "This is not our job. One day they were gone."
Back on the hill where we had to leave the two jeeps and the passenger car because of the rock-hard frozen ruts, an old man from the village comes to meet us. "Are you afraid of the migrants? Are you glad for the soldiers who now protect you and your family so well?" one of the reporters asks him. The man grins broadly and says: "The only refugees who made it to the village store only wanted to buy warm milk for the children. And protection? Well, everyone is just doing their job."Then he approaches the uniforms and asks when the village roads and dirt tracks, which have been torn up by military trucks, will be repaired. He points to the road down to the border: "We can hardly get to our fields anymore!"
Last stop on the four-hour border tour is Zubrzyca Wielka. Here we should have a chance to talk to the villagers. But no one shows up. Also to hear nothing, no radio, no television. No sound comes from the stables. At least the camera teams can take a still picture of the town sign: "Zubrzyca Wielka. Terrain covered by the prohibition to stay. No entry".
White containers for even more border guards
On the way back to the border station in Szudziałowo, the column passes a white container warehouse, next to it and along the main street of the village are dozens of olive green military trucks. When asked if it’s possible to stop here, the driver replies curtly, "There’s nothing to see here!"How many soldiers are housed here? "Hundreds." In total, along the Belarusian-Polish border, there are about 20.000 Polish border guards, soldiers and so-called "border guards" terytorialsi – patriotic inspired leisure warriors – stationed.
While in Szudziałowo on some windows of the apartment blocks a "We thank you!" sign is stuck, people in the village of Białowieża tend to keep a low profile. After one of the volunteers shot a beaver because it was supposedly moving suspiciously, parents no longer let their children go into the forest alone. "We hope that the border wall will be finished soon," says a boarding house hostess. "Then hopefully the soldiers will leave again and the tourists will return."She does not want to see her name in print.
A bus with 35 journalists and employees of various Polish ministries starts from the village of Popławce to the construction site of the new border facility. The government has set up a kind of press center made of white container boxes next to an old school building. There is no information about the limit, but you can warm up and use the Internet connection.
The construction site at the border
After a good half hour’s drive, the border is reached: trucks, excavators, concrete mixers and spiral drills drive back and forth continuously on a muddy construction site. Part of the barbed wire barrier has already been dismantled. A few meters away and parallel to the former border fence stand soldiers with rifles strapped to their backs and man-sized Plexiglas shields. "In case we are attacked from the Belarusian side," a press spokeswoman explains. Beyond the border, however, there is no one to be seen – only trees as far as the eye can see.
Construction manager Adam Polinski explains that the new border wall will be 5.50 meters high and will be made of steel bars with a barbed wire roll at the end. He says his company, Unibep, is responsible for preparing the ground for construction, can cut trees up to 8 or even 12 meters from the planned border installation, is drilling the holes for the piles and is already concreting in the steel supports at a depth of 3 meters.
He dodges the question of whether Unibep will also cut the 8- to 12-meter-wide swath through the strictly protected nature reserve in the Białowieza primeval forest to make room for the 3-kilometer-long border installation there. "The planning has not yet been completed," says Polinski. One of the spokeswomen for the border guard says: "We will build there in the most forest-friendly way possible."
The construction of the border facility, which began last week in four places at the same time, should be completed as early as June. However, the barrier will stand only on about half of the Belarusian-Polish border. For about 200 kilometers, the border runs through rivers like the Bug, the Świsłocz and some smaller lakes. The cost of the structure is estimated at an exorbitant 1.6 billion złoty, the equivalent of about 353 million euros. Although the Polish Ministry of the Interior, the Border Guard and the Secret Service awarded the contract without a tender and strictly refuse to review the costs, the European Union is to bear the costs if the Polish builders have their way.
Not all residents are enthusiastic
In Michałowo, a small town outside the exclusion zone, mayor Marek Nazarko laughs bitterly: "This is the next millions of taxpayers’ money that this government is going to sink just like that."The new border fence is easy to cross – a 6 to 7 meter high ladder is enough. The 53-year-old, who has also worked as a farmer, police officer, construction worker, village schoolmaster and lawyer, lets two metal balls slide through his fingers. "For one billion and six hundred thousand złoty," he drags out the numbers, "you could build hundreds of emergency shelters. Poland has not done this since joining the EU in 2004."
His deputy Konrad Sikora nods: "Now in winter, of course, there are far fewer refugees crossing the green border, but the problem is not over. We can’t just drive these people, who have often experienced terrible things in their homeland and are now hoping for protection in the EU, back across the border and into the hands of Lukashenko!"
Border fence near Usnarz Gomy. The remains of refugees lie behind it Photo: Gabriele Lesser
On the visitor’s table in his office are two green ceramic lamps designed by an artist. They symbolize the "green light" movement that started in Michałowo and has been joined by more and more people along the border. In every house where a green lamp is lit, refugees can hope for a friendly welcome, hot tea and a warm meal, and – if necessary – clothes and shoes. "Refugees have a right to an asylum process no matter how they got here," Sikora says.
Mayor Nazarko looks out the window at the snow-covered park in front of the town hall. "The other day the EU human rights representative was here in Michałowo and then also the German ambassador. But both of them just shrugged their shoulders. They couldn’t do anything about the pushbacks from the Polish government."He turns around and is about to leave, but then he says: "For me it was a big disappointment: the EU is trampling on human rights because it can’t get its migration policy right. What are this politician and this ambassador actually doing their job for??"
Hamid, trapped in the internment camp of Wędrzyn
39.700 times, Poland’s border guard reports, people tried to enter Poland illegally via Belarus last year. How many were deported directly back to the border and how many were let into Poland for an asylum procedure is an open question. The government in Warsaw is not releasing these figures.
Those who are allowed into the country are sent to detention camps for an indefinite period of time. According to the border police, in mid-January there were about 1.750 asylum seekers in the country’s nine camps in total. One of them is Hamid, 28, a civil engineer from the central Afghan province of Ghor, who does not want his last name published.
Interview with a Polish border guard Photo: Gabriele Lesser
Hamid said he left Afghanistan by land, leaving his wife and child behind. He then traveled by train via Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia to Minsk, which he reached on 28. August reached.
Like so many others, he tried to cross the border into the EU. The first time, he says, he was picked up by Polish border guards. "They took us first to a military base and then back to the border during the night."But they couldn’t go inland to Belarus – the security forces there wouldn’t let them go back. "They did not beat us, but they sent us back without food or water. Why did they do it?", he asks. After days in the forest, they met local residents. "We told them that we were afraid to die and did not know where we were."Hamid says he tried to cross into Poland a total of three times. It wasn’t until the third time that he was finally able to apply for asylum.
Months of waiting in Wedrzyn camp
Hamid arrived at the camp in Wędrzyn, a military barracks about an hour’s drive east of Frankfurt on the Oder. At the beginning of September. He was told he would have to stay there for two months. "Now I’ve been here for five months, I’ve received nothing – no papers to refer to, and no one tells me what will happen next."
Theoretically, asylum seekers can be interned in Poland for the entire duration of their asylum procedure. According to the Polish legal aid group Fundacja Ocalenie, some of these people are released earlier, but there is no discernible pattern. Asylum procedures in Poland are lengthy, Fundacja Ocalenie is not aware of any case in which a procedure of a protection seeker who entered the country via Belarus since August has already been completed.
On its website, the border guard paints a picture of the "guarded centers," as the government calls the camps, that is reminiscent of a resort: in addition to "comfortable living conditions," there are "separate places for active recreation, gyms and playgrounds," computers with Internet access, TV rooms and "varied and healthy full board".
The inmates are less taken. There have been several strikes and a revolt in Wędrzyn in recent weeks. At the end of January, detainees went on hunger strike again.
The construction of the wall has begun. Excavator near Tolce Photo: Kacper Pempel/reuters
Some 600 men like Hamid are being held in Wędrzyn, divided into five blocks of six rooms, each for 20 people. "In my cell I am the only Afghan, the others are from Iraq," says Hamid. They had "no respect" and would smoke in the cell. "There is one toilet and for our whole block only one shower, sometimes cold, sometimes hot."
The Polish government changed the "regulation on guarded centers" right at the beginning of the refugee movement via Belarus. According to the old regulation, each detained refugee was entitled to a minimum area of 4 square meters, since then it is only 2 square meters. This doubled the capacity of the internment camps. But even that was not enough. Therefore, three more camps were set up. The biggest of them is Wędrzyn.
"Far from minimum standards"
Detention camps in Poland are "far from the minimum standards envisaged for those seeking protection in the European Union," says lawyer and Left Party member of the Bundestag Clara Bunger. "When even the Polish deputy commissioner for human rights describes the situation for protection seekers as a clear violation of the ban on torture and inhumane treatment, this is an absolute warning signal." Poland has no right to detain protection seekers in a blanket manner. The German government must work to ensure that people are evacuated from the camps immediately, Bunger says.
"Everyone here is sick," Hamid complains. He himself suffers from depression, worries about his wife and children. He says his wife studied literature in Kabul, and she, too, is threatened by the Taliban. "She has to hide somewhere else all the time, waiting for me to catch up with her."
Communication is difficult, though not impossible. Hamid has a simple cell phone sent to him by his lawyer. "You can’t have a cell phone with a camera here," Hamid says. The government obviously wants to avoid internees documenting how they are being held. Smartphones and therefore messenger services such as Whatsapp are therefore banned in the camp. There is one computer with Internet access per block, and he can rarely use it accordingly, Hamid says. Leaving one’s cell would only be allowed to go to a very small fenced yard and to the dining hall. "Twenty soldiers guard us all the time," Hamid says. "We can’t sleep here, we went on hunger strike, but nobody cared."
He wrote applications and gave them to the guards. "I didn’t get any response to that, the guards always just say, ‘You have to wait’. I have absolutely no idea what will happen next."
His lawyer gives him little hope. "She says we have to wait until the government decides what to do with me. That can last a long time, maybe six months."This time would soon be up. But it is by no means certain that Hamid would then be released. The recognition rate for asylum seekers in Poland in 2020 was around 30 percent. For those seeking protection from Islamic or African countries, the outlook is particularly bleak.