Trying to Do the Right Thing Refugees in Exclusion Zone Deeply Divide Poles

With thousands of migrants trying to cross into the country from neighboring Belarus, Podlasie, Poland, has become the epicenter of an international crisis. The development is dividing locals, with some doing what they can to help the refugees and others doing all they can to keep them out.By Steffen Lüdke und Lina Verschwele in Podlasie, Poland 23.11.2021

Refugee helper Alina Miszczuk in the forest: "The current situation has torn people apart."
Refugee helper Alina Miszczuk in the forest: “The current situation has torn people apart.” Foto: Adam Lach / DER SPIEGEL

When the barbed wire arrived in August, Alina Miszczuk stood with her husband in their yard, one kilometer away from the Polish-Belarusian border, and wondered how they would still be able to mow the lawn under the fence. These days, though, she mostly thinks about the ways to help those who manage to get across it.

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 47/2021 (November 20th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International

Miszczuk, 59 years old, is a hands-on woman with dark, curly hair, generally quite cheerful. She grew up in the area, which she herself describes as having been left behind. Podlasie is the kind of place the city dwellers from Warsaw escape to, a place where they can forage for mushrooms and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. Locals like Miszczuk, meanwhile, are still waiting for faster internet.ANZEIGE

Since this summer, though, the Podlasie region has been at the center of an international crisis. Thousands of security forces are now patrolling the area, and they use drones to search for people from the air. A restricted area about three kilometers (1.8 miles) wide separates Belarus from the European Union. But the zone also divides Polish society and the people who live here, driving a wedge between those who mean well with the refugees and those who would to see them disappear as quickly as possible. “The current situation has torn people apart,” Miszczuk says.ANZEIGE

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Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko has sent an estimated 10,000 migrants to the border near sleepy town of Podlasie to heap pressure on the EU. The refugees placed their faith in smugglers in Syria, Turkey or Iraq, who said they would get them to Berlin within five days. By now, though, they have spent several weeks trying to reach their destination.

Alina Miszczuk wants to help the people who are wandering through this region, cold and starving, and arranges assistance for the ones who have managed to make over the fence. Miszczuk has served as president of the Red Cross in Hajnówka for 12 years. If it were up to her, Europe would take in all the refugees at the fence. Her husband holds a similar view, but worries his wife’s helpfulness could land her in jail.

Red Cross worker Alina Miszczuk

Red Cross worker Alina Miszczuk Foto: Adam Lach / DER SPIEGEL

The calls start at 10 p.m. at night, with the voices on the other end often saying nothing but, “help me.” Miszczuk then tries to find someone who can speak English.

It’s a recent Wednesday, and Miszczuk, wrapped in a down jacket, is roaming the woods with a flashlight. Police cars drive nearby, their blue lights flashing. In the dense, spruce forest, she points to a water bottle with a label written in Cyrillic, medicines with Arabic writing and an emergency blanket. Miszczuk suspects that refugees spent the night here and are now traveling west along the nearby country road.

She says she once saw a child at the border being given only dry bread and that it saddened her to imagine what it must be like to be unable to give your child more than that. Miszczuk has two sons. One helps her with the work of aiding refugees. The other thinks the people at the fence are just lazy.ANZEIGE

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The day before, some migrants tried to break through the fence using tree trunks, and they threw rocks at Polish officers – including Krystyna Jakimik-Jarosz. The friendly and energetic 43-year-old has been a border guard in Podlasie for 15 years. She says she was patrolling the border wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest when the volley of rocks came her way.

Jakimik-Jarosz says she used to go canoeing together with her counterparts from Belarus, but now, they are facing off against each other at the border. The Belarusians drive the migrants toward the fence, and the Poles push them back. Some have taken to calling it “ping pong” – a rather cynical image for the brutal game of chicken being played with human beings. Television footage from the same day shows Polish security forces countering the violence at the fence with shots in the air and water cannons, despite temperatures around freezing.ANZEIGEjavascript:”<html><body style=’background:transparent’></body></html>”

Krystyna Jakimik-Jarosz has been a border guard in the area of Podlasie for 15 years.

Krystyna Jakimik-Jarosz has been a border guard in the area of Podlasie for 15 years. Foto: Adam Lach / DER SPIEGEL

Jakimik-Jarosz is no longer friendly with the officers on the other side of the border. Interspersed among the migrants, she says, she has seen men wearing hoodies who look Slavic. She suspects they might be Belarusian agents, responsible for inciting clashes and escalations.

The meeting with Jakimik-Jarosz takes place after her shift at the local border guard headquarters in Białystok, a three-story Art Nouveau building painted white. She swaps her camouflage jacket for a sweater, and there’s a bowl of chocolates for visitors in her office. Jakimik-Jarosz is the deputy press spokesperson for the border patrol. On days like these, she says, she fears for her life while on duty. The refugees didn’t ask to be let in, she says. “They’re trying to break through the border by force,”she says.

She thinks it is the right policy for Polish security forces to keep people from crossing the border – and even to send them back. According to most legal experts, such forceful pushbacks violate European law, and the people from Iraq, Syria and other countries at the border should in fact be allowed to apply for asylum. But in mid-October, Poland legalized the refoulement of asylum-seekers under national law. Border guards are now allowed to decide on the spot whether to push a migrant back into Belarus or allow them to apply for asylum.

Jakimik-Jarosz says she’s simply doing her job. “We’re protecting our border, the border to the EU,” she says. One donor sent the border guards several kilos of chocolate bars to thank them for their work. Last week, acting German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer traveled to Poland in a gesture of support. The European Union is also considering the co-financing of a border fortification for Poland.”People say we don’t have a heart, but we also have children and family.”

Border guard Krystyna Jakimik-Jarosz

On the Polish side, 15,000 soldiers are now providing support to the border guards. They are joined by the Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej, a volunteer army with around 30,000 members, mostly from the region. They operate the drones in the restricted area and they illuminate the fence with spotlights on the search for migrants who have managed to cross the fence. Before beginning their service, they take an oath to “faithfully serve” Poland and protects its independence.

“Of course I’m a patriot,” Krystyna Jakimik-Jarosz says. She has a clear stance on the people on the other side of the fence. She says women and children need to be helped, but argues that most of the migrants are young men – and there’s no way of even confirming their identities. “People say we don’t have a heart,” she says, “but we also have children and family.”

A colleague of Jakimik-Jarosz asserts that people could request asylum through legal channels, such as at official border crossings. But the nearest border crossing in Kuźnica is closed. Even in the border area, the right to request asylum is respected, Jakimik-Jarosz claims – but most of them ask about receiving asylum in Germany. When that happens, she says, there is nothing that can be done for them.

A foggy area near the border between Poland and Belarus: Police conduct vehicle checks every few kilometers.

A foggy area near the border between Poland and Belarus: Police conduct vehicle checks every few kilometers. Foto: Adam Lach / DER SPIEGEL

Miszczuk of the Red Cross says she has doubts about whether everyone really gets the chance to request asylum. “Officially, that’s what they say,” she says. “What’s happening so far, though, are pushbacks.”

If it were up to her, Poland would have taken in 5,000 people long ago. In the past, the country has provided refuge to considerably more people: Thousands of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Chechens fled here to escape war and repression. In contrast to the people from Middle Eastern countries who are coming now, though, there wasn’t much debate about migrants from Eastern Europe.

In her office in Hajnówka, Miszczuk packs two types of bags. In the white ones, she collects personal hygiene items and clothes. The bags go to people in refugee reception centers. The IKEA bags she packs with warm clothes: Anyone wanting to help can grab one from her to hand out. As a member of the Red Cross, she is allowed to pack the bags, but not to place them in the woods. It’s mostly Polish activists who distribute them.

She has access to the restricted area only as a private citizen to visit her parents’ home. “The worst thing is the helplessness,” she says. “I don’t know why humanitarian organizations aren’t allowed into the zone.”“I owe you my life. God bless you.”

A text message to Maciej Jaworski from the father of a young refugee he provided with help

In mid-October, a lawyer launched the Green Light campaign. Residents in the border area are placing a green light in their windows to signal that help is available to refugees in their homes.

The Miszczuks haven’t done that, saying the light risks drawing the attention of the wrong people. Just recently, unidentified assailants destroyed the cars of a team of doctors who care for the refugees in the border region. Many in the restricted area have since preferred the keep silent about the help they provide.

Maciej Jaworski, 34, the co-owner of a construction company, is one of the few who still openly admits that he provides help to the refugees. He still remembers the exact moment when it all began for him. Jaworski says that in mid-October, a Kurdish family was suddenly standing in front of his yard asking for help. Jaworski invited the migrants into his house, gave them food and showed them how to get to where they wanted to go.

He says the Kurds were the first of 200 people he has helped. Jaworski’s house is located just over 2 kilometers from the border. He’s one of the few people can turn to when they arrive here, freezing and in desperation. People coming in from Warsaw to help the refugees also depend on him.

Helpers often find wet clothing belonging to migrants making their way to Europe in the forest near Hajnówka.

Helpers often find wet clothing belonging to migrants making their way to Europe in the forest near Hajnówka. Foto: Adam Lach / DER SPIEGEL

On this Wednesday evening, Jaworski is standing at the edge of the forest drinking tea, the blackness of the woods swallowing up his shadow after only a few meters. He stares at his mobile phone as he waits for messages. Activists have reportedly found an emaciated young man from Syria nearby.

Jaworski shares how, just yesterday, he got into an argument with one of his neighbors in the restricted zone, a forester. The man had wanted to forbid him from parking in the forest, but that, says Jaworski, was just a pretext. He really just wanted to drive Jaworski out of the area. “The forester is on the other side,” he says.

In the evenings, says Jaworski, he has trouble relaxing, and he constantly finds himself thinking about the fate of the refugees. A stream of new text messages is constantly pouring into his mobile phone. The father of one rescued boy writes: “I owe you my life. God bless you.” Jaworski says the worst thing is when he stops hearing from some of them.Related ArticleRefugee Crisis: New Details Shed Light on Lukashenko’s Human Trafficking Network

At least 12 people have died in the border region thus far. But helpers working in the area suspect the true number may be much higher – and they blame Polish border guards for what is happening. Some refugees have claimed the officers even refused to give them water. A video shows people spending minutes pleading for help for a diabetic man who fainted in the restricted area. The only thing the Polish border guards say in the video is: “Go back.”

Krystyna Jakimik-Jarosz is also aware of the reputation that the border guards now have. She thinks it’s unfair. Her colleagues have also collected donations for refugees, she says. The other day, she and her colleagues came across a pregnant woman in the woods. She was clearly about to give birth, so her team called an ambulance. Jakimik-Jarosz pulls her mobile phone out of her pocket and presents a photo.

It shows the woman in the hospital with the newborn baby in her arms. Jakimik-Jarosz says it was the best day she has had in weeks.


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