Refugee assistance on the Belarus-Poland border shows what solidarity can look like in dark times

As governments allow a humanitarian crisis to unfold, ordinary individuals and ad hoc groups are doing their utmost to help refugees.
Embed from Getty Images

Since July 2021, a marked increase in refugees attempting to cross into the European Union from Belarus has been developing into a humanitarian crisis. On the Belarus-Poland border, thousands of refugees, primarily from Iraq, are trapped in the borderland between a militarized Polish response and coercive Belarusian security forces.

While there has been much focus on the geopolitical implications of events, very little attention has been paid to the local people and groups that have stepped up to show what humanity and solidarity can look like in dark times.

Dr. Jakuba Sieczko, paramedic with Polish NGO Medycy na Granicy (Medics at the Border), briefed the media on Nov. 15 about ending their provision of humanitarian assistance, having been operating since Oct. 7. He emphasized that “We are experiencing a situation we haven’t seen in tens of years here. And it’s a huge drama. Sometimes the scenes we’ve witnessed made us think of very dark times of very difficult times in Polish history. And once again because of that we appeal for a quick solution to this humanitarian drama.”

While a source of pride for many Polish people, the legacy of that resistance is politically contentious, as are the actions of the groups and individuals seeking to help current refugees.

The primeval Białowieża forest — artificially divided by the Belarus-Poland border — was, like much of the central European borderland, a region that saw pervasive and vicious ethnic cleansing during World War II and in the years that followed. Now, in recent months, many people fleeing conflict have sought to cross through it once again. 

Adelajda, a member of the Polish NGO Rodziny Bez Granic (Families Without Borders), told me that “World War II memories return, the strip of land beyond the wire fence is called the ‘death zone.’ Some compare the situation to concentration camps.”

Eighty years ago, the forest was a refuge for Jewish people and others fleeing extermination, while also providing a degree of shelter for the anti-Nazi resistance.

“Activists and locals [who help] are being compared to the Polish Underground State, the network of resistance organizations in occupied Poland [during World War II],” explained Adelajda, who is not using her real name.

While a source of pride for many Polish people, the legacy of that resistance is politically contentious, as are the actions of the groups and individuals seeking to help current refugees.

Indeed, Medycy na Granicy’s Nov. 15 briefing explained the suspension of their own activities in the wake of two separate incidents. First, an ambulance’s tires were deflated, hindering their activities, then five of the team’s cars were damaged with axes and knives

“In a situation where axes and knives are used to damage the cars, we might expect that we could be next, that we could be attacked,” Sieczko clarified. “And this forced us to make a very difficult decision.”

Even so, the following day the Polish Center for International Aid, or PCPM, began emergency assistance. In spite of the threats and attacks, it should be emphasized that members of Medycyna Granicy’s group are continuing their assistance. According to Sieczko, “We have been cooperating with them [the PCPM] for many weeks. Many of our people are still there.”

The provision of medical assistance is one of the most crucial activities being undertaken. Thirteen people are known to have died so far, including most recently a one-year-old Syrian child, whose family was assisted by the PCPM after spending six weeks in the forest. Exposure to the elements, dehydration and poisoning by contaminated water and poisonous plants are among the threats refugees face.

The “green light” initiative has also emerged in the border area, where “people put a green light in front of their houses to signal that they are ready to help migrants.”

Disturbingly, the deaths may be much higher given the expansive and remote nature of the border area. Adelajda noted that Polish people near the border have said “they didn’t want to enter their cornfields, being afraid they would find bodies.”

Groups like Rodziny Bez Granic have responded by seeking to raise awareness and by engaging in actions to pressure the Polish government to allow medical and humanitarian assistance at the border. Meanwhile, other groups — such as Kuchnia Konfliktu (Conflict Kitchen) — are focused on providing emergency supplies and food to people crossing the border. Much of the activity is being coordinated under the umbrella organization Grupa Granica (Frontier Group).

“The last straw for many Poles, including me, were photos of the children from Michałowo, depicting families with toddlers who were pushed back beyond the border,” Adelajda recalled. This is what ultimately led to the establishment of Rodziny Bez Granic. As Adelajda explained, “My friends from Warsaw created a Facebook group inviting befriended families to take children and draw solidarity slogans in chalk in front of Security Border HQ. The group immediately grew bigger and bigger.” 

However, perhaps the most crucial action to help the refugees has been taken by local people who reside in the border area — the only ones who can currently enter the state of emergency zone. Much of this action remains hidden and unknown for now, due to the risk on the ground, the imposition of the state of emergency and some of the political and social stigma such action incurs. 

Adelajda explained that the locals who help “live in small closed communities, where everybody knows each other and many people work for the Border Guard.” As a result, “many of them are afraid to talk about it publicly, so we don’t know the exact scale of their efforts.”

“There is a broad range of attitudes” Adelajda said. “Some people actively search for people in need, some help if they are asked, leave their barn open. Many give people something to eat and drink and call for the Border Guard, as instructed. Many are also hostile and call the Border Guard immediately.”

The “green light” initiative has also emerged in the border area, where “people put a green light in front of their houses to signal that they are ready to help migrants.” This carries risks in drawing attention to refugees and helpers alike — as well as the prospect of abuse — but in such dire circumstances, it is a potential lifeline.

According to Adelajda, “the attitude toward the Border Guard and migrants has changed — local people confronted with people and families in a harrowing state and witnessing pushbacks distrust the official narrative.”

Such locals are now beginning to organize and communicate online, with Białowieską Akcja Humanitarną (Humanitarian Action in Białowieża) being established in early November. They have appealed for the government to open the border area to humanitarian organizations, highlighting the terrible situation and emphasizing their right to provide assistance without fear of prosecution. 

More first-hand accounts from local helpers are starting to emerge, some of which can be seen in Antoni Pawlicki’s documentaryOn the Verge of Indifference.” It is a disturbing testimony of the authorities’ callous treatment of human beings attempting the border crossing, alongside their intimidation of locals trying to help.

The title of Pawlicki’s documentary alludes to historian Ian Kershaw’s observation that “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved with indifference.” Historian and holocaust survivor Marian Turski also recently evoked Kershaw’s words in relation to the treatment of human beings on the Belarus-Poland border, making the crucial observation that for “those who freeze in the Białowieża forest,” the situation is a humanitarian catastrophe, but “for us it is a moral catastrophe.” 

Embarking down a path of moral catastrophe, we might also consider Rivka Weinberg’s argument that it is not just indifference but collaboration that paved the road to Auschwitz. 

The Belarus regime’s strategy would fall flat if the European Union was not such a willing collaborator in human suffering.

As NATO Secretary Gen. Jans Stoltenberg has made clear, the Lukashenko regime manufactured the immediate crisis on the border, and is accused of exploiting refugees as a hybrid warfare tactic against the European Union.

Indeed, it is an especially heinous form of trolling that has characterized hybrid methods in recent years, with the weaponization of refugees directed right at the fault line between the European Union’s stated values and the “Fortress Europe” approach to migration. 

In early July, Lukashenko taunted that “We won’t hold anyone, they are coming not to us but to the enlightened, warm and cozy Europe.”

Despite the European Union’s serious disputes with Poland, EU President Ursula von der Leyen has expressed solidarity with its militarized response and spoken narrowly of ensuring that “migrants can be safely returned to their country of origin.” Meanwhile, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told his Polish counterpart Mariusz Kamiński, “I would like to thank you and the Polish Border Guard for protecting our common external border.”

More recently Seehofer said, “If we took in refugees, if we bowed to the pressure and said ‘we are taking refugees into European countries,’ then this would mean implementing the very basis of [Lukasheneko’s] perfidious strategy.”

Acknowledging the human beings attempting to get to the European Union through Belarus as being refugees, yet supporting pushbacks to deny them entry even to be processed as such, contravenes the UN Convention on Refugees and EU law.

Lukashenko’s “perfidious strategy” largely gains its teeth from accentuating the hard line on migration taken by many political parties in the European Union for electoral mileage  — not because it exploits some enlightened and soft perspective of the bloc. The Belarus regime’s strategy would fall flat if the European Union was not such a willing collaborator in human suffering.

Despite the approach of the European Union and Polish authorities, ordinary individuals and ad hoc groups have done their utmost to respond to the calamity. In the hibernal borderlands, there is at least some glimmer of solidarity indicating a decent path forward.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.