Poland completes Belarusian border wall to keep migrants out | Government and politics


WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A year after migrants began entering the European Union from Belarus to Poland, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and top security officials visited the border area on Thursday to mark the completion of a new steel wall.

On Friday, Polish authorities will also lift the state of emergency along the border that has prevented journalists, rights defenders and others from witnessing a human rights crisis. At the very least, 20 migrants have died in the region’s freezing forests and bogs.

The Polish government characterizes the wall as part of the fight against Russia; human rights advocates see this as a huge double standard, where white Christian refugees from Ukraine are welcome, but Muslims from Syria and other countries are rejected and mistreated.

“The first sign of the war in Ukraine was the attack by (Belarusian President) Alexander Lukashenko on the Polish border with Belarus,” Morawiecki told a news conference.

“It is thanks to (our) political foresight and anticipation of what might happen that we can now focus on helping Ukraine, which is fighting to protect its sovereignty,” Morawiecki said.

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As Poland opened its doors to millions of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, work was well advanced to build the 5.5-meter (18-foot) high wall along 186 kilometers (115 miles) of its northern border with Belarus. It still has to install electronic surveillance systems.

It is intended to ward off asylum seekers of a different type: those fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, who have been encouraged to try their luck by Belarus’ authoritarian regime – a close ally of Russia – in the context of a dispute with the EU.

One of the asylum seekers was Ali, 32, who left Syria late last year after reading on social media that the easiest way to enter the EU was to take plane to Belarus and walk to Poland.

Ali, from a village outside Hama in western Syria, flew to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and searched for an unguarded spot in the forest where he could sneak into the EU.

“I was looking for a place where I could live in safety, far from the oppression and despair at home,” he said in an interview this week with The Associated Press in Berlin.

Ali, who did not give his last name, fearing repercussions for his family, was unprepared for the violence and sub-zero temperatures that awaited him in the vast forests and swamps.

“There were nights I fell asleep on the bare ground in the woods thinking I wouldn’t wake up again,” Ali said.

Rights activists see a double standard in the different treatment of neighboring Ukrainian refugees – fellow Slavs who are mostly Christian, female and white – and those from the distant Middle East and Africa, many of whom are Muslims and men.

“If you transport a refugee to the Ukrainian border, you are a hero. If you do it at the Belarusian border, you are a smuggler and you risk ending up in prison for eight years,” said Natalia Gebert, founder and CEO of Dom Otwarty, or Open House, a Polish NGO that helps refugees.

Belarus had never before been a key migration route to the EU – until its President Alexander Lukashenko started encouraging potential asylum seekers in the Middle East to come to Minsk. Soon, people from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and African countries flocked to the EU’s eastern border, entering Poland and neighboring Lithuania and Latvia.

EU leaders have accused Lukashenko of waging a “hybrid war” to avenge the bloc’s sanctions over the regime’s treatment of dissidents. The Polish government says Russia is complicit, given Lukashenko’s alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although migration slowed in winter, people continued to try to enter the EU via Poland, a route considered less dangerous than crossing the Mediterranean Sea, where many have drowned in recent years, a said Gebert.

Ali, whose small makeup business in Syria was destroyed when Sunni extremists learned he was from the Alawite religious minority, says he was turned away six times by Polish border guards.

But the Belarusian guards beat him, stole his money and forced him to undress in the dead of winter. He wanted to give up and go back to Minsk, but the guards wouldn’t let him. They made him and others lie on the cold ground, yelled at them, approached closely with a snarling dog, and kicked Ali repeatedly in the chest.

Polish Border Patrol agents broke the SIM card from his phone, he said. He was without water or food for days, lost in the swamps.

A Human Rights Watch report this month said Poland is “illegally, and sometimes violently, pushing back migrants and asylum seekers to Belarus, where they face serious abuses, including beatings and rapes by border guards and other security forces“.

Amnesty International has also reported serious human rights abuses.

While some Poles support the government’s tough stance, many residents of the border region have throughout the winter and spring sought to help migrants trapped in the forest, with many requiring medical help.

A play that premiered in Warsaw this week, “Responsibility,” asks how Poland can accept millions of Ukrainians while denying aid to thousands more. A character asks: “Why does the Polish state require a child from Aleppo to sit in a bog in sub-zero temperatures and withhold aid from the child from Mariupol? “

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

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

The guards carried batons and stun guns, he said, and each time before moving him to another camp, they made him and other inmates strip naked in public. No one addressed him by name, but by ID number.

In March, he was given his papers and taken to the Debak Center for Foreigners in Otrebusy southwest of Warsaw, where he was told: “Go away, go to Germany.

Ali arrived in Berlin in April and applied for asylum. Human rights activists and psychologists have documented his story and that of other asylum seekers who say they suffered abuse at the hands of Belarusian and Polish border guards.

“I feel better here. People are calling me by my name again,” Ali said. “But I’m always afraid that the Germans will send me back to Poland.”

Grieshaber reported from Berlin.

Follow AP migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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