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- Welcome to Poland! - says MP Franciszek Sterczewski, embracing Hamidullah, Ahmad, and Naqibullah, three Afghans encountered on Monday afternoon near the village of Teremiski. They are shivering from the cold, exhausted and terrified. They are unable to walk. One of them has frostbitten feet.

Illegal pushbacks

Besides the three Afghan nationals, several other asylum seekers from the Middle East were found in the area:  4 Egyptians, one Lebanese, and a Syrian. An engineer, a doctor, an economics student, a dentist, a soldier, and an NGO worker. All under the age of 30. One of them, not even 18, was in the worst condition. He probably sprained his ankle and his body temperature was low from the cold weather. An ambulance was called on site and took him to the hospital.

All of them are victims of the so-called push-backs, i.e. illegal returns to Belarus. The ones we have met managed to cross the Polish-Belarusian border on Sunday. They encountered border guards and wanted to apply for asylum. The guards ignored their requests, and instead took the refugees in the middle of the night to the swamps of the Białowieża forest and left them there. From that moment on, the search for them ensued.

It was pouring rain and there was mud everywhere. The refugees wandered through the forest, crossing rivers and swamps, and at one point had to run away from a bison. Miraculously, they managed to make it through the night.

"I’m a human being. If they push us back again, we’ll die" 

The refugees shared their story with one of our local reporters, telling her what they heard from the Polish border guards. - We were pushed out four times. First, they gave us food, but then they told us to go away. We were packed into cars and they didn't tell us where we were going. After some 40 kilometers, they told us to get out. I can't even tell you how long we were wandering through the forest. Five days, maybe four?

Another refugee adds:

- They told us that the German border was only about three kilometers away. And I said: that's Belarus... To which the guard replied: go and don’t come back. When I tried to come back, he pointed a flashlight at me. I spent a week in the forest. In terrible cold, without food, without water. I’m honestly surprised I’m still alive.

The refugees deny having had a gun pointed at them. On the next day, they set off again in the direction of Poland.

One of the Afghan nationals tells us his story: - As you know, things are looking bad in Afghanistan right now. Maybe soon some other country will be in similar a situation. I lived in the Tahar province. The Taliban attacked that area. I crossed the border and reached Uzbekistan, then Moscow, then Belarus, and finally Poland. But the Polish authorities caught us and after two or three hours threw us back onto the border. The behavior of the Belarusian soldiers is bad. They tell us to go to Poland, and in Poland, we are told to go back to Belarus. I don't know what to do. If the Polish soldiers push us back again, we will die. I am all dirty, soaked... I’m a human being.

What is going to happen to them now? With the support of MP Franciszek Sterczewski, lawyers from the Ocalenie Foundation, trainee lawyer Maria Poszytek, the Association for Legal Intervention are fighting to initiate an asylum procedure for the refugees- they are entitled to apply for asylum according to both international and domestic law.

Refugees stuck at the Polish-Belarusian border

It’s been over 20 days since the refugees set up a camp on the Polish-Belarusian border. According to the Ocalenie Foundation, whose interpreter communicates with the refugees from a distance, there are still 32 people in the camp. Their condition is deteriorating. They are sick and cold. A 52-year-old woman no longer gets up from her tent. 

Police cordoned off the field that leads to the encampment. The border guards refuse to let anyone in; doctors, volunteers, MPs, journalists. They stop any attempts to provide the refugees with food or medicine. They argue that doing so would be smuggling. 

The only people allowed into the camp were the representatives of the Human Rights Commissioner - The refugees are staying in inhuman conditions. They should be allowed into Poland- they assessed the situation upon their return. 

The European Court of Human Rights ordered Poland to provide the refugees with necessary aid, but according to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the encampment is located on the territory of Belarus, which did not allow the Polish convoy with humanitarian aid to pass through.

The Left MP Katarzyna Kretkowska claims otherwise. Using Google Earth, Bartłomiej Stroiński, the head of her office, came to conclude that 70 percent of the encampment is located on the Polish territory. 

***

Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

We decided to make our service available to everyone free of charge in order to provide access to high quality journalism for expats and English speakers interested in Polish affairs. 

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