A grotesque game of human ping-pong

Published by The Mail on Sunday (6th November, 2021)

We met deep inside Europe’s last remaining primeval forest, where bison and wolves roam beneath ancient towering oaks. ‘I am an IT professional and I had a good life,’ Hussan told me. ‘But now I am standing in the woods with bare feet and dirty hands.’

Hussan, 41, lived happily in the Syrian city of Homs before it was shattered by bombs, bullets and feuding militia, forcing him to flee to Turkey.

Tears flowed down his face when I asked about his family, then he spoke in English of his dream to find sanctuary in Britain. Instead, he finds himself in Bialowieza Forest, a fearful refugee hiding from Polish security forces seeking to send him back over the nearby border to Belarus.

For this is the latest front line in Europe’s migration crisis. Hussan is just one of many bedraggled pawns in a cruel global power game being played by Belarus’s sinister dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has ‘weaponised’ migration by luring people from the Middle East and Africa to his country, then despatching them to next-door EU nations.

This policy is designed to stoke divisions and destabilise the EU in retaliation for sanctions imposed after the autocrat sparked world outcry by forcing a Ryanair passenger jet carrying an opposition activist to divert to the Belarusian capital Minsk, where he was seized and then paraded on television.

Politicians across Europe accuse Lukashenko of launching a ‘hybrid war’ backed by Moscow. ‘Refugees and asylum-seekers are being brought to the border with the aim of intimidating Brussels and Poland,’ said Marcin Swiecicki, an MP and former mayor of Warsaw. ‘The situation is a tragedy.’

True. But Lukashenko’s cynical tactics seem to be working, with EU countries spending millions of euros on border walls, bickering about how best to respond and the far-Right seeking to exploit the human misery for its own ends.

Taxi drivers in the Polish city of Bialystok, close to the border, told me of seeing even cars with UK licence plates arriving to pick up arrivals from Belarus. ‘We see so many migrants and traffickers,’ said one, called Pawel. ‘You can see English, French and German plates on cars coming to collect people.’

In Germany, where police say up to 1,000 people are arriving every day, armed vigilante patrols of Right-wing extremists have been found operating at the frontier. A record 200 crossings into Lithuania were attempted on one day recently. Others have begun trying to reach Europe via Ukraine.

Two months ago I reported in The Mail on Sunday about the surge into Lithuania, but focus has shifted to Poland. Officials logged 16,800 efforts at illegal entry last month – four times more each day than for the whole of last year. Hussan was in a group of 20 people from Iraq, Egypt and Syria whom I found sitting around small fires, craving food and dry clothes while drinking water from a small stream.

He said he had been pushed back and forth over the frontier four times in a fortnight in a grotesque game of human ping-pong being played by Polish and Belarus guards. Others said they were bounced over the border 20 times.

There are reports of beatings, injured migrants ejected from Polish hospitals and families trapped in a militarised no-man’s land on the Belarus side. At least ten people have died and many more lives are at risk as winter temperatures plummet.

‘I’m so tired and it’s so cold that I am shaking,’ said Hussan. ‘We are scared at night because of the wild animals so we hide our heads under our clothes.’

He spent all his £1,000 savings to get here. ‘Life is a disaster. We’ve gone from our home in Syria to being trapped between two borders because no one wants us in their country. But we are human too.’

Hussan left his wife and four children in Turkey. But his group included an Iraqi man with his nine-year-old son.

Elsewhere in the forest, I met a woman called Sarah who is five months pregnant. The 26-year-old claimed to have spent 28 days in the forest with her husband Hassan, after flying to Belarus. Officials then took them to the country’s border with Lithuania. They were caught after crossing the frontier, then taken across to the Polish border on the other side of the country. They had been pushed back nine times, she said, despite asking each time for asylum.

This sudden influx of migrants is stirring tensions in Poland, a divided country currently run by an ultra-conservative government at loggerheads with Brussels on gay rights, pollution and the supremacy of EU law. There is even talk that the country might follow Britain and leave the union.

‘We put the security of our fatherland above everything,’ said Poland’s defence minister, Mariusz Blaszczak.

The defence ministry said that on Wednesday, Belarusian soldiers threatened to open fire on Polish forces who found a group of 250 migrants and refugees at the border. Nato says it is concerned about the ‘escalating’ situation.

Poland is one of ten countries that asked Brussels to pay for ‘barriers’ to block migrants – a request denied by EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, who says Brussels should not fund ‘barbed wire and walls’.

In defiance, Poland is spending £300 million on a wall along the 260-mile border with Belarus. Critics say it will be a costly failure, taking years to construct in forests and swamps. Lithuania has also started building an 11ft-high steel fence topped with razor wire on its frontier.

The Polish government has declared a state of emergency, sent 10,000 troops to assist frontier guards and banned outsiders from coming within 3km (1.9 miles) of the border.

In a war of words against Lukashenko, whose international pariah status has pushed him into the embrace of Vladimir Putin, ministers claim Belarus is giving migrants ‘strange pills’ and the heroin substitute methadone to help them survive the border crossings.

After arriving in the border area, I received a text message saying: ‘The Polish border is sealed. BLR [Belarus] authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk! Don’t take any pills from Belarusian soldiers.’ My car was stopped several times at checkpoints in the region.

Piotr Mazuruk, a border police commander, said: ‘These migrants are like stones. The Belarusians throw them over the border to us. And we throw them back again.’

A plea from Catholic church leaders to let medical volunteers enter the emergency area was rejected by ministers last week. Activists and opposition figures argue that such decisions, and forcing people back over the border, flout international treaties – and so plays into Lukashenko’s hands.

Karolina Czerwinska, project co-ordinator for the Polish Migration Forum, told me about a refugee who was treated for a broken leg in a Polish hospital and then applied for asylum. But she said that 24 hours later, the Polish authorities had sent him back to Belarus.

I accompanied volunteers from Grupa Granica who take food, drink and clothing to groups who send details of their location in the forests to family and friends as they play cat-and-mouse with the border forces hunting them down. One volunteer told me that many people crossing from Belarus thought they could happily stroll across borders through Poland to Germany, thus arriving utterly unprepared to be stuck in a freezing forest.

She had found a Syrian family with elderly grandparents and children as young as three. ‘It was so sad. They had no idea they were in a forest hundreds of miles from the German border. They thought it would be so easy.’

Poland claims it is respecting international obligations to migrants as it tries to stem the flow of people. Under EU rules, people should apply for asylum in the first safe country they enter. But many of the migrants, hoping to head further west, do not want asylum in Poland.

A former minister in the Polish government said: ‘The pushback is not 100 per cent legal but it has become common practice on many European borders such as Greece and Italy.’

He said Poland was being targeted by Belarus in revenge for its strong support of the democratic anti-Lukashenko movement in Belarus, but was powerless to stop the regime without wider diplomatic support.

Although Belarus has promised to suspend flights from Iraq that are used by migrants, the winter schedule for Minsk airport shows 55 flights a week from the Middle East, including the launch of daily flights from Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Some refugees have told of being taken directly to Belarus’s borders after arriving in Minsk. But one local journalist describes the city centre as being ‘Little Baghdad’ as there are so many migrants, while a human-rights worker told me the capital’s hotels are packed with Middle Eastern visitors.

Most want to go to Germany, where Angela Merkel agreed in 2015 to allow one million refugees and migrants to come and stay. Although the numbers making the journey are far smaller than six years ago, the Berlin government rapidly moved thousands of police to the Polish border to intensify checks. The police union, however, is warning of another ‘collapse’ if tougher action is not taken.

Horst Seehofer, the interior minister, backs Poland’s plan to build a border wall, but other politicians have condemned the responses that could results in people freezing to death in forests.

‘This is a disgrace for Europe,’ said Gerhart Baum, a former interior minister. ‘We have a moral obligation towards these people that we are not abiding by.’

Gaith, 20, is a Syrian who has just applied for asylum in Germany. He told me he paid $7,000 (£5,200) in Lebanon for a fake passport but it was rumbled when he tried to enter Turkey. So his smuggler flew him to Minsk to ensure that he could enter Europe.

‘I was stuck in the forest for 11 days – it was like a game of ping-pong. The Polish police send you back to Belarus, then the Belarus police send you back to Poland. It happened to me about 20 times. The Poles were friendly, giving us food and water, but the Belarusians beat people and let their dogs bite you. I was scared since the forest was cold and dark. There were so many people from all over the world – from Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon.’

Eventually, Belarusian officials took them to a spot on the border where there were no Polish frontier police, and five of his 16-strong group made it through, They were met by taxis hired by his people-traffickers and taken to Berlin.

The explosive nature of this crisis became clear two weeks ago when it emerged that more than 50 far-Right German vigilantes armed with batons, machetes, pepper sprays and a bayonet were stopped by police on anti-migrant patrols.

They had responded to a call from Third Way, a small extremist group which broke away from the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party. That group told me it was sending ‘sympathisers’ on border patrols to find illegal entrants.

Sascha Rossmueller, chairman of the party in Bavaria, said their unarmed patrols kept within laws that allow people to ‘physically hold’ anyone suspected of a crime. ‘The crucial aspect is not that we will prevent mass migration but it allows us to attract attention,’ he admitted.

There have also been protests outside centres for asylum-seekers near the border.

‘This is evil genius but we all play Lukashenko’s game,’ says Greta von der Decken, legal adviser for a refugee group working in Eisenhüttenstadt, a town by the Polish border. ‘I am sad because Lukashenko is winning.’

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