On 25 January 2022, the Border Guards handed over to the contractors the construction site for the construction of the 186-kilometre wall on the border between Poland and Belarus. The contractor of the wall in the Bia?owie?a Forest section is Budimex. The company makes every effort to ensure that works are carried out professionally and with respect for residents and the environment. Budimex will carry out works on the 100-kilometre section, and the border zone along the Bia?owie?a Forest accounts for less than 40% of its length.
We understand the emotions that surround the issue of the construction of the wall on the border between Poland and Belarus, in particular, in the Bia?owie?a Forest section; therefore, our representatives consulted the local governments on 26 January 2022. The meeting was attended by military representatives, heads of five gminas located within the development project area, forest district representatives and the Staroste of the Hajnowski Poviat.
During the meeting with the representatives of local governments, we confirmed that we have extensive experience in implementing projects in diverse environments. We carry out construction work, for example, in protected areas, including Natura 2000 areas in many places in Poland. The warehouses used to store our construction materials are and will be neutral for the environment. Our compliance with strict environmental standards is confirmed by numerous certificates – our construction sites have been issued with more than 100 BREEAM or LEED sustainable building certificates.
Although the contract does not require us to do so as a contractor, there will be external environmental supervision of the entire project. We understand that the Bia?owie?a Forest is extremely valuable, and we want to work with respect for its ecosystem. The team assigned to the project has the highest level of competence to perform this task.
The works on the wall, transport and storage of raw materials will be carried out in accordance with the best construction and environmental standards. Our plan includes:
Our works will be carried out during the day, and the planned truck traffic at the construction location is several vehicles per hour. Upon completion, all roads will be restored to their original condition or will be improved.
Works on the entire project will take just six months. We are also on the list of strategic companies from a defence perspective. Therefore, we have a duty to act for the benefit of the country in the event of special situations from a security point of view. We responded in the same way to the calls for the construction of temporary hospitals or the completion of road and rail works after other general contractors had abandoned their contracts.
Our aim is to perform the contract through transparent subcontractor selection rules while respecting the interests of local communities and the environment. We make every effort to minimise the inconveniences for the residents and take into account the needs of the natural forest environment.''
COMMENCEMENT OF WORKS ON THE BORDER WALL
SEE FOR THE NOTES
Poland has started building a wall along its frontier with Belarus aimed at preventing asylum seekers from entering the country, which cuts through a protected forest and Unesco world heritage site.
The Polish border guard said the barrier would measure 186km (115 miles), almost half the length of the border shared by the two countries, reach up to 5.5 metres (18ft) and cost €353m (£293m). It will be equipped with motion detectors and thermal cameras.
Poland has accused Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, of deliberately provoking a new refugee crisis in Europe by organising the movement of people from the Middle East to Minsk and promising them a safe passage to the EU in revenge for the sanctions Brussels has imposed on his authoritarian regime.
Thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and Afghanistan, were caught attempting to cross the frontier and were violently pushed back to Belarus by Poland’s border guards, and hundreds of families were trapped in the forest between the two countries in the midst of a frigid winter.
At least 19 people have died since the beginning of the border standoff between Poland and Belarus. Most of them died of exposure to freezing temperatures.
The humanitarian emergency reached its peak in November when Belarusian authorities escorted thousands of asylum seekers to the Polish border. Dozens of refugees told the Guardian how Belarusian troops gathered groups of up to 50 people and cut the barbed wire with shears to allow them to cross.
“The construction of the barrier on the Polish-Belarusian border has started,” said a statement from the Polish border guard on Twitter. “It is the largest construction investment in the history of the border guard.”
The cost is approximately 10 times the whole budget of Poland’s migration department this year.
The news has raised human rights concerns among aid workers and charities worried that refugees fleeing conflicts and starvation will not be able to apply for asylum, and there are also environmental concerns. “This money could be used to build and launch [an] effective and humane migration, reception and asylum policy,” said a spokesperson for Ocalenie Foundation, which supports refugees living in Poland. “No wall in the history of the world stopped migration. Also, it would be a disaster for the nature in Bia?owie?a area.”
The Bia?owie?a forest world heritage site, on the border between Poland and Belarus, is an immense range of primary forest including conifers and broadleaved trees. It is home to the largest population of European bison.
Anna Alboth, of Minority Rights Group and a member of Grupa Granica, a Polish network of NGOs monitoring the situation on the border, said: “Walls are dividing, not protecting. The decision about building such a wall on the Polish-Belarusian border is not only lawless but also brings a risk of irreversible harm to the environment, in one of the most rich natural places of Poland and the whole of Europe.
“Instead of spending money on walls and private companies, it should be spending on developing a migration policy that prioritises human rights and safety of the people on the move, local people, animals and nature.”
A border guard spokesperson, Anna Michalska, told Poland’s PAP news agency that the “intention is for the damage to be as small as possible”. She said: “Tree felling will be limited to the minimum required. The wall itself will be built along the border road.” Contractors would only make use of existing roads, she said.
Last year Warsaw’s rightwing government quadrupled the presence of border guards and military personnel in the area, creating a two-mile deep militarised zone, and built a razor-wire fence, in a show of force unknown in the country since the end of the cold war. Dozens of checkpoints were placed along the perimeter of the so-called red zone, which is inaccessible to aid workers and journalists.
Last week Poland’s supreme court condemned the government for preventing reporters from accessing the area. Judges in Warsaw said the ban was incompatible with Polish law and that “there is no justification for admitting that this particular professional group represents a threat to steps taken”.
1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Right to asylum
The right to asylum shall be guaranteed with due respect for the rules of the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 and the Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the status of refugees and in accordance with the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Treaties’).
CHARTER OF FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS OF
THE EUROPEAN UNION
On the outskirts of the Bia?owie?a forest – which bestrides the border between south-east Poland and Belarus – a group of seven Iraqi Kurds make their weary way towards the Polish hamlet of Grodzisk.
The latest miles of their journey have been from Belarus – crossing back and forth twice, deported after their first and second attempts. Now a third time: through sub-zero temperatures, across the primeval forest’s marshy terrain. Among them are two children: an eight-month-old girl and a two-year-old boy. When we came upon them, they were afraid to get up off the ground and begged us not to call the police, whispering: “They’ll kill us.”
The infant was still, though not asleep. They looked like waxen figures, their faces blank, though one woman’s face was covered in bruises.
This is one group among the thousands of migrants trapped in a perilous purgatorial terrain between Belarus and Poland, as gateway to the European Union, where they seek refuge and asylum. That gate has slammed shut, claiming eight known migrant lives so far. Poland’s rightwing government has secured parliamentary authority to build a Donald Trump-style wall the length of its frontier with Belarus, and meanwhile patrols the territory with a force of some 17,000 border police reinforced by military personnel.
The Polish government argues that it is a deliberate policy by Belarus to undermine the EU’s south eastern border by encouraging refugees to pour in. The government has also established a two-mile militarised zone adjacent to the frontier, from which medical services, volunteer aid workers and reporters are banned. Crystal van Leeuwen, a medical emergency manager with Médecins Sans Frontières, told the Guardian last week that NGOs must urgently gain access to the secure zone for migrants’ claims and international protection to be respected.
The migrants are part not only of the exodus in flight from war and other tribulation where they began their journeys – across the Middle East and Africa – but also pawns in a game between Belarus and Poland. Many are lured by Belarusian travel bureaux, controlled by the authoritarian government of Alexander Lukashenko, which, as middlemen, organise trips from the Middle East to Minsk, promising passage to the EU.
The Iraqi Kurdish group is from Duhok, near the Turkish border. It is the scene of intense recent intra-Kurdish fighting, and Turkish strikes against the Kurdish PKK organisation. The mother of the children, 28-year-old Amila Abedelkader, said that the group was lured to Belarus by a travel agency that would arrange travel by plane from Istanbul to Minsk, and access to the Polish border.
Migrants are charged €15,000-€20,000 when they reach Belarus. Airport photos show their arrival wearing shorts and T-shirts, clearly unaware of the temperatures awaiting them. They are then installed in state hotels managed by the regime, from which officially assigned buses and even taxis transfer them to the Polish or Lithuanian border.
Belarusian border guards then shove them past the fence. “Some migrants we saw had their faces sliced with barbed wire,” says volunteer aid worker Katarzyna Wappa. “We have amateur films showing how the Belarusians drive the migrants forward. The border guards stand there with snarling attack dogs in full battle gear.”
Abdelkader says her group had made their first crossing into Poland in early October, but were forced back by guards. Trapped between borders, they were given nothing to drink or eat. “The Polish guards caught us and pushed us back. They said: ‘Go back to Belarus.’ And the Belarusian soldier said: ‘No, no go back to Poland.’ When the water was all finished, my brother asked Polish soldiers for some water to drink. Every day we asked about water. They say: ‘No, no.’” The guards refused to supply milk for the baby. The migrants drank rainwater or from puddles.
This was their third attempt. Whether they have since been successful is unclear.
But every morning we receive news on WhatsApp from people held in the border guards’ cells. Bulletins such as: “Yesterday a family and their sick son staying with us were taken by the police back to the border.” And: “We are so frightened of going to the border because my baby is too small. Please help us.”
Back home in the nearest town of Hajnówka, Wappa says: “We are creating a network, trying to do what we can, but it’s too much to bear. People are dying in the forest and the Polish state offers no help apart from bringing in more troops, rounding them up, and deporting them back to no man’s land. And if we reach those people, what can we give them? A flask of tea, some warm clothes, then leave them in the darkness and cold?”
In the forest last week, volunteers found Mustafa, a 46-year-old man from Morocco, taken in by a volunteer named Mila. Speaking Spanish, Mustafa told us: “As I made my way through the forest, I saw a man lying on the ground. I don’t know if he was alive or dead. I walked two nights until I could go no further. I was walking at night, trying to sleep during the day. I was in a vacuum.
“Belarusian soldiers beat people,” he continued. “They beat me in Belarus. There are gangs that stand behind the army and attack us. They beat you, take your money, and split it 50-50, part for the gangs, part for soldiers. This border is like a river of death. What are you to do? Where to go, I do not know.” Mustafa’s fate remains in the balance.
Once on the Polish side, migrants are tracked down by border guards, police, army, and territorial defence forces; in the Hajnówka region, practically every second car on the road belongs to law enforcement officers. Others have darkened windows – either protecting or smuggling the migrants.
“We’re in a parcelled-off, isolated world,” adds Kamil Syller, initiator of the Green Light project, which aims to put green lights in windows to signify homes where refugees can find help, discreetly, and not be handed over to the police.
At the Mantiuk Hospital in Hajnówka, a boy from Somalia tells how he watched his two brothers freeze to death. “It’s impossible to say where it happened,” he says.
“Apparently he’s losing contact with reality,” say the doctors. “He often asks: ‘But where am I?’” The refugees who reach the hospital receive professional medical care, yet the hospital is patrolled by border guards, and as soon as someone’s health is restored, guards take them back to the border and leave them in the forest.
Medics on the Border, a group of doctors with an ambulance, operates in the “open” areas, but are not allowed in the off-limits zone. Asked how they can be of help, they say: “We need passes to the zone,” says Jakub Sieczko, a paramedic. “But this is impossible.”
“We have no access to the off-limits zone,” says a Polish Red Cross workerfrom the border area. “We can’t hand over aid packages ourselves.”
Syller says that the refugees are freezing, succumbing to hypothermia and shaking from fear and cold. “The children are having reactions similar to epileptic attacks. The suffering and terror here can only remind you of wartime,” he explains.
Wappa feels that she is “witnessing scenes like out of a war, but at least in a war things are clear. “This is worse, because here half the society denies what’s going on. They think it’s all a big sham, that there are politics behind it. People say of the refugees: ‘Why did they even leave home and why take their children?’”
This land is steeped in dark history of flight and deportation. And there are few reminders so cogent as in the village of Narewka, where a row of houses from before the second world war is adorned with enlarged photographs of the Jewish residents who lived here until the Holocaust.
The pictures show people posing in their finest clothes: an elderly couple, an Orthodox family, a girl in a polka-dot dress with bows in her hair, a sophisticated lady wearing a cap.
Now, past those houses in memoriam for Jews deported from here, military and police vehicles pass, carrying migrants for deportation.
The latest miles of their journey have been from Belarus – crossing back and forth twice, deported after their first and second attempts. Now a third time: through sub-zero temperatures, across the primeval forest’s marshy terrain. Among them are two children: an eight-month-old girl and a two-year-old boy.''
In response to today’s proposals from the European Commission which would allow Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to derogate from EU rules, including by holding asylum-seekers and migrants at the border for 16 weeks with minimal safeguards, Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Office said:
“The arrival of people at the EU’s borders with Belarus is entirely manageable with the rules as they stand. Today’s proposals will further punish people for political gain, weaken asylum protections, and undermine the EU’s standing at home and abroad. If the EU can allow a minority of member states to throw out the rule book due to the presence of a few thousand people at its border, it throws out any authority it has on human rights and the rule of law.
“The current situation at the EU’s borders with Belarus is being used by some countries as an excuse to weaken protections of asylum-seekers and push their anti-migrant agenda. Holding asylum seekers in detention for four months, without the protection standards required by international law, is normalising de facto unlawful detention at the EU’s external borders.
“Asylum rules should be upheld, not allowed to be side-stepped by countries via so-called exceptional measures. Amnesty International is alarmed that the proposal will violate people’s rights, and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis at borders while continuing to expose the EU to further internal and external manipulation and blackmailing.
“While Lukashenka’s mistreatment and instrumentalization of migrants and asylum seekers is deplorable, he is exploiting the EU’s own tendency to treat people at their borders as a threat.
“At least 10 people, including a one-year-old child, have died at the EU’s Eastern borders in recent weeks. Today the European Commission is bringing in measures which undermine rights and normalize the dehumanization and suffering of people at the EU’s borders.”
END OF STATEMENT
POLAND-BELARUS REFUGEE CRISIS/LETTER TO THE EU/EU'S HUMAN OBLIGATIONS AGAINST THE REFUGEES
4 DECEMBER 2021
REFUGEES IN BORDERLAND/DECEMBER 2021
25 DECEMBER 2021
END OF THE NOTES