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On the Ground: Migrants in Poland’s Forests Are Hiding and Hurting

todayNovember 11, 2021 4

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It was pitch black before dawn on Thursday, and only the howling winter wind pierced the silence in the primeval forest near Poland’s border with Belarus. Guided to this location by a pin on a Google map, a group of humanitarian workers was supposed to meet migrants in desperate need of assistance.

But nothing. Only darkness and silence. Someone in the group put on night vision goggles.

“They are here,” he said. Just a few feet away, a group of eight people sat huddled and still.

This is what the coalition of humanitarian organizations working together on the Polish side of the border calls an “intervention.”

A group of about 14 organizations monitoring the situation on the border, Grupa Granica, has banded together to help.

“We have a duty as a state to provide assistance to people exploited by the Lukashenka regime,” the groups said in a statement. “In the face of the real threat of an escalation of the situation on the border,” they appealed to all parties to respect the basic principles of humanitarianism.

For months, as the crisis has escalated, this network of nongovernmental organizations has been doing what it can to bring food, shelter, medicine and clothes to those in need.

While much of the international focus in recent days has been on the area around Kuznica — a border crossing where thousands of migrants hoping to make it to the European Union have been camped and in limbo — the Belarus-Poland border is a vast one that stretches more than 250 miles.

The Polish authorities have restricted access to all but local residents living within two miles of the border. But the forests stretch well past that zone, and it is in those woods that many who have made it past the guards and the razor wire are hiding and waiting for an opportunity to move on.

The group of eight waiting in the predawn hours on Thursday included people from Syria and Yemen. They had been in the forest for months. Both the migrants and the aid workers asked that their names not be used for fear of coming under scrutiny of the authorities.

The path for migrants who make it across the border is a fraught one. While the rolling farmlands and dense forests are not very populated, eluding detection on foot for miles is unlikely.

So they hide and wait for people paid to take them further west, outside Poland, where they can then seek asylum, according to migrants and those familiar with their situation.

Along mostly empty streets, Polish police cars sit parked, waiting to pull over vans and other vehicles. If they find people who have crossed illegally, they send them back to Belarus, where many will wait and then try again.

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