UN: Disturbing reports on migrants and Human Rights Defenders from Polish Eastern border with Belarus

Information Received by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, published on 01/11/21

I am hearing disturbing reports from people in Poland peacefully working for the rights of others.

They say that migrants coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries have been arriving in Belarus, and then crossing into Poland by foot, often through forests, for many weeks and that conditions in the forests are extremely harsh, and increasingly life-threatening.

They also report that Polish border guards, police and soldiers are forcing the migrants back into the forests.

These Human Rights Defenders say they are being prevented by border guards from giving food, medicine, water and clothing to hundreds of migrants who are stranded in the forests – sometimes for weeks – because neither Poland nor Belarus want to accept them.

They say that there are children freezing and hungry in the forests, some in need of urgent medical care from hypothermia, frostbite and other serious conditions, that some migrants have broken limbs after being attacked by security forces in Belarus, that at least two women have had miscarriages, and that at least eight people have died in the forests.

The reports I’m receiving from medics and others say they have been stopped and aggressively harassed by border guards when they try to take medicine and other basic necessities to the people in the forest, many of whom are in increasing danger as the temperatures – already cold – start to fall further as winter approaches. The medics say they have to treat people in the forests during the night in total darkness, without using lights, for fear of attracting the attention of the authorities.

They say that they are repeatedly stopped and aggressively questioned at checkpoints by border guards and police, who often threaten to charge them with trafficking or people smuggling when they suspect they are trying to provide humanitarian assistance to the migrants, and who block them from reaching the migrants.

I’m hearing that many local people are quietly providing humanitarian aid to the migrants, but are forced to hide from the authorities when they try to bring sleeping bags, shoes, clothes and soup to those stranded in the forests.

I’m also receiving reports that some migrants who have been admitted to local hospitals are being returned back to the forests by border guards over the objections of hospital medics, who face pressure to discharge the migrants they are treating.

And I’m receiving reports too that in some hospitals the presence of police and border guards at entrances and exits, and in the hospital buildings, is resulting in an increasingly intimidating and hostile atmosphere, with stand-offs between security officials and medics treating migrant patients.

A local lawyer also reports being pressured by border guards to withdraw declarations of intent to apply for international protection for migrant patients in hospital (a special procedure that would block push-backs to the forests). Some are also prevented by border guards from providing migrants with power of attorney forms (the representatives later act on behalf of refugees in asylum proceedings). Medics, lawyers and others who peacefully protect the rights of other people, or who bring them humanitarian aid, are Human Rights Defenders.