Two women and a child huddle in sleeping bags on the forest floor after crossing the Polish-Belarusian border near Michalowo on October 6, 2021.
© 2021 Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via AP
It is a tale of two borders. In Poland, at the Ukrainian border, volunteers are heralded as heroes for helping Ukrainian refugees. At the Polish-Belarusian border, Polish police treat volunteers as criminals for providing aid to people trying to leave Belarus. Many of these people are now stranded in a forest on the Polish-Belarus border, their only lifeline being the volunteers who are risking imprisonment to help them.
According to Grupa Granica, a group supporting refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border, and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, on March 22, police arrested four volunteers for helping a family with seven children in the forest. A prosecutor charged the volunteers with organizing illegal immigration, a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison. On March 25, the court rejected the prosecutor’s request for pre-trial detention. The same day, police arrested another volunteer as she sat in her car. Court proceedings against the five volunteers are pending.
Weronika, a 20-year-old volunteer said the police arrested her while she was on her way to meet other volunteers who were providing aid to four Cubans in the forest. She has been charged with organizing illegal migration. “The police were aggressive … I said I was innocent, that I’m just helping stranded people but they arrested me anyway … I am scared that they want to set an example with my case to scare other volunteers.”
Polish authorities have blocked access to the border since mid-2021 when Belarus began encouraging people to travel from the Middle East and other countries into Poland. Poland responded by forcing people back to Belarus, sometimes violently, leaving people trapped in poor conditions and with little or no humanitarian support. The volunteers were all arrested outside the two-kilometer restricted border area, according to Polish civil society groups.
The contrast to the Ukrainian border, where more than two million people have been welcomed to Poland in just over a month, couldn’t be more stark. Two of the volunteers arrested near the Belarusian border had previously volunteered at the Ukrainian border without interference.
Authorities should not determine who is treated humanely based upon their skin color or nationality. Everyone arriving in Poland, regardless of which border they cross, should have their rights respected. Authorities should immediately stop prosecuting volunteers near the Belarusian border and ensure that humanitarian aid is provided to those in need.