- Since June 2021, thousands of people – mainly from Iraq, but also from Syria, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and several other countries – have been trying to reach the European Union (EU) via Belarus.
- While Belarus has eased the migration flows, political leaders from Poland and Lithuania have repeatedly accused the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of facilitating migrants and asylum seekers to cross EU borders.
- In response, EU countries have built fences, significantly increased border patrols and declared a state of emergency along the border areas, which limits independent humanitarian assistance organisations from entering the areas. Below are eight key things to know about the current crisis.
1. People exposed to harsh conditions
The Polish Government sent 15,000 military personnel to the border to prevent any unsanctioned entry into Poland. For weeks, an estimated 2,000 people were staying in a makeshift camp near the border clashing with Polish military police as they attempted to enter Poland. These people were exposed to low temperatures, with insufficient access to food, water, shelter and medical care. We do not know how many people are currently stuck along these borders.
2. Legalised pushbacks
In August, Lithuania amended its laws to state that all people entering the territory can be automatically returned to the border, without examination of an application for international protection, effectively legalising pushbacks. Poland did the same in October.
3. Death on the border
At least 21 deaths were reported along the border areas, on both EU and Belarusian territory, between August and the end of December, although the actual figure is likely to be higher.
4. Violence inflicted on people on the move
There has been an inhumane, and at times violent, response towards people on the move via Belarus across EU borders. MSF teams have received numerous first-hand reports of violence experienced by people on all sides of the borders. The reports range from the theft and destruction of people's belongings to intimidation, intentional violence and physical assault. Our team members have seen first-hand physical injuries, which coincide with their accounts of violence experienced at the hands of border guards.
5. People trapped in limbo
An unknown number of people are trapped within Belarus and the EU countries, unable to move onwards or back as both sides reject entry into their country. Some are hiding in the forest in Poland and/or Lithuania fearing being returned to Belarus and being subjected to violence. Approximately 600 people are in a warehouse in Bruzgi in Belarus.
6. People repatriated to Iraq and Syria
Since 18 November, over 4,000 people have been repatriated from Belarus to Iraq and Syria. The conditions of their repatriation are unknown.
7. Access denied to MSF teams
As of 29 December, our teams still have no access to the restricted border zone in any of the countries involved, with the exception of the border post reception areas in Lithuania, which are located inside the security zone.
8. People trapped and at risk
Stuck between opposing sides, people are effectively trapped along the border by Polish, Lithuanian and Belarusian border guards. This is putting people’s lives at risk.
What is MSF doing?
We continue to negotiate access to the border zone, including the logistics centre (also known as ‘the warehouse’) in Bruzgi where approximately 600 people are reported to be held. Our teams continue to provide ad hoc support to people dispersed throughout the country.
Our teams have been providing support, including mental healthcare, health promotion sessions and relief items to people held in nine of the 11 border guard posts. The highest expressed needs of people in those locations are related to psychological distress, a lack of access to information and legal support, and a lack of access to a means of communicating with their family and friends. We have distributed relief items including hygiene items, kitchen items, clothes and recreational items such as books and games. We are now expanding our activities to the larger places of detention in the country and remain prepared to support people who are in the forest and in need of assistance.
Since October, we have repeatedly requested access to the security zone and the border guard posts, but without success. Our team have supported local NGOs, individuals and groups who have been providing humanitarian aid to people crossing into Poland.