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Near Włodawa, Poland, there is a border that divides us all

Opinion |

Anna Alboth is Europe Media Officer at Minority Rights Group International. This opinion piece was originally published in Polish by Weekend Gazeta.

A vision of two Polands came to me clearly at the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing in Dorohusk, sometime in the first week of Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine.

First, I saw a police van with half-open doors, and inside a border guard who was playing with a small Ukrainian child. There was a balloon, a teddy bear and loud laughter. The guard was bursting with pride and joy; you could see that he was trying hard, that he felt a sense of duty, that he was tending to the little one’s mood. He was soft and attentive but still very manly.

I saw this scene and tears ran down my cheeks. Crying unconditionally, I couldn’t contain myself. I silently cried as scenes from the last six months on the Polish-Belarusian border flashed before my eyes, where I saw dozens of children being pushed by border guards, intimidated, taken to the swamps, to death. I saw children with legs bitten by dogs. I saw children hungry, thirsty and unconscious from exhaustion. I saw children who urinated on themselves when the guards looked at them. Guards in the same uniform as this one here.

I couldn’t stop myself: ‘Excuse me, were you taking care of the refugee children 50 kilometres to the north, on the Polish-Belarusian border, in the same delightful way?’, I asked. The guard became serious, looked deeply into my eyes and answered: ‘Nobody sent me to that border, thank God.’

Sameh (25) and Ali (40), from Yemen, run through a forest road to hide deeper in the forest, Poland, 2021. Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS agency.

Two borders

The Belarusian border.

In May 2021, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko announced that he would ‘flood Europe with terrorists and drugs’. At the same time, his propaganda misled inhabitants of war-torn countries living under dictators, suffering poverty, into believing that a friendly and rich Europe was waiting for them. Lukashenko’s state apparatus organized additional flights from the Middle East, took these people from Minsk to the border, and pushed them by force and violence to the Lithuanian and Polish side. In August, we suddenly had Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis and even Ethiopians and Sudanese on the Polish border. Men, women and children. The Polish government called them ‘Lukashenko’s weapons’ and the whole situation a ‘hybrid war’. There was (and is) an ‘evil Lukashenko’ and a crisis on the Polish border.

The Ukrainian border.

On February 24, after eight years of occupation of parts of Ukraine, Russia took another step: dropping bombs on Kyiv. Putin ordered attacks on cities across the country. Millions of people decided to flee the danger to neighbouring countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Refugees from Ukraine took with them only the most essential things and stood in long lines at border crossings. There was (and is) an ‘evil Putin’ and a crisis on the Polish border.

People looking for safety, a roof over their heads and a more peaceful life want to enter the European Union through the eastern borders of our country. Without bombs, hunger, terror, rape, dictators, Taliban, Assads, Putins. And they get two completely different responses from the Polish government.

On the Belarusian border, pushbacks were immediately introduced – that is, roundups in the woods and deportations to the Belarusian side – without asking any questions, without listening to requests to submit applications for international protection, without considering the health or life-threatening condition of the people. A state of emergency was introduced along the border. A blockade was created that rendered aid organizations and the media unable to reach people in need since September 2021. A blockade that strategically and systemically obscured from the world what was and is happening on the border: people dying of cold and exhaustion. A so-called ‘policy of letting die’ started.

On the Ukrainian border, too, changes were made in an instant: an Act was passed to help and allow everyone across the border, even without passports or Covid-19 tests. Every Polish man and woman could get in their car, drive to the border and not only offer refugees a meal, but also invite them into their home.

Razor wire stretched along the Polish-Belarusian border near Usnarz Górny village, Poland, 2021. Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS agency.

On the Polish side

Evil is happening – Lukashenko’s fault in the territory of Belarus and Putin’s fault in the territory of Ukraine. But who is responsible for the evil on the Polish side?

At the Ukrainian border, a policeman helps refugees carry their luggage, and firemen transport people to parking lots, from which ordinary Polish citizens pick them up. Thousands of people open the doors of their homes, give beds to those in need, and cook dinner for them. Poland shows its most beautiful face: solidarity, hospitality, selflessness. Because it can. Because it is not forbidden. On the contrary, showing humanity here takes place freely and in spades.

And at the Belarusian border? Refugees beaten, hurt and raped by Lukashenko’s men, without money or shoes, freeze in the forests. They sleep on the ground, in the snow, and they are getting sicker and more frightened. There is no entry to the death zone, helping is stigmatized and penalized. To help, people have to sneak into dangerous places at night, risk their lives in swamps, risk being arrested or detained.

There, everyone helps: it is simpler and well received. Here, only a few help: it is physically and emotionally exhausting. It is easy to behave decently there, it is damn hard to behave decently here.

Only Poland is responsible for the evil on the Polish side of the border. And Poles. An average Pole has no influence on Putin’s and Lukashenko’s decisions. But Polish politicians and Polish voters are responsible when someone dies on Polish soil because they didn’t receive help.

A group of refugees from Afghanistan detained for many weeks in the border zone, Usnarz Górny, Poland, 2021. Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS agency.

Four tired arguments

What can reduce the guilt a little? Atonement. If not there, then maybe here? Isn’t that also why everyone rushed to help the refugees from Ukraine?

The feeling of guilt is also helped by an enforced division into good and bad refugees. In order to accommodate helping some and not helping others, the differences must be drawn with a strong line. This is what the Polish government has been doing for years: sowing an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim narrative, using specific language and manipulating the feelings of Poles. An example? The Border Guard posts positive messages on Twitter with the flag of Ukraine and ‘gentle-looking’ refugees in photos, and negative messages with the flag of Belarus along with photos of refugees displaying ‘aggressive behaviour’.

A rather simple technique that nevertheless works on many.

To divide refugees in our minds into good and bad, there are a few very tired arguments that are most often used. Read on and see if you too have fallen for them:

  1. Women with children = good / single young men = bad;
  2. Men fighting for their country = good / men saving their lives outside its borders = bad;
  3. Those crossing at border crossings = good / those crossing the green border = bad;
  4. Fleeing to the nearest country = good / fleeing to somewhere further = bad.

It seems to me that everyone who sincerely wanted to find out what was behind the arguments mentioned above has found the answers to their questions in recent months. But let’s look over them again because the point is not to let ourselves be manipulated.

Anyone of any age and gender can become a refugee. The sight of a defenceless woman with a child appeals more to our imagination and arouses greater pity and willingness to help. The situation in Ukraine is peculiar: it was invaded by another country, men aged 18-60 are forbidden to leave their homeland, so only women, children and elderly people can officially flee. I write ‘officially’ because data from the Ukrainian State Bureau of Investigation shows that already more than 1,700 men subject to military mobilization have tried to cross the border illegally. This data only counts those who have not succeeded. We know of hundreds who have succeeded. We know that the Polish Border Guard on the green border [a weakly protected section of a national border] accepts applications for international protection from such people. I will say it again: on the green border. I am writing these words, I am recalling these numbers just over a month after the outbreak of war in Ukraine. In Syria, the war has been going on for 11 years.

The war in Ukraine is different from that in Syria, Afghanistan or Yemen. Geopolitical complications, long-standing conflicts, interference of international players – without going into detail, it is clear that the situation in these countries is very complicated. And they are not states under the rule of law. The heads of these countries are closer to Putin than to Zelenskyy. Their citizens do not want to put their lives and their families at risk in a fight that is not being waged for a just cause. On the contrary, many Syrians were fighting for their own country, for a just cause 11 years ago. And they had to flee for that very reason.

Poland is an immediate neighbour of Ukraine, the first country that refugees from there reach. Some, however, go to visit family in Germany. Some choose to take the bus to Switzerland. Others take the offer of free flights to Canada. Once they leave Poland, do they cease to be ‘real refugees’?

The vast majority of refugees flee to the nearest country first. Hence so many Syrians in Turkey or Lebanon, Venezuelans in Colombia or Sudanese in Uganda. But many of them, often after years of trying, fail to build a new life in a neighbouring country. Poverty and lack of prospects cause these people to seek support further afield. How is it that a European (for example: a Ukrainian) has the right to look for a better life (for example: in England), but a Syrian should stay either in war-torn Syria or, possibly, in Lebanon nearest to them?

According to Polish and international law, any person who enters the Polish territory may file an application for international protection – no matter whether it is done at an official border crossing or at a green border. It does not matter whether the application is submitted by a Ukrainian, a Sudanese or a Syrian family. Whether he or she gets such protection is another matter entirely. But allowing such an application is a fundamental human right, just like the right to life, dignity, liberty or freedom from torture.

Refugees appear on the green border for three reasons: first, they are taken there by Lukashenko’s men; second, even if they manage to get to the crossing point (like those several thousand in Kuźnica border crossing in November), they are not allowed to submit an application; and third, and this is something that not everyone may know, it has not been possible to submit such a document at the border crossings with Belarus for years. Neither in Kuźnica, nor on the train to Terespol, nor at the railway station.

Now, here in Podlasie, I met a girl in the forest, who had already begged the Polish border guards a dozen or so times to let her submit an application for international protection. I met a family with a small child who begged, in the presence of the international media, to be allowed to submit such an application. I have met Cubans who cannot believe that Poland, which for them was the rule of law, unlike their own country, does not want to accept an application from them. Even harder to believe since it accepts applications from deserters from Ukraine on the green border, not at a border crossing. Where is the logic here?

Aras, an eight-year-old refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan sitting in a Polish border guard van. The entire family of sixteen was pushed back to the Belarusian side of the border several times, Poland, 2021. Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS agency.

Linguistic gymnastics

To support or undermine the treatment of people in different ways, you can always play with language. We know well from history how the perception of the Jewish people was influenced by German propaganda. We know that words are the first step to dehumanization and consent to dehumanizing behaviour, even the worst. And yet, we not only agree to it, but sometimes we copy this manipulative language ourselves.

People on the Belarusian border are called ‘Lukashenko’s tourists’. People on the Ukrainian border are those fleeing bombs. Many of those on the Belarusian border are also fleeing bombs, but it has become accepted to refer to them as ‘illegal migrants.’ Although some people on the Ukrainian border also passed through without a passport, no one calls them ‘illegals’. These are ‘innocent people’, ‘victims’. The others: ‘agents’ and ‘terrorists’. How do we know that terrorists did not enter Europe through the Ukrainian border either? We don’t know. How do we know that there are supposedly dangerous people on the Belarusian border? We don’t know. After all, by using pushbacks and not checking the identity of those coming in, we can’t prove it. And this is not only illegal and unethical but also dangerous. For Poland and Europe.

About some we say ‘migrants’, about others, with great respect ‘Ukrainians’. Some we treat worse than animals: they have to hide in the woods at night and drink water from puddles. In others, we see brave heroes by the very fact that they experience war. Toward some, we incite hatred by showing them as Others, enemies, terrorists. Toward others, we arouse love for our Ukrainian cousins.

All this does not happen on its own. Public opinion can be controlled.

An elderly woman fleeing the war. Medyka-Szeginie border crossing, Poland, 2022. Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS agency.

Viewpoints

An old Polish saying states that a point of view depends on the point of sitting. And you sit where you are planted. The Polish government, introducing a state of emergency zone along the Belarusian border, victimized thousands of people in Polish forests and consigned them to anonymity. People without faces – because if the media cannot enter the zone, they cannot show these faces either. We know them only from reports and from the work of activists, who are doing their best to stop these people from being anonymous. To give an identity to those who die in silence, under the cover of night. Because when the names and surnames are unknown, when Polish people do not come across the bodies of refugees, then what has been happening for months on the border with Belarus does not evoke so much remorse. It’s easier to ignore the matter, easier to turn a blind eye. Journalists can humanize every crisis, show it up close. This is what they do in their coverage from Ukraine, from Ukrainian border crossings, from railway stations. We can look into the eyes of every tired Ukrainian woman who carries her sleeping child. What if there was no emergency zone and we could look into the eyes of a Syrian or Iraqi woman in the same way?

One is closed, fenced off, guarded by police and military.

The other is open, transparent, accessible in all media, with all senses.

Of one, the official media and government channels show a distorted picture of reality – some guys throwing stones or scenes from a series on Netflix – to fuel fear. A Pole will not go to this border, to this fence, will not see if the pictures shown on Polish television are true. Those who know more are the local residents. And it is they who are most involved in helping those in need in the forests. Because they can see with their own eyes that these are not dangerous or depraved people from whom Poland must be protected. They know that a few dozen or a few hundred people will fit into their homes and basements if it is to save their lives from freezing in minus temperatures. It is a cruel joke that there is somehow room in Poland for the two million or so refugees from Ukraine, compared to the 400 people in the Podlasie forests today.

In theory, we know how propaganda works. That the truth doesn’t matter. That a lie can be debunked, proven, dissected. But the heated emotions remain, they are real. And they can be used both for good and for evil. When power attends to our fears or doubts (instead of stoking them), our heads can turn to welcoming attitudes and we can welcome people. But when we are afraid, we focus on ourselves, on the safety of ourselves and loved ones, and we are willing to support even unethical solutions. Or at least turn a blind eye to them.

Where does solidarity come from?

It is easier to feel closeness and solidarity with those who are more like us. Not only physically, but also geographically – they have similar childhood landscapes and a common enemy who is a neighbour. It is harder to empathize with the unknown. How many of us know the causes of the conflict in Yemen? How many can name all the parties fighting in Syria? One topic is more familiar to us, is more understandable. The other is distant, complicated.

It is harder to remember the name of Abdirahman from Yemen than that of Yulia from Kyiv. It is easier to understand and explain why a Ukrainian woman crossing the border in Medyka, carrying a child in one arm and luggage in the other, dropped an empty water bottle, than to understand why there is garbage lying in the forest in Podlasie, although you have never met anyone there. It is easier to be moved by the cats and dogs at the train station in Warsaw than to cross an army cordon to hand over food for one Afghan refugee’s cat in Usnarz Górny, who was also hungry.

People are more likely to feel compassion and the will to act, more likely to engage in actions of solidarity, when they are not afraid and when they have hope for change for the better. It is very difficult for us to get involved in hopeless cases.

And this is the case of the Polish-Belarusian border. It is there that nothing changes for the better. There, people walk without shoes in the woods, although on the Ukrainian border, huge mountains of shoes are wasted in the rain. There, the police and army make life as difficult as they can for supporters, locals and the media, although on the Ukrainian border, the uniformed are the friendliest in the world. There, even small children are beaten and attacked, but on the Ukrainian border everyone is doing their best to keep the child in good spirits.

It’s hard to take it all in. Images from one border and the other. That people, that Poles can be so good and so cruel at the same time. And so selective. And so blindly indifferent. By helping here and not there, do we wash away some of this remorse?

I fear we are only supporting this refugee apartheid.

Coverage of migration is all too often affected by negative stereotypes and oversimplifications, with very real consequences for the lives of those people in the headlines. If you’d like to learn more about these issues and how to cover stories of migration respectfully and inclusively, visit our resource Covering Migration.

Photo: Ukrainian refugees at the southernmost border crossing point Krościenko-Smolnica, Poland, 2022. Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS agency.

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