Michelle Bachelet calls on Warsaw and Minsk to resolve ‘intolerable situation’ at shared frontier.
Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities
When Ibrahim*, a 37-year-old Syrian, sought shelter in the woods surrounding Brest, a Belarusian town near the Polish border where he was hiding with a friend and the friend’s four children, one of the boys, five-year-old Yusif, started to sob.
“I am so hungry and so cold,” said the child.
Ibrahim feels desperate, watching Yusif and other children suffer hunger and hypothermia.
The group arrived at the border weeks ago, hoping to cross into Poland but, after several failed attempts, they remain stuck in Belarus.
“I see children dying in front of my eyes and I can’t do anything to help them,” Ibrahim told Al Jazeera in a WhatsApp voice message, while children and adults nearby could be heard crying in the background. “We are dying here.”
NGO workers and activists in Poland have raised the alarm over child refugees on both sides of the border as the crisis deepens and weather conditions deteriorate.
At least one child has reportedly died.
Border Aid, a group of medical volunteers who work at the Polish border, has treated a few dozen children, some with severe conditions.
“Before we even started our operations, we heard about the death of a 16-year-old boy from Iraq who died in September,” Kaja Filaczyńska, a doctor with the group, told Al Jazeera.
The boy was among the first six victims found dead in the border zone. He had been vomiting blood prior to his death, according to reports by Polish media.
To date, at least 10 people have reportedly died near the border, mostly on the Polish side.
‘Suffering beyond any limits’
The months-long refugee crisis intensified this week as hundreds more people gathered near Belarus’s border with Poland, aiming to enter the European Union nation.
Poland blames Belarus for using the refugees and migrants as political tools, allowing them to breach the frontier in revenge for Western sanctions on the administration of President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus and Russia, its main ally, have criticised the EU in return.
“In my profession, I was used to a certain level of suffering, but this was beyond any limits,” said Filaczyńska. “People do not suffer due to a disease, but as a result of a man-made tragedy that has exposed them to harsh conditions and negligence. The fact that healthy people suffer and die because of geopolitics is unacceptable.”
The situation is dire, even for trained paramedics, Filaczyńska said.
“The first time we saw children in the woods, we were shocked. We saw a woman crouching down while breastfeeding a small baby in the middle of the night, and another three-year-old child standing next to her. We couldn’t get this picture out of our minds: a lost, abandoned breastfeeding woman with two children in a cold forest in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
It is not clear how many children are among the thousands of refugees stranded near the border, but Magdalena Rozwadowska, a volunteer from the Polish group Matki na Granicę (Mothers on the border), estimates that there are hundreds.
“We cannot watch this nightmare and do nothing. In the last week of October alone, volunteers at the Polish border received around 1,000 distress calls from people in the woods,” she told Al Jazeera.
“We have to protect them. We have to keep them warm and safe, not in the cold, not in the woods,” she said.
There may also be children stuck in the emergency zone, an area that aid groups, volunteers and journalists are unable to access. The numbers of children on the Belarusian side are also unknown.
“We once helped a group of 30 migrants, out of whom 16 were children,” Filaczyńska said. “From the dark of the woods, we saw their little hands reaching for us, asking for food and water.
“The children were shouting: ‘Please, water!’ It was heartbreaking.”
Some children were exhausted and not alert, unable to stand up.
“The group had been moving through the woods for several days, and the children were too tired to walk. They felt better after receiving food, water and warm blankets.”
Cases of disabled children suffering in the forests have also been recorded.
Tadeusz Kołodziej, a lawyer from the Ocalenie Foundation, which provides support to asylum seekers at the Polish border, told Al Jazeera that a Syrian couple with two children – aged five and seven – claimed they were pushed back to the border three times by Polish border guards.
“According to the mother, the seven-year-old disabled son [diagnosed with cerebral palsy] – was unable to move on his own,” Kołodziej told Al Jazeera. “His father had to carry him on his back or in his arms through the woods.”
When lawyers from the Ocalenie Foundation met the family at the nearest hospital, after they managed to enter into Poland, the mother said she was worried about her children, their protection and the medical treatment of her son.
Kołodziej said the group was able to help them facilitate an interim measure based on Article 39 of the European Court for Human Rights, which allows the family to stay in Poland and seek international protection.
“It helped that these people were in the hospital while we were waiting for the court’s decisions on interim measures. When we finally received a decision from the court, the border guards could not push them back,” Kołodziej said.
“We know that border guards sometimes wait for the moment the [migrants] are discharged from the hospital to immediately remove them from Poland.”