Sokolka, Poland – Since mid-October, grassroots activists working near the Poland-Belarus border have received nearly 3,000 calls for help, signs of a growing humanitarian crisis that is compounded by a lack of large-scale professional organisations allowed to work on the ground.
At a news conference on Friday, held in the woods outside a securitised area, activists called on Poland to give NGOs greater access, as they held up photos of those trapped on the border. Recounting those experiences and the desperate text messages they have received from refugees, some came close to tears.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
A day earlier, it was reported that a 14-year-old froze to death on the Belarusian side of the border. The activists said they had heard this news from people stuck in Belarus, but that it was impossible to verify.
In total, in recent weeks, at least 10 people have reportedly died on both sides of the border, a number that includes children and is likely underestimated.
Under a state of emergency ruling which started in September, Poland does not allow NGOs access to an emergency zone, where many refugees and migrants are stranded because of a political row between Belarus and the West.
The area, which is 3km (about 2 miles) from Belarus, covers about 200 sleepy towns and villages. Only those who can prove they are local residents can pass one of the many roadblocks set up to get inside.
Therefore, for the most part, small groups of self-organised locals have been on the front lines providing aid, and the situation is becoming increasingly tense.
Each day is colder than the last and the daylight fades around mid-afternoon when temperatures plummet in the dark. With aid workers – and journalists – prevented from accessing the border area, it is becoming increasingly challenging to understand the scale of what is unfolding just a few kilometres from the securitised checkpoints.
Heavily armed soldiers are pulling over and stopping cars at checkpoints, checking documents, car boots and demanding explanations for people’s reasons for being in the area.
The crisis deepened this week after hundreds more refugees headed towards Poland.
Warsaw and its allies accuse Minsk, backed by Moscow, of masterminding the flow of refugees by encouraging people – many from the Middle East – to travel to Belarus and attempt to enter Poland.
They claim it is a revenge move that Belarus is attempting to destabilise Europe after Western nations slapped sanctions on the administration of President Alexander Lukashenko, which cracked down on dissent after last year’s disputed election.
As a war of words continues between officials, grassroots organisers are urging the wider European and international community to stage a humanitarian intervention in order to save lives.
Many of those trapped on the border do not have even the most basic clothes to survive the winter. Some of those are families with young children.
Michal, whose family has lived in the local area for generations, is among the group of activists trying to help.
His house stands next to a cross in memory of the locals who sheltered Jewish refugees in the second world war – a legacy that continues, he said.
“I want to emphasise that locals are the first ones who have been helping people,” he said, but added that the community cannot continue to shoulder this responsibility alone.
“Professional humanitarian organisations need to enter the restricted zone immediately,” he said. “It’s time to stop pushbacks and have aid and not violence at the border,” he added, referring to claims that Polish border guards are forcing people who breach the border back to Belarus.
Magdalena Adamowicz, an MEP with the European Coalition, said border safety should not mean risking people’s lives.
“Safety at the border does not mean people should die there,” she said. “Men, women and children seeking safety at the border does not mean leaving the local community alone or denying access to humanitarian aid or illegal pushbacks.”
Last month, the Polish government moved to legalise returning people at the border who had crossed “irregularly”.
Activists and volunteers working on the ground told Al Jazeera that they were aware of pushbacks but that it was impossible to quantify the number of people being returned to Belarus without due process, given the heavy restrictions around the border zone.
Reports of violence, they said, were also common, particularly by Belarusian authorities.
Those who answer distress calls from people camped out in forests have often taken time out of their jobs to try and help.
Some have come from other regions in Poland and others as far afield as Norway.
“Most of us have never met before,” said Kasia Staszewska, a volunteer. “But it’s unsustainable and we are not able to respond to the scale of the crisis. One of the ways is for professional humanitarian organisations to come.”
One activist who worked on the Balkan route in 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis, says he is witnessing similar numbers of people arrive per day now in Poland.
“We have failed as a country,” he said. “We are able to do much more than this, this is a humanitarian crisis caused by a low number of people. The Polish government is acting as if we are a weak state.”
He said Belarusian authorities were mainly to blame for the looming humanitarian disaster, but that Poland should demonstrate EU values at this crisis point.
Kalina Czwarnog has spent more than a month on the border, helping people trapped in the woods.
She is aware of pushbacks but cannot quantify the numbers.
“The numbers of people [pushed back] no one can say, one person can be pushed back several times, no one knows the real number,” she said. “I have found this man from Iraq, around 38. In the swamp, he had symptoms of beginning of a heart attack. We called an ambulance, they took him to the hospital and after several hours he sent us a message that he was pushed back.”
Three days a week, she responds to distress calls in the forest.
“I am doing better than some,” she said. “I know people who stayed here for a month all at a time and it can really destroy you.”