Fears grow of new crisis as refugees in Belarus are driven to Ukraine | Migration

Belarusian armed forces are pushing asylum seekers from the Middle East who have found themselves trapped in the country after they were promised passage to the EU to cross the border into war-torn Ukraine, according to the testimony of people in the Belarusian camps.

Dozens of asylum seekers stranded for months in a makeshift dormitory in Bruzgi, a Belarusian village less than a kilometer from the Polish border, were ordered on March 5 by a group of Belarusian soldiers to leave the building at gunpoint and were offered two options: cross the border into Poland, where guards pushed them back, or into Ukraine, one said.

“A group of seven border guards we had never seen before entered the building,” said a man who arrived in Belarus last fall, and whose name and nationality cannot be disclosed for security reasons. security.

“They were wearing military clothes and, for the first time, they entered the camp with weapons, beat us and told us that we had two choices: either cross to Poland or go to Ukraine.

Last fall, the EU accused Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of deliberately causing a refugee crisis on its eastern border by organizing the movement of people from the Middle East to Minsk and promising them safe passage to the block. The move was seen as retaliation for sanctions Brussels imposed on his regime after its crackdown on civil society and political opponents.

In November, Belarusian authorities escorted thousands of people to the Polish border in an escalating crisis. Witnesses told the Guardian how Belarusian troops rounded up groups of up to 50 people and cut barbed wire with shears to allow them to cross.

Hundreds managed to evade Polish police by hiding in the forests, but others were captured and violently driven back to Belarus. As temperatures plummeted, Belarusian authorities began moving those who could not cross the border into Poland to a giant customs warehouse, turned into a dormitory, in Bruzgi.

Frozen to death: migrants left to die at the Polish-Belarusian border – video
Frozen to death: migrants left to die at the Polish-Belarusian border – video

More than a thousand of them spent nearly four months there, crammed between industrial shelves, where people built makeshift beds out of wooden planks and cardboard boxes. Ten days after the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, supported by Belarus, the order was given to empty the camp.

The man explained that that day Belarusian soldiers began inspecting “every square inch of the camp”, entering each tent and rounding up people in order to communicate the new directives. “Everyone was wondering what our future would be,” he said. “We are peaceful people. There are families with children. What do these armed men want from us?

At that time, the military group reported that they had been ordered to clean up the dormitory. “They made us sit on the ground,” the man explained, “and the officer again asked people if they wanted to go to Poland or Ukraine. Poland or Ukraine. It’s the new way to smuggle people as Belarusians.

Despite the arrival of more than a million displaced Ukrainians in Poland, refugee-focused charities in the country have continued to support people who have crossed the Polish-Belarusian border. Anna Alboth, from Minority Rights Group, and one of the co-founders of Grupa Granica, a Polish network of NGOs monitoring the situation at the border, said she noticed an increase in the number of asylum seekers crossing from Belarus to Poland lately, corroborating the testimonies. of migrants ordered to leave the camp in Belarus.

“Polish border guards are still pushing them back to Belarus every day,” she said. “Even yesterday, we were in contact with a Syrian family of 10 people, including some children. Unfortunately, we were unable to help them with food and clothing, as they have already been deported to Belarus.

Charities fear asylum seekers will again be used as weapons, opening a new crisis on Poland’s northeastern border that risks causing unprecedented political and logistical chaos in a country struggling to cope to the mass migration of Ukrainians fleeing the war.

“What if the Belarusians this time push them not to Lithuania or Poland, but to… Ukraine?” Alboth said. “Belarusians do not care about the lives of these people, we have known this since last August already. Belarusians were already provoking refugees at the border in the fall, recording hate videos to spread anti-migration propaganda in Poland and Europe. These were videos that put all the migrants and representatives of the various minorities on the Belarusian side in a very bad light. What if they kept them in Bruzgi since November, because they knew they could use them?

Lukashenko has grown closer to Putin in recent months and Russian troops were stationed on the Belarus-Ukraine border before last month’s invasion. In a recent interview with the Guardian, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she believed that after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Lukashenko had in fact ceded control of his country in the Kremlin.

“We are trying to persuade Belarusian troops not to participate,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “We communicate with soldiers’ mothers, trying to persuade them not to let their children go to this war.”

Some of the migrants invited to go to Ukraine initially feared that Belarusian soldiers might want to offer them a chance to fight alongside the Russians – an offer that the wife of an asylum seeker trapped in Bruzgi said they would all have refused.

Putin gave the green light to what he claimed were up to 16,000 Middle Eastern volunteers deployed alongside Russian-backed rebels fighting in Ukraine as the two-week invasion struggled to maintain its momentum.

The Syrian army has begun recruiting troops from its own ranks to fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine, promising payments of $3,000 per month, up to 50 times a Syrian soldier’s monthly salary.

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