Trapped at Europe’s Gate: Inside Belarus’ Makeshift Asylum Dormitory | Global development

The giant warehouse overlooks the Belarusian countryside, less than a mile from the Polish border. In this 10,000 square meter space patrolled by dozens of armed soldiers, 1,000 asylum seekers are crammed among countless industrial shelves, stranded on their way to Europe in the middle of a freezing winter.

“We are trapped in this building,” says Alima Skandar, 40. “We don’t want to go back to Iraq and we can’t cross the border. Please help us. “

What used to be a customs center in the village of Bruzgi has become a dormitory for asylum seekers. The EU accused Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of deliberately provoking a new refugee crisis by organizing the movement of people from the Middle East to Minsk and promising them safe passage to Europe. Lukashenko’s critics say the exploitation of these people is a ruthless retaliation for the sanctions that Brussels has imposed on its regime.

Last fall, Skandar, her husband and their four children arrived in Belarus on a flight from Iraqi Kurdistan and then camped for weeks surrounded by barbed wire that Poland had erected along its border.

In early November, Belarusian authorities escorted thousands of asylum seekers to the Polish border in an escalating crisis. Witnesses told the Guardian how Belarusian troops gathered groups of up to 50 people and cut barbed wire with snips to allow them to cross. Hundreds managed to escape the Polish police by hiding in the forests. Others were captured and violently pushed back to Belarus by Polish border guards.

On shelves once used for goods, people built makeshift camp beds using wooden planks and cardboard boxes. Photography: Alessio Mamo / The Guardian

On November 6, during a painful attempt to cross the border, Skandar was separated from three of her children, aged 13 to 20.

“When Belarusian soldiers cut the barbed wire, hundreds of us headed for the border,” Skandar explains. “Three of my children were in front and ran into the forests across the border. My husband, our youngest child and I were left behind. The Polish police seized us and sent us back to Belarus.

Alima skandar
Alima Skandar. Photography: Alessio Mamo / The Guardian

“I haven’t seen my children since that day,” she adds, starting to cry. “I hope they are doing well.”

Over the days, the crisis became more and more worrying, with Polish police using tear gas and water cannons against people attempting to cross, and the EU adding new sanctions against Belarus. As temperatures dropped, Belarusian authorities began moving asylum seekers to the Burzgi warehouse.

Inside, on shelves once used for merchandise, people have made makeshift camp beds out of wooden planks and cardboard boxes. There are dozens of children and the elderly, many of whom need medical help.

Outside, other people sit around a wood-fired structure used to heat food and water. The water is for the showers, which are located in the snowy cold. Temperatures in Bruzgi can reach minus 12 ° C.

The majority of people in the camp are from the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, where on December 3 an attack by Islamic State militants killed three civilians and 10 Kurdish soldiers.

Around 1,000 people have taken up residence in the warehouse
Around 1,000 people have taken up residence in the warehouse. Photography: Alessio Mamo / The Guardian

Sometimes groups of people, mostly in their twenties, try to cross the border in the cold. Some do it, some don’t. At least 19 people have died since the start of the border standoff. Most of them froze to death. Some of their bodies were returned to their country of origin from Minsk alongside dozens of people forcibly repatriated by Belarusian authorities or who have decided to return voluntarily.

Ebrahim Naman, 20, watches his peers plan their next attempt to cross the border. He hopes for a different solution, because for two years, since an accident in his country of origin, Naman has been in a wheelchair. He has had several back surgeries, and doctors have told him that new rehabilitation techniques in Europe may help him walk again. For weeks, Naman camped with his family in front of the barbed wire, hoping to be allowed entry. Unable to make his way through the forest in his wheelchair, six people carried him on a sheet.

“My son has to go to Germany,” his father said. “He needs medicine every day, and there isn’t any here. I hope Europe will do something to help people like him who need urgent medical attention.

For weeks, a rumor has circulated in the warehouse that Germany will welcome these people before the end of the year. This has not been corroborated.

People in the warehouse
The majority of people in the camp come from the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. Photography: Alessio Mamo / The Guardian

A 32-year-old Syrian woman says she would rather “die from a bullet or cold” than come home. She arrived in Belarus on October 28 on a direct flight from Damascus with her mother and husband. Her mother has had a kidney transplant and is in need of medical assistance.

“She was a nurse in a public hospital in Idlib where, among other things, she treated the wounded in the army,” says her daughter. “As a result, the opposition began to perceive her as a traitor and a supporter of the regime and our properties were confiscated.”

The woman says her brother, who lives in Germany, is trying to get them out of here through an asylum organization and has made an appointment at the embassy to submit applications, but the Belarusian authorities to them. said that if they left the camp they would not be allowed to return.

On November 26, during a visit to Bruzgi, Lukashenko promised that Belarus would never play politics with the lives of refugees. “Whoever wants to move west is also your right,” Lukashenko said in a speech translated into Arabic. “We are not going to keep you behind barbed wire or beat you.”

The occupants of the warehouse say that Belarusian soldiers generally do not mistreat them – with the exception of one man, a tall soldier in a black uniform, who is said to be one of the leaders of the troops in the camp. “He’s the meanest,” said a man from Iraq. “We often see him beating children.

The Kuźnica border post is about 500 meters from the warehouse. There’s little evidence now of people who’ve been camping there for months, just a bunch of rags and bottles. On the Polish side, a symbol of the EU is visible but out of reach.

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