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At the Bruzgi - Kuznica checkpoint on the Belarusian-Polish border, a man holds his small toddler child and looks at the camera. Both are wearing winter hats and coats, it is clearly very cold, and there is a crow standing behind them.
Seeking asylum

What is happening at the Belarus-Poland border?

Refugees and migrants trying to cross into Poland from Belarus remain trapped in the cold without food, water or access to humanitarian aid.

Last updated 
Photo: Leonid Shcheglov\TASS via Getty Images

Thousands of people who have fled crisis in countries including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are trapped at the border between Belarus and the European Union nation of Poland amid growing political tensions. They have been trying to keep warm without proper shelter, unable to seek asylum in neighboring countries or return home. At least 13 people have died as temperatures dip below freezing. Find out more about the untenable situation at Europe’s eastern edge and what needs to happen next.

What is the situation on both sides of the border?

Between 2,000 and 4,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded for weeks at the Belarus-Poland border after being pushed back while attempting to cross into Poland. They are being denied access to humanitarian aid and legal services as governments on both sides refuse responsibility to provide protection.

Women and young children are among those stuck in makeshift shelters in Belarus with limited access to food, water or medical care. A one-year-old Syrian boy was among the 13 people reported to have lost their lives due to exposure from the cold.

We met migrants who were forced into the freezing cold river in Belarus.

The International Rescue Committee’s regional director for Europe programs, Stefan Lehmeier, traveled to the area in mid-November to assess humanitarian needs. “People have injuries from being forced over barbed wire fences,” Lehmeier says. “We met migrants who were forced into the freezing cold river in Belarus. They were told [by Belarusian authorities] to swim to the Polish side, but Polish border guards then turned them away and forced them to swim back.

On November 19, Belarusian border guards confirmed that 2,000 people had been relocated to a warehouse in a nearby village for shelter; however, many asylum seekers remain exposed to the elements, and the number of reports of those suffering from hypothermia continues to grow. 

In a forest, a woman sits on the ground in a sleeping bag next to another woman and a child. They have backpacks and other supplies on the ground, and it is clearly cold outside.

A woman sits in a sleeping bag after crossing the Polish-Belarusian border.

Photo: Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Meanwhile, on the Polish side of the border, humanitarian agencies are being prevented from accessing the area where the asylum seekers are trapped—leaving them unable to ascertain the support being provided and ensure peoples’ needs are met. As temperatures drop with the rapid approach of winter, conditions are likely to deteriorate further, making more fatalities extremely likely.

Many refugees and migrants are understandably terrified, trying to survive in a freezing no-man’s land between the two countries until they can safely cross the Polish border.

People are in distress and are scared of being found by border guards.

“People are in distress and are scared of being found by border guards,” says Lehmeier. “We responded to an emergency call from three Iraqi men with symptoms of hypothermia. One of them had a severe leg injury. After a local Polish activist group provided them with blankets, warm soup and other assistance, they quickly retreated into the forest. Given their health condition, they should have been admitted to hospital for emergency care.

What caused the crisis at the Belarusian border?

Following political disputes with European states—including European Union sanctions—Belarusian authorities began helping asylum seekers traveling from Iraq and neighboring countries to cross its border with Poland this summer. Since then, several thousand have entered Poland and more have been intercepted trying to cross. The exact numbers are unclear.

In purposefully facilitating the movement of people to its border, preventing them from returning, and denying them access to humanitarian aid, Belarus has been putting lives at risk. Poland’s response—meeting people at the border with violence, and illegally denying them the right to seek asylum—violates European and international law.

“The misdeeds of Belarus, which have lured vulnerable people into a political game, cannot be answered with inhumanity at the risk of people’s life,” says Harlem Désir, senior vice president for the IRC in Europe.

The misdeeds of Belarus, which have lured vulnerable people into a political game, cannot be answered with inhumanity at the risk of people’s life.

In October, the Polish parliament adopted a controversial amendment that allows authorities to dismiss asylum applications. The move has been criticized by the EU Commission, humanitarian agencies and members of the European Parliament. The Polish government also announced plans to build a wall along its border with Belarus, which further undermines the right to seek asylum.

The thousands of refugees and migrants trapped at the border are still being prevented from crossing to seek asylum and rebuild their lives in safety in Europe. A repatriation flight returned 431 people to Iraq. Meanwhile, those who remain in Belarus are receiving limited humanitarian support that barely meets their needs.

In addition, Latvia’s government has enacted a ‘state of emergency’ that authorizes border guards to return migrants who enter the country without permission to Belarus.

It’s important to remember that seeking asylum is a human right and any country that refuses this is violating human rights law. As the stalemate between the EU and Belarus continues, the IRC urges all countries involved to immediately cease using human beings as political leverage.

What needs to happen to help refugees and migrants in Belarus, Poland and the region?

With thousands of people stranded as winter approaches, more lives could be in danger. The EU should continue to do all it can to dissuade Belarus from actions that put people at risk. The IRC is calling for the continued swift de-escalation of the situation, and for all countries to guarantee the humane treatment of migrants and refugees.

Here's what must be done to help:

Provide food, shelter and aid

Even though people are trapped without food and shelter, and lives are being lost, humanitarian aid has been cut off in Poland with only a limited number of local organizations able to help those in need. It is vital that aid workers are allowed to access the border, where their support is urgently needed. EU support focused on ensuring this humanitarian access remains critical. 

End illegal pushbacks

People stranded at the border must be given the right to asylum, no matter how they got there—in line with international law.

Violence or illegal pushbacks cannot be allowed to continue.

European countries must uphold people’s right to asylum and ensure that all claims are processed quickly and fairly. Countries must immediately stop forcing people across their borders back to Belarus, where they risk facing further violence and abuses by border guards.

"Violence or illegal pushbacks cannot be allowed to continue,” says Harlem Désir.

Stand up for the right to asylum

The EU must enforce the rule of law and right to asylum in Europe.

Going forward, it is essential that EU leaders set up strong and independent border monitoring mechanisms to address human rights violations at Europe’s external borders, hold perpetrators accountable, and uphold the rule of law.

“It is clear that illegal pushbacks are happening at Europe’s borders, and any violations must be condemned,” says Imogen Sudbery, director of policy and advocacy for the IRC in Europe. “How the EU responds to these human rights violations will be a test of its commitment to the rule of law and its own fundamental values.”

The IRC's work in Europe

The IRC has been responding to humanitarian crises in Europe since 2015, where we launched an emergency response to the peak in migration in Greece and relaunched operations in Serbia. Our teams provided water, health and sanitation, and psychosocial support to refugees and migrants. Since then, the IRC has also provided support to refugees and migrants in Italy and Bosnia.