NAREWKA, Poland – The green light in the window was easy to spot from the main road in Michalowo, a Polish town about 15 miles from the Belarusian border, where thousands of asylum seekers en route to the European Union have been trapped in recent months.
âIt means that my house is a safe place where migrants can ask for help,â said Maria Ancipuk, a resident of Michalowo and head of the local council.
Ms Ancipuk said she decided to act after seeing a report on a group of children from the Yazidi minority in Iraq who were taken from Michalowo and pushed back by border guards into the frozen forests of Belarus, from the other side of the border.
âYou don’t forget such things,â she said, her voice shaking and tears in her eyes. “I said to myself: I will do everything to ensure that this does not happen again here. “
The European Union has accused Belarusian leader Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of channeling asylum seekers from the Middle East through his country to Poland in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the EU on his government after a contested election last year and its subsequent crackdown on the opposition.
As the crisis has intensified in recent days, with clashes between Polish authorities and migrants trying to cross the heavily guarded border, an unofficial network of local residents, activists and volunteer doctors spread across the area border, has worked to support asylum seekers. as best he can.
The challenges for the few who do manage to cross the border – some of whom are trying to seek asylum in Poland and others who hope to continue in Germany and deposit their papers there – are immense. Many were summarily returned to Belarus by Polish guards. The rest are frozen, hungry and often sick, and find that getting help is made almost impossible by a three-kilometer-wide exclusion zone which Polish authorities have banned for all non-residents, including journalists, doctors and charity workers.
Volunteers patrol the forests near the exclusion zone looking for stranded migrants and drop relief packages containing food, water and warm clothing in the trees. Some people living in the exclusion zone were also able to help migrants in areas closed to foreigners. Doctors look after people in need of treatment, while others help migrants prepare documents for asylum claims or distribute supplies sent from across the country such as food – sometimes homemade soup – and warm clothes, according to activists.
Tamara, a 4-year-old girl from Torun, a town about 500 km from the border, drew a cartoon wishing asylum seekers good luck that her parents put in a care package. A local policeman brought food, hiding it from his colleagues.
Roman, a local resident who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of repercussions from authorities and local far-right groups, said he was pressured to act after learning that migrants had died in the areas. icy conditions in the forest. Eleven people have died trying to cross the border so far, according to Polish authorities, but the actual death toll could be much higher.
âI thought to myself, I can’t solve the biggest problem,â he said. âI leave it to the United Nations, NATO and the government. But no one will die in my forest.
Although providing aid is legal, activists describe playing a “cat and mouse game” to reach stranded asylum seekers before border guards. The Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party, has been accused by human rights organizations of illegally pushing asylum seekers back to Belarus. And some activists report being attacked or intimidated by right-wing groups.
âThere are only a few of us who are actively helping,â Roman said. âThe majority remain silent.
Activists said fear of retaliation deterred many Poles opposed to the government’s tough stance on migrants from acting as the green light, as Ms Ancipuk did in Michalowo, and that only a few households had done it.
On the roads surrounding the restricted area, dozens of police and special military units stopped cars and pedestrians, wondering where they were. The Polish authorities justify the controls by the need to protect the border and ensure the safety of residents during the state of emergency.
These efforts have also been supported by far-right groups that support the ruling Law and Justice party. During a march on November 11 to commemorate Poland’s Independence Day, some right-wing participants chanted âHail, Wielkopolskieâ and âBorder guards, open fireâ. On the same day, activists reported that a group of three asylum seekers from Iraq and Syria were beaten and robbed on the road to Hajnowka, a town near the border.
In a sign of rising tensions, five cars belonging to Medics at the Border, a group of volunteer medics helping migrants, were vandalized on Saturday evening, with broken windows and flat tires. Local police said they were investigating.
The impromptu medical team, which was to turn its business over to an established non-profit group, the Polish International Aid Center, decided on Tuesday to cease operations a day earlier.
âTo some extent, I expected something like this to happen,â said Jakub Sieczko, an anesthesiologist from Warsaw who started the initiative, in an interview. “I am not naive, I know the country in which we live.”
Asylum seekers do not want to go to hospital because they fear the Polish authorities, activists say. Mr Sieczko described the heartbreaking dilemma of dealing with migrants and having to leave them in the middle of the forest.
âThere is no tracking and you cannot survive for long in the Polish woods in winter,â he said. “It’s sick to have to hide people from state authorities.”
Wojtek Wilk, director of the Polish Center for International Aid, called the situation an “unusual crisis”.
Mr Wilk has 20 years of humanitarian experience in countries like Nepal, Ethiopia and Lebanon, but said he had never encountered such legal insecurity around the people he was supposed to help as he saw him now in Poland. The association is currently negotiating access to the restricted area with the authorities, he added.
As the border standoff has intensified, some in the region say the situation brings back bloody memories of WWII, still vivid in the border region of Podlasie, which suffered greatly under the Nazi occupation and Soviet.
“During the war I risked death by firing squad,” said Ms Ancipuk, the Michalowo resident, referring to the pain the Poles faced under the Nazi occupation for helping the Jews. âToday, in the worst case, I will go to jail. It’s nothing.”
Government supporters have also drawn inspiration from war imagery, describing the pressure exerted on the Polish border by Belarus in terms of an invasion that undermines the country’s territorial integrity.
While helpers recognize the need to protect the Polish border, they also say they cannot stand idly by while people freeze to death.
Marek Brzostowicz, a paramedic from Krakow, southern Poland, arrived on Tuesday as a volunteer for a 24-hour team in a town near the exclusion zone. âI have two children. I kept thinking about what it would be like in the forest with them this weather, âhe said. “I couldn’t just watch – I had to do something.”
So far, putting out the green lights as a sign for migrants has been largely symbolic, with very few aware of the effort, said Ancipuk. But it was as much a symbol for her neighbors as it was for asylum seekers, she added.
âPeople are afraid to do it,â she said. âAs soon as I turned on the light in my window, I started receiving hate messages. But I won’t be intimidated.