Asylum-seekers and migrants trying to enter the EU from Belarus and facing pushbacks and other human rights violations on the Polish border, are subjected to horrific torture or other ill-treatment, inhumane conditions, extortion and other abuse at the hands of Belarusian forces, new evidence gathered by Amnesty International reveals.
Harrowing testimonies reveal that people including families with children, often in need of immediate help, have been beaten with batons and rifle butts and threatened with security dogs by Belarusian forces, as well as being forced to repeatedly cross the border in dangerous conditions by both Belarusian and Polish authorities, including through a fast-flowing river.
“People at the border find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Stranded in what is effectively an exclusion zone on Belarus’s border with the EU, they face hunger, exposure and shocking levels of brutality from Belarusian forces repeatedly forcing them into Poland where they are systematically pushed back by Polish officers. The opposing forces are playing a sordid game with human lives,” said Amnesty International Refugees and Migrant Rights Researcher Jennifer Foster.
Amnesty International interviewed a total of 75 people who were lured into Belarus between July and November 2021 by a false promise of easily crossing into the EU. They then experienced pushbacks by EU countries, including Poland. The interviewees included 66 Iraqi nationals, seven Syrian nationals who travelled from Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, one Lebanese man, and one Sudanese man. With several of those interviewed traveling with family and friends, the testimonies account for a total of 192 affected people.
Belarus: Ill-treatment along the border
Amnesty International’s research revealed beatings and other serious torture or other ill-treatment, including people being deprived of food, water, shelter, and sanitation, as well as theft of phones and money or extortion for bribes by members of Belarusian forces.
Those interviewed by the organization testified that they faced these abuses from Belarusian forces as they moved from Minsk to what is effectively an exclusion zone, typically fenced off, on Belarus’ border with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. People were escorted in groups to “collection sites” within the fenced off zone before being violently forced to cross into Poland, while being chased by dogs and forced to walk through freezing rivers by Belarusian authorities.
A Syrian man told the organization that he was in a group of around 80 people driven in a military truck to the border.
“They offloaded us… There were about ten [Belarusian] soldiers and they had four dogs with them. They said they would let the dogs loose so if we didn’t run fast, we would get bitten. The soldiers ran after us beating anyone who didn’t run fast enough with batons. After they had chased us for about 200 meters the soldiers turned around, leaving us in the buffer zone in the middle of the woods. Families had been separated. Those bitten by the dogs were bleeding.”
Once in a “collection site,” people are not allowed to leave or go back towards unfenced areas accessible to civilians, and are trapped in inhumane conditions for days or weeks. People described being left without any food for days, or with minimal amounts of water or bread, and no shelter or sanitation. Several individuals told Amnesty International that they were only allowed to leave the “collection sites” and the border strip zone after paying bribes.
A Kurdish Syrian family interviewed by Amnesty International stayed in the fenced zone for 20 days. They ate only once per day and, on one occasion, went at least 24 hours with nothing to feed their two children. The father described his family’s ordeal:
“We were almost unconscious sometimes and were hungry and thirsty and couldn’t find any help, neither from Polish soldiers nor the Belarusians.”
Belarusian officials also took advantage of people entering the fenced areas and beat them violently as they crossed in, often stealing phones and money from them during the process. One asylum-seeker even said he was punched with “knuckle dusters” and kicked with steel-toed boots. A Kurdish Iraqi man told Amnesty International:
“Some had iron finger boxing rings and steel tipped boots. They kicked us while we were lying on [the] ground. They made us hand over money and phones. My body was left black and blue.”
International human rights law protects the right to claim asylum, as well as the right to freedom from torture or other ill-treatment. Belarus is flagrantly violating these rights, despite being party to relevant international treaties that protect them.
Poland: Pushbacks as a standard practice, asylum procedures and human rights guarantees ignored
Most of those who made it across the border fence into Poland were immediately apprehended and pushed back by Polish soldiers after a few hundred meters. Amnesty International also documented several cases of individuals who managed to go further into Polish territory, including walking for days before being picked up by Polish law enforcement authorities or approaching the authorities themselves after days spent without food or shelter.
All but one person Amnesty International spoke to was pushed back to Belarus, without any due process. Despite individuals expressing their intention to apply for asylum in the EU, they were stopped in a long series of systematic mass expulsions that completely disregarded international and EU law obligations.
Polish security forces clearly witnessed the mistreatment asylum seekers and migrants suffered on the Belarusian side, and yet still turned them back across the border fence.
Most of the people who Amnesty International spoke to who had tried to cross the border more recently said their phones were frequently damaged by Polish forces, and at times people suffered violent treatment, including children being pepper sprayed and adults being pushed into rivers.
A Syrian man who travelled with his wife and two children told Amnesty International that members of Polish forces put him and his family inside the back of a military truck: “It was big enough for 50-60 migrants and they drove about one hour. And then they pushed us back in the buffer zone. In the truck a soldier was listening to us talking and used pepper spray against us again, and my son and daughter cried for almost one hour.”
An Iraqi Yazidi man told Amnesty International that about an hour after crossing into Poland he was apprehended by Polish forces and, along with several other men, taken to a small river marking the border with Belarus: “The river was only about 10 or 15 meters-wide but it was deep and fast moving. They forced us off the vehicles and pushed us into the water. Anyone who didn’t get in the river was beaten with batons. [They] also had dogs. Women and kids and also some men were taken elsewhere. I saw one man taken away by the current. If you couldn’t swim, you drowned.”
Poland is in clear violation of international law and standards, including through violation of the prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment. The principle of non-refoulment provides that authorities must not forcibly send any person to another country or territory where they would be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
European Commission fails to act against abuses
Despite egregious rights violations by the EU states bordering Belarus, the European Commission (EC) has failed to carry through legal proceedings to uphold EU laws. Furthermore, on December 1, 2021 the EC proposed provisional emergency measures that could allow Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to derogate from EU rules, including by holding asylum-seekers at the border for 20 weeks with minimal safeguards and making deportations easier. The move is unjustifiable and will weaken the EU’s legal framework on migration and asylum.
“Thousands of people – including many fleeing war and conflict – find themselves stuck in Belarus in the depths of winter in extremely precarious conditions. Instead of receiving the care they need, they are subjected to brutal violence. Belarus must immediately cease this violence, and EU member states must stop denying people the chance to escape these egregious violations let alone returning them to Belarus to face them again and again,” said Jennifer Foster.
Amnesty International is concerned that those who remain trapped in Belarus with irregular status, whether in the border regions or the capital Minsk and other cities, are at risk of serious human rights violations. Confronted with an increasing number of stranded asylum seekers, Belarusian authorities have already started forcibly returning them to their countries of origin, including returning them unlawfully without an evaluation of their protection needs. Many people the organization spoke to face forcible return to Syria and not the countries they departed from, including Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon, due to re-entry bans.
Beginning in June 2021, the number of people arriving into EU territory from Belarus began to increase. EU leaders described this as a “hybrid threat” orchestrated by the Belarusian authorities in response to the EU sanctions introduced after widespread human rights violations following the 2020 presidential election, the official outcome of which was widely disputed and led to mass peaceful protests.
Amnesty International conducted nine in-depth interviews with Syrian, Lebanese and Sudanese people who travelled, some accompanied by their families, from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Russia with the intention of seeking asylum in the EU. At the time of the interviews, these individuals were in Germany, Lebanon, and still in Belarus. Additionally, the organization travelled to Iraq where it was able to speak with 66 individuals who had been returned, both voluntarily and involuntarily, to their country after failed attempts to reach the EU. These interviews took place in and around Baghdad, Dohuk, Baadre, Khelakh, Shariya, Zakho and Raniya.
Amnesty International requested access to the border zone and the people stranded there from Belarusian authorities. In their reply, the authorities stated that “the Belarusian side does not see any usefulness in the visit of the representatives of Amnesty International with the stated purpose.”
Contact: Gabby Arias, [email protected]