NEAR HAJNOWKA, Poland -- Raqi Srour spent his days making frantic phone calls at a hotel near the Polish border. His wife, Safa, spent hers cowering in a frigid forest ditch just 3 kilometers away, trying desperately to evade Polish Army patrols. If they saw each other, they’d risk placing her life in even greater danger.
Srour, a 25-year-old nurse who received asylum in Germany in 2016, was welcome in Poland. His wife, father, sister, brother, uncle, and cousin -- who flew to Belarus from their home in war-torn Syria and crossed into Poland aided by Belarusian border guards -- were not.
They had wandered through the Polish wilderness for two weeks, with hardly any food or water, sleeping in swamps to avoid detection. Twice, they were discovered and pushed back into Belarus by Polish border guards, forced to begin the arduous trek from scratch. But with nighttime temperatures now approaching freezing, Srour knew that he faced an awful choice.
Leaving Safa and his family members in the forest for much longer could be fatal. At least 10 migrants had already died attempting the same passage. But trying to smuggle them out and drive them to Germany, where he hoped they’d receive asylum, would risk their arrest in an area of Poland that has been turned into a militarized zone as the number of migrants crossing from Belarus, encouraged by the authoritarian regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has skyrocketed.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” Srour said in German one morning this past week, after local activists in the town of Hajnowka had staged another failed nighttime attempt to bring his family to one of the safe houses organized by locals, who risk incarceration for helping refugees. “But I am ready to move mountains to ensure my family is safe.”
The migrant crisis along Poland’s border with Belarus is a humanitarian time bomb ticking on the EU’s eastern edge. Thousands of asylum seekers have flown to Belarus in recent months, encouraged by expedited visa processing and growing numbers of daily flights from countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Cameroon. Though the vast majority continue toward Poland, many have sought entry into neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, also EU members.
It’s part of a state-sponsored scheme that rights workers and EU officials say amounts to a “hybrid war” waged by Lukashenka in retaliation for Western sanctions imposed on his government after he claimed a landslide victory in an August 2020 election widely considered rigged and launched a brutal crackdown on protests against his continued rule.
“The main goal is to punish Lithuania and Poland for their backing of the opposition,” said Artsyom Shraybman, a Belarusian political analyst living in exile. “Lukashenka figures he has nothing to lose.”
Numbers surged when tensions between Minsk and Europe escalated in May, after Belarus forced a Lithuania-bound commercial airliner to land in Minsk so that authorities could arrest a dissident blogger on board.
And even as conditions become deadlier, the influx continues: Poland’s Border Force has recorded more than 30,000 attempts to cross since August, including 17,300 in October alone. Officials in Berlin say almost 7,000 of those people have tried to enter Germany.
On October 21, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged new sanctions on Lukashenka’s regime, which is supported by Russia, for what she called “state-backed human trafficking.”
Poland has responded by declaring a state of emergency on its border with Belarus and moving 10,000 troops into the area to stop the migrants from entering and capture those who slip through the net. The government of the nationalist Law and Justice Party has approved a $407 million budget for a border wall to be built in the coming weeks.
Rhetoric on both sides has escalated.
Poland’s Defense Ministry has repeatedly accused Belarusian soldiers of threatening to fire on Polish troops. In late October, Lukashenka claimed that Poland was using the migrant crisis as an excuse to build up forces. “We'll wait for a while, we’ll warn them. And then we -- and especially Russia -- have plenty of stuff to move closer to the border,” he said.
The Polish government’s line on keeping migrants out has been met with eager support from the far right and a backlash from liberals. Protesters have marched through Warsaw and other cities chanting, “Stop torture on the border!” The government has responded with what critics say is disinformation aimed at whipping up popular anti-migrant sentiment.
In September, Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski showed lewd photos allegedly found on migrants’ mobile phones, which turned out to be fake. In October, state TV reported on a purported drive-by shooting by migrants in Sweden and suggested that “such things happen across Europe almost every day.” The featured footage was actually from a fictional Netflix serial.
While the crisis has resonated across Poland, it’s in the east that life has been upended. Locals in Hajnowka and other towns near the border are subject to regular police checks during routine trips to work or the grocery store. Army trucks course through the streets, carrying troops who pack local hotels before duty on the border.
“I feel like I live in a war zone,” said Kasia Wappa, a Hajnowka resident who helps migrants. “And the only people moving around at night are refugees, smugglers, and activists.”
Many risk arrest to help, citing a moral code that they say is lacking in their government’s actions. There’s the hotel waitress who scours local roads looking for police checkpoints ahead of an attempt by activists to spirit a family of asylum seekers out of the woods; there’s the taxi driver who transports migrants who make it into town, facing hefty fines and a criminal record if he’s caught; and there are the many full-time volunteers like Wappa who spend their days and most of their nights bringing food and clothing to the migrants.
The people they encounter on the way are on the edge of hypothermia and starvation. But for most, it’s not water or clothing that will ultimately save their lives. Activists say the item they plead most desperately for are power banks: Having an operable mobile phone while languishing in the woods is the only way to alert activists to your location and let your family know you’re still alive.
“When they are dying, they can at least call the police,” says Nawal Soufi, an Italian-Moroccan rights activist who has been traveling along the border.
The stories the migrants tell are almost always the same. They pay up to several thousand dollars to tour companies with ties to the Belarusian authorities, which organize a flight and a visa, a short hotel stay in Minsk, and transfer to the Polish border. At the border, Belarusian officials cut the concertina wire at night to allow select groups of migrants to slip through. Once they are on Polish territory, they are either intercepted by the Polish Border Force and pushed back across the border -- a practice prohibited by international law but approved by Poland’s parliament last month -- or they roam the forest until they get a signal from a smuggler and rush to a waiting car.
If they are caught and pushed back into Belarus, many say they are beaten by Belarusian border guards and forced toward Poland again, often spending days in the barren strip of no-man’s-land between the two countries. Some pay hefty bribes to be driven back to Minsk, where they either resume the entire journey or return to the countries they had, in many cases, spent their life savings trying to leave.
“I spent four nights in a swamp, and 10 days without water,” said Karrar, an Iraqi Kurd traveling with his pregnant wife, who said he had spent $6,000 getting to Poland and been pushed back seven times by border guards. “They treat us like animals.”
Srour’s family, who flew from Damascus to Minsk on October 20, was twice pushed back after venturing kilometers into Polish territory. His father, who is 70, said they spent more than five days without food before locating a package of supplies left by activists. Srour’s 37-year-old brother Raad, who traveled with them, was mauled by a police dog on October 25 and taken to Hajnowka hospital, which discharged him on November 3, almost certainly into the hands of border officials. At the time of publication, his whereabouts were unknown.
Srour managed to personally deliver supplies to his family on two occasions. Each time, the entire group shed tears, embracing him as he made promises he couldn’t be sure of keeping. On November 3, he took a shaking Safa by the hand and led her away so they could be alone, holding her hand as he whispered in her ear.
Like hundreds of other migrants who flew to Belarus looking for a better life, Srour and his family had envisioned a relatively easy journey to Germany, encouraged by upbeat posts on Arabic-language Internet forums. He and Safa first met as teenage classmates in Daraa, and they hoped to have an official marriage ceremony upon her arrival in Germany in October, attended by relatives and Srour’s German host family.
“Everything was different in my imagination,” he said on November 4. “And now she and I suffer, despite being 2 miles apart and hardly able to see each other. This is impossible to put into words.”
For this particular family, the ordeal near the border ended well. They are now safely in Germany. (RFE/RL is not disclosing how they were rescued to protect the identities of those involved.)
Yet there are many others in Srour’s position, pacing hotel lobbies in Polish border towns as they lodge appeals to anyone who might help their families reach safety. And things will get far worse when winter sets in, warn residents in Hajnowka. Temperatures in the border area often dip to minus 15 degrees Celsius, meaning the rate of deaths in the nearby forest could rapidly climb.
The activists who help migrants slam what they say is their government’s intransigence and argue that Poland, a high-income country of 38 million people, can easily handle 30,000 refugees.
“We can and must let these people in,” says Andrzej Kwiatkowski, a 23-year-old who recently moved from Warsaw to Hajnowka to help migrants. “The problem is that our government wins elections by keeping them out.”