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Poland carried out migrant push-back at Belarus border, Amnesty says

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By Alice Tidey  & Meabh Mc Mahon
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Migrants are seated, after crossing the border from Belarus into Poland in the village of Usnarz Gorny, Poland, Aug. 19, 2021
Migrants are seated, after crossing the border from Belarus into Poland in the village of Usnarz Gorny, Poland, Aug. 19, 2021   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Mateusz Wodzinski
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Amnesty International on Thursday accused Poland of illegally pushing back asylum-seekers into Belarus.

According to the human rights NGO, Polish authorities pushed back a group of 32 Afghan asylum-seekers — including a 15-year-old girl — in late August. They had first entered the country on August 8.

It said that satellite imagery and photographs showed that the group was on the Polish side of the border on August 18, but that they were "moved overnight" to the Belarusian side.

"Amnesty International believes that this movement may be evidence of an illegal push-back, as it appears to have occurred while armed Polish border guards surrounded the refugees' makeshift camp," it said in a statement.

It added that the 32 Afghan nationals filed asylum claims on August 20 with the help of lawyers and that the European Court of Human Rights ordered Poland five days later to provide them with assistance including food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and if possible shelter, but that more than a month later, Warsaw had failed to implement these interim measures.

The group remains trapped at the border.

"Poland has been blocking this group of people at the border in deplorable conditions for weeks. Our analysis proves conclusively that their position was changed from Poland to Belarus overnight on 18 August and that they were therefore probably victims of unlawful forcible removal," Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International's Office to the European Institutions, said in a statement.

Euronews has contacted Poland's government for comment.

State of emergency and ministerial decree

Warsaw declared a state of emergency at its shared border with Belarus in early September after the number of migrants illegally crossing it soared. Lithuania and Latvia, which also share a border with Belarus, have also declared states of emergency.

The European Union has accused Minsk of facilitating illegal migration through its territory in retaliation to sanctions from the bloc over the rigged August 2020 presidential election and subsequent violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

The Polish state of emergency restricts access to the border area for journalists and NGOs, which Amnesty said on Thursday "makes it difficult to monitor possible human rights violations".

A ministerial decree, introduced before the state of emergency, also enabled the authorities to return intercepted people to the border.

"This decree contradicts Poland's obligations under refugee law, as it limits the access of asylum seekers to Polish territory, which is essential for them to apply for international protection. It is also at odds with the principle of non-criminalisation of asylum seekers, i.e. that persons seeking protection should not be punished for their illegal entry or presence in the country," Amnesty stressed.

Fear of an 'irreversible tragedy'

Five migrants died at the Poland-Belarus border in the space of a week earlier this month.

The Fundacja Ocalenie (Salvation Foundation) NGO, which has been in contact with the group of Afghan nationals trapped at the border, fears that the death toll could grow due to the conditions they're currently in.

One of the migrants told the NGO on September 11 that "due to the small amount of food consumed, people detained in Usnarz satisfy their biological needs only every 4-5 days."

Four days later, they reported by text that "Belarusian soldiers surround us from 4 sides with barbed wire so that we cannot go anywhere" and during a phone call on September 21, their last communication, their usual contact "was too weak to speak".

"The conditions in which people are held in Usnarz endanger their health and life," Fundacja Ocalenie said in a statement on Tuesday.

"We call on the Polish authorities to immediately provide the necessary assistance to asylum seekers in need – those from Usnarz and those elsewhere along the border – before another irreversible tragedy occurs," it added.

'More dead bodies'

According to human rights lawyer Marta Gorczyńska the death toll is probably already much higher than the five deaths reported by the Polish border guards.

Gorczyńska told Euronews that there are currently "a few hundred people" stranded in the forest at the border area.

"We were also informed by other people that we were able to meet with other migrants, that there are also more dead bodies there in this forest," she added.

She reported that many local residents have taken to helping migrants by providing whatever assistance they can including food, blankets, and spare clothes.

"There are a lot of people who are very afraid to do it because the government rhetoric right now, the government's rhetoric, is that these people are a threat to public security. These are mostly terrorists, but there are people that pose a threat that can be possibly dangerous. So they are informing the local people to, you know, lock the doors to stay safe, to call border guards whenever they approach or they meet these people," she explained.

"But more and more people also realise that once they call the border guard, these people are being basically thrown into the forest where they can possibly die. Some more and more people don't agree with this kind of policy and they're calling us asking for help," she added.