By Joanna Plucinska and Kacper Pempel
NEARSOKOLKA, Poland – Mohammed, a 26-year-old Yemeni migrant, flew to Belarus from Malaysia in August hoping to make it to Poland and on to western Europe.
He spent two weeks in a forest near the Polish border in October, where he says he was forced across the border 11 times by Polish or Belarussian guards, had most of his belongings stolen and was cold, thirsty and hungry with only leaves to eat.
During his last encounter with Polish authorities he told Reuters that he begged for it all to end.
“When we reached the Polish army I requested ‘Please kill me here now. I do not want to go back to Belarus’.”
Mohammed declined to share his last name for fear of being identified by Polish authorities.
Four hours after speaking with Reuters in the damp, freezing forest on Monday evening, he was picked up by a smuggler and taken to Germany, he said in a text message.
A former travel agent, Mohammed is one of thousands of people from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan, including children, who have tried to enter Poland from Belarus in the past few weeks. Charities say they face harrowing conditions on the border between the two countries.
Asked about Mohammed’s account of his experiences, and about migrant allegations of violence and pushbacks more generally, Belarussian officials did not immediately respond.
When asked about his description of what happened, a Polish Border Guard spokesperson said that, in general, staff provide medical help to all of those in need, including resuscitation or providing access to paramedics, and that they do accept applications for international protection.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said Poland is in breach of international law in its efforts to push migrants back to Belarus instead of offering them asylum.
Poland says it is respecting its international obligations while trying to stem the flow of migrants who, it says, often do not want asylum in Poland but in western Europe.
The European Union’s executive blames Belarus for deliberately orchestrating the flow to put pressure on the EU in retaliation for sanctions slapped on Minsk over human rights abuses.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko in late September called the situation on the border a “humanitarian disaster”.
The EU has also criticised Poland over its treatment of migrants.
Under EU rules, migrants should in principle apply for asylum in the first country they enter, but the 27-member bloc is planning wide-reaching reforms to ensure asylum obligations are more evenly spread.
The spokesperson for the Polish Border Guard said it “operates only under the auspices of Polish law.”
An August order from Poland’s Interior Ministry made it easier to transport migrants without the appropriate papers to remain in Poland back to the border.
The Polish parliament is also debating an update to rules on migration that critics say could enshrine pushbacks on the border into law.
Poland’s Interior Ministry and the government’s official spokesman did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on accusations of illegal pushbacks.
Mohammed, his hands trembling as he described his ordeal, said he witnessed Belarus guards beating a companion so hard his leg was broken.
After the group of migrants crossed the border into Poland, carrying Mohammed’s companion, Polish guards refused to take him to a hospital, patching up the wound themselves.
The Polish guards broke the group’s SIM cards and dropped them back at the Belarus border, Mohammed said.
The group then lost contact with their wounded companion after Belarus authorities forced them back into Poland.
The Polish authorities say more than 15,000 attempts to cross the border have been made since early August, mostly by Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian citizens. The attempts are becoming more frequent, rising above 500 a day in recent weeks.
“The idea is that if you make it difficult to enter EU territory where they can ask for protection and you throw them out repeatedly, now with the frequent risk of death, that eventually they’ll give up and go back to their country,” said Piotr Bystrianin, a senior official with the Polish charity Ocalenie Foundation.
The charity has a small wooden house in the forest near to the border where Bystrianin and his colleagues prepare humanitarian aid for migrants.
They pile bags of protein bars, bottles of water, thermoses of soup and hot, sweet tea, and bags of warm clothes into a car.
The migrants send them a mobile phone ping on a special number so they can drive to that location.
The charity uses special red headlights on its cars to avoid detection by border patrols, which drive around at night looking for smugglers’ cars or migrants.
Zainab Ahmad, 25, a Syrian migrant, who was living in Beirut before coming to Poland through Belarus, said she asked for asylum as soon as she came into contact with a border guard in Poland.
“They say OK, we will take you to a village. You will get [asylum] there. But they took us to the Belarussian border,” Ahmad told Reuters at an open migrant center in Bialystok in eastern Poland.
“And when I said, ‘Sir, did you lie to me? Did you trick me to take us here?’, they said ‘no, it’s 22 km. You walk.’ They did that several times.”
Poland’s Border Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Zainab’s testimony.
Over several days she said she was pushed back and forth across the Polish or Belarus border by guards four times. She had spent almost a week with no food or water, running away from wild boars in the forest in the cold when she had her period.
The next time she approached the border, she had a plan.
She told the guards she was bleeding because she was having a miscarriage and needed immediate medical help. Only then did she manage to get into a Polish hospital and then eventually to an open migrant centre, she said.
“All I wanted to do was get in a car and sit somewhere, not in the mud or woods, just to get some warmth and a roof above my head,” she said.