Refugees and Europe's frozen forests

Refugees and Europe's frozen forests

In the vast primeval forest between Poland and Belarus, you see a European ox grazing under old trees alongside refugees showing symptoms of cold and hunger.

The newcomers - from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria and Cameroon - have different stories, but they face a common predicament. They all bought flights to Minsk, Belarus, with the promise of being taken to the European Union, but ended up in the woods.

Migrants are left to roam the forest in freezing cold at the border with Poland. But the problem goes beyond Belarus. The Polish government, which presented itself as the nation's protector against invasion, refused the migrants entry and, in some cases, pushed them back into the forest.

Far from causing indignation, Poland's approach has the EU's backing, as it is a repeat of what the union has been doing for the past five years. To avoid a repeat of the migrant crisis of 2015-2016 when more than a million people sought refuge in Europe, the EU has tried to isolate the continent from any new refugee influx.
But these often brutal and brutal efforts have failed. In the wake of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, and as unrest continues around the world, more people will head to Europe, and the new migrant crisis has occurred.
With the southern roads choked, the bloc's eastern boundary became a major entry point. Since August, there have been thousands of attempts to cross the Polish border outside official checkpoints. It's a risky job: for nearly two months, a group of 32 people from Afghanistan were trapped near the Polish border village of Osnars Gorny. These Afghans are receiving meager rations, deprived of fresh water, losing what remains of their strength and struggling to move, according to aid workers.
Poland's response was harsh, with the government ignoring a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, an entity separate from the European Union, to provide food, clothing and medical care. By declaring a state of emergency, the court prevented journalists and aid workers from approaching within three kilometers of the border area. Poland is not satisfied with the media blackout, it is also, like neighboring Lithuania, which erects a fence along the border.
By adopting this position, the Polish government is following suit. In 2015, at the height of the crisis, the leader of the far-right Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, claimed that Muslim refugees were carrying parasites. Riding the wave of popular fear for electoral success, the party implemented its anti-immigrant agenda and refused to accept refugee quotas set by the European Union. It was joined by the Czech Republic and Hungary, whose Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, began building a wall on Hungary's borders with Serbia and Croatia.

In "Fortified Europe", the fence is the new normal. Over the past five years, the bloc has pushed Turkey and Libya to turn away migrants and patrolled the Mediterranean, while member states such as Austria, Greece and Bulgaria have built new border fortifications. The European Union is currently working on a financial deal with Afghanistan's neighbors to prevent Taliban fugitives from coming to Europe. Violent border pushbacks are increasingly common, illegal actions that critics say are backed by the bloc's border agency, Frontex. The message here is clear: Newcomers must be turned away, no matter the cost.
European officials insist such policies are necessary. Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said in late September that the bloc should "stand together to protect our external borders". But what kind of policy does the EU provide?
On September 27, Poland's Interior Ministry held a press conference accusing the refugees of terrorism, zoophilia (mistreatment of animals), and pedophilia. As evidence for this, it presented pictures supposedly taken from the mobile phones of migrants, which included pictures of ISIS affiliates beheading their victims, and journalists revealed that these snapshots came from the Internet, not from the migrants' phones.

And recently, Li Franzisek Stergowski, a member of the Polish parliament from the opposition Civic Alliance party, criticized the photos of him bypassing border guards delivering a bag full of supplies to refugees in the Osnaz Grojny region that made headlines in August. His behavior sparked satirical right-wing reactions on social media, as well as supportive statements. “At the moment, the government is in control of the story,” he added. So we must have a strong response.”
No time to waste, at least five people have already died, according to Polish officials. But Piotr Bistryanen, president of the Okalini Foundation, a Polish refugee charity trying to help people stranded at the border, told me the real number was unknown and possibly higher, citing the case of a 16-year-old boy from Iraq whose family called Okalini after they were sent back to the forest. The boy was vomiting blood at the time of the call, and in the morning the association learned that he had died. As temperatures drop, Bistryanen said, many more could die.

In Strangers at Our Door, written during the 2015-2016 crisis, Zygmunt Baumann, a Polish sociologist and World War II veteran, argued that military borders are a misguided response to uninvited guests. He wrote that the only solution to fear is to replace hostility with hospitality, and to show forms of solidarity that recognize our interconnectedness as human beings. But Bowman, who died in 2017, did not live to see his hopes come true.

Instead, as more and more people displaced by armed conflict and climate change are driven away by the activities of the world's wealthiest nations, refugees are stuck in the jungles of Europe. Their fate seems like a dark premonition of a future that is already here.
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