Three months after sending an emergency response team to assist migrants and refugees crossing from Belarus to Poland, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has withdrawn teams after being repeatedly blocked by Polish authorities from accessing the forested border region, where groups of people are surviving in sub-zero temperatures, in desperate need of medical and humanitarian assistance.

“Since October, MSF has repeatedly requested access to the restricted area and the border guard posts in Poland, but without success,” says Frauke Ossig, MSF emergency coordinator for Poland and Lithuania.

“We know that there are still people crossing the border and hiding in the forest, in need of support, but while we are committed to assisting people on the move wherever they may be, we have not been able to reach them in Poland.”

The current situation is unacceptable and inhumane. People have the right to seek safety and asylum and should not be illegitimately pushed back to Belarus.

Since June 2021, thousands of people have attempted to reach the EU by crossing from Belarus into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In response, Poland has constructed border fences, brought in its military and declared a state of emergency along its border zone. This area has become tightly controlled with access restricted, including for aid organisations, volunteer groups and the media.

Over the past six months, there have been numerous instances of Polish border guards forcibly returning migrants and refugees to Belarus, in disregard of their intentions to request international protection and in breach of their rights.

Fear of such ‘pushbacks’ and violence at the hands of border guards has led women, men and children to try and make their way through the area without being detected, hiding in the forests in extreme winter temperatures without food, water, shelter or warm clothes. At least 21 people have lost their lives in the attempt in 2021.

Although numbers of people attempting to cross into the EU have fallen over recent months, there are still groups of migrants and refugees in the region. On 18 December, our teams joined a Polish civil society organisation Salam Lab in providing assistance to five Syrians and one Palestinian who managed to navigate their way outside of the restricted zone. They reported having been forcibly returned to Belarus several times and having experienced violence by the border guards.