What is solidarity when it comes to flight and migration to Europe?
Spokesperson, Foundation Medico International
In the middle of the forest, but outside the exclusion zone – the area along the border with Belarus where Poland declared a state of emergency in autumn 2021 – we visited a base camp set up by young people from Warsaw in November. From here they organised support for people in need after illegalised border crossings from Belarus to Poland. The cupboards and shelves were well stocked with jackets, shoes, hats, socks, sleeping bags, hygiene items, toys and food. Dozens of thermos flasks of tea were ready in the kitchen. There was a concentrated atmosphere accompanied by lively activity. In one corner, a group was consulting, another was preparing for an operation. During our stay, several emergency calls came in. Three young men had just returned from a mission and told us about it. A group of eight people from Syria had called in the afternoon via the emergency number that is circulated among refugees. The three activists had then set off with tea and soup to warm them up, as well as other things they needed.
In November 2021, there were hundreds of people a day trying to reach Poland from Belarus. Now, in early 2022, there are said to be 20 to 40 a day. In wintry temperatures and early darkness, they sometimes walk for weeks through the dense forest area without food or warm clothing, always in fear of being discovered and sent back. Many have experienced numerous pushbacks between Poland and Belarus. “They are hunted like animals,” said one of the Polish activists. Most people are in a very bad condition when they call them, he added. The most common health complaints are blisters on the feet, stomach problems because of polluted water and inedible forest fruits, diarrhoea, muscle cramps and headaches. As far as mental injuries are concerned, the activists know that there is little they can do during their short encounters in the forest, and yet they take the opportunity to cheer people up a little – even if it is only a kind word or a careful touch.
The activists usually only come to the border area for a few days. Then they are replaced by others so that they can return to their paid work or their studies in Warsaw. They are just as much a part of Grupa Granica as others who try to legally pursue the injustice that happens to people at the border. The group, for example, prevented the burial of a young man from Syria whose body had been found in the border area so that an independent autopsy could be carried out beforehand. In another case, they are trying to challenge the death of a young, chronically ill Iraqi who, despite his precarious health condition, was dragged back from Poland to the Belarusian side of the border and died there. They also provide psychological and legal assistance to people in detention centres. Those who ask for asylum in Poland are often interned for months or even years, including children.
Supporting people in the forests as well as in Poland’s closed camps happens in an increasingly repressive environment. Since taking office in 2015, the PiS-led Polish government has undermined the rule of law and the separation of powers and abused its position to eliminate critics. It has adopted a hard line towards refugees, which culminated in the erection of a steel fence on Poland’s border with Belarus at the end of 2021. Those who support refugees risk criminal liability. However, there is hardly any criticism of Poland’s repressive policy from the EU and other European governments. On the contrary, despite the repression of critical civil society in the country and despite illegal pushbacks, as well as inadequate care and accommodation for refugees, EU governments never tire of emphasising their full solidarity with the Polish government in protecting the EU’s external border.
In view of the dramatic situation of people abandoned in the freezing cold on the Polish-Belarusian border area, the attitude of European decision-makers was particularly shocking. But in the end, the explicit lack of solidarity with refugees has long been apparent, for example when Turkish President Erdoğan unilaterally opened the borders to Greece for refugees at the beginning of 2020. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen then quickly and concretely offered her ‘full support’ to the Greek government – not in terms of refugee protection, however, but in terms of border protection, which in Greece, as elsewhere, is known to involve the use of tear gas and life-threatening pushbacks. Along with Greece, the border states of Italy, Spain, Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus and Malta also receive extensive financial and operational support in border management from EU agencies – a list that now has to be extended to the states at the Belarussian border. Since 2021, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia can also count on full support in their violent policy against those seeking protection.
The EU has abandoned the idea of taking in refugees in a spirit of solidarity, in which all EU countries are obliged to make an appropriate contribution. For European governments, solidarity is not conceivable with, but only at the expense of the weakest. In the European Asylum and Migration Pact draft introduced in September 2020, EU states would be given the opportunity to show solidarity with other EU states by supporting their deportations. Despite the Pact not being in effect, we can already see it’s measure being applied at times. Within the framework of ‘return sponsorships’, states that do not want to take in refugees would assume the costs for deportations in other states and thus buy themselves free from having to accommodate refugees and carry out asylum procedures in accordance with the rule of law.
In contrast to the EU’s so-called ‘solidarity measures’ in combating refugees, individuals, initiatives and organisations, such as the aforementioned Grupa Granica, have for many years been acting in solidarity with people on the move, demonstrating a commitment to the responsibility people have for each other – no matter where they come from and where they want to go. This is not only true for activist structures and networks but also for people who live in border regions and are not willing to ignore the fact that people are starving or freezing in their immediate vicinity, like the residents of Michalowo, a small Polish town on the border with Belarus, who put green lights in their windows to signal their willingness to help. First and foremost, however, it is always the refugees themselves who risk their lives and at the same time assist others. In doing so, they not only run the risk of being despised and criminalised by those who have made themselves comfortable in their defensive attitude – ‘we can’t take them all in’ – they also risk putting themselves in situations where they cannot rescue or help and are themselves dependent on solidarity.
In an article in the Guardian, an activist from Poland sums up the madness and brutalisation that the border regime produces and that activists alongside refugees everywhere have to contend with: “We cannot take people with us or drive them to a safe place. That would be a criminal act. But it is not a crime to leave these people to their slow death.” The pressure on people who stand by refugees is growing, especially in Poland. The base camp of the activists from Warsaw was raided a few weeks ago and some people in Michalowo now prefer to put green light in windows that do not face the street.
However, every attempt to intimidate or criminalise people who refuse to let others suffer and die leads to new strategies of solidarity. This is true for the borders in the Polish forest as well as for the borders in the Mediterranean, where the El Hiblu 3 prevented over a hundred people from being returned to Libya’s torture camps. The fact that they now face prosecution shows once again the ‘shipwreck of civilisation’ (Pope Francis) that the EU is responsible for when it comes to refugees. The #ElHiblu3 campaign is therefore not only a campaign fighting for the release of three young men who did the only right thing in a desperate situation, it is also a campaign against the EU’s lack of solidarity with people halted at its borders, against their criminalisation and against the criminalisation of those who stand by them.