A Green Light at the Window for Migrants

NAREWKA, Poland — The green light in the window was easy to spot from the main road in Michalowo, a Polish town some 15 miles from the Belarusian border, where thousands of asylum seekers on their way to the European Union have been trapped in recent months.

“It means that my house is a safe place for migrants to ask for help,” said Maria Ancipuk, a resident of Michalowo and the head of the local council.

Ms. Ancipuk said she decided to act after seeing a news report about a group of children from the Yazidi minority in Iraq who had been taken from Michalowo and pushed back by border guards into the freezing forests of Belarus, across the frontier.

“You just don’t forget such things,” she said, her voice trembling and her eyes tearing up. “I told myself: I will do everything so it would not happen here again.”

The European Union has accused the leader of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, of funneling asylum seekers from the Middle East through his country into Poland in retaliation for the E.U. sanctions imposed on his government after a disputed election last year and his subsequent crackdown on the opposition.

As the crisis has escalated in recent days, with clashes between the Polish authorities and migrants trying to breach the heavily guarded frontier, an unofficial network of local residents, activists and volunteer medics, spread across the border area, has been working to support asylum seekers as best it can.

The challenges for the few who manage to get across the border — some of whom try to apply for asylum in Poland, and others who hope to continue on to Germany and file their papers there — are immense. Many have been summarily pushed back into Belarus by Polish guards. The remainder are freezing, hungry, and often sick, and find that getting help is made almost impossible by a two-mile-wide exclusion zone from which the Polish authorities have barred all nonresidents, including journalists, doctors and charity workers.

Volunteers patrol the forests near the exclusion zone looking for stranded migrants, and leave rescue packages containing food, water and warm clothes in trees. Some people who live in the exclusion zone have also been able to aid migrants within areas barred to outsiders. Medics take care of those in need of treatment, while others help migrants prepare the paperwork for asylum requests, or distribute supplies sent from across the country like food — sometimes homemade soup — and warm clothes, activists say.

Tamara, a 4-year-old from Torun, a town around 300 miles from the border, made a drawing wishing asylum seekers good luck that her parents put in a care package. A local police officer has been bringing food, hiding it from her colleagues.

Roman, a local resident who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of repercussions from the authorities and local far-right groups, said he was moved to act after hearing that migrants had been dying in the freezing conditions in the forest. Eleven people have died so far trying to cross the border, according to the Polish authorities, but the real death toll might be much higher.

“I told myself: I cannot solve the bigger problem,” he said. “I leave it to the United Nations, NATO and the government. But no one will die in my forest.”

Although providing help is legal, activists describe playing “a game of cat and mouse” to get to stranded asylum seekers before border guards. The Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party, has been accused by human rights organizations of illegally pushing asylum seekers back into Belarus. And some activists report being attacked or intimidated by right-wing groups.

“There are only a few of us that are actively helping,” said Roman. “The majority remains silent.”

Activists said that fear of retaliation had deterred many Poles opposed to the government’s tough stance on migrants from actions like putting on green lights, as Ms. Ancipuk has done in Michalowo, and that just a few homes had done so.

On the roads surrounding the restricted zone, scores of police and special military units have been stopping cars and pedestrians, questioning their whereabouts. The Polish authorities justify the checks with the need to protect the border, and to keep residents safe during a state of emergency.

Those efforts have also been supported by the far-right groups that support the governing Law and Justice party. During a march on Nov. 11 to commemorate Poland’s Independence Day, some right-wing participants chanted “Hail, Great Poland,” and “Border guards, open fire.” On the same day, activists reported that a group of three asylum seekers from Iraq and Syria had been beaten up and robbed on the road to Hajnowka, a town next to the border.

In a sign of rising tensions, five cars belonging to Medics at the Border, a group of volunteer doctors helping migrants, were vandalized Saturday night, with windows smashed and tires punctured. The local police said they were investigating.

The impromptu medical team, which was supposed to hand over its activities to an established nonprofit group, the Polish Center for International Aid, on Tuesday, decided to cease operations a day early.

“To some degree I was expecting something like this to happen,” Jakub Sieczko, an anesthesiologist from Warsaw who started the initiative, said in an interview. “I am not naïve, I know the country that we live in.”

Asylum seekers do not want to go to the hospital as they fear the Polish authorities, activists say. Mr. Sieczko described the heart-wrenching dilemma of treating migrants and having to leave them in the middle of the forest.

“There is no follow-up, and you cannot survive in the Polish woods for a long time in winter,” he said. “It is sick that we have to hide people from state authorities.”

Wojtek Wilk, the head of the Polish Center for International Aid, called the situation “an unusual crisis.”

Mr. Wilk has 20 years of humanitarian experience in countries such as Nepal, Ethiopia and Lebanon, but said he had never come across such legal uncertainty around the people he was supposed to be helping as he was now seeing in Poland. The charity was currently negotiating access to the restricted zone with the authorities, he added.

As the standoff on the border has escalated, some in the area say the situation brings back bloody memories of World War II, still vivid in the border region of Podlasie, which suffered extensively under Nazi and Soviet occupation.

“During the war, I would face death by firing squad,” said Ms. Ancipuk, the Michalowo resident, referring to the penalty that Poles risked under the Nazi occupation for helping Jews. “Today, in the worst-case scenario, I will go to prison. This is nothing.”

Supporters of the government have also drawn on the imagery of war, describing the pressure being put on Poland’s border by Belarus in terms of an invasion that undermines the country’s territorial integrity.

While helpers acknowledge the need to protect Poland’s border, they also say they could not idly stand by while people were freezing to death.

Marek Brzostowicz, a paramedic from Cracow in southern Poland, arrived as a volunteer for a 24-hour shift in a town near the exclusion zone on Tuesday. “I have two children. I kept on thinking how it would be like in the forest with them in this weather,” he said. “I could not just watch — I had to do something.”

So far, putting out green lights as a sign for migrants has been largely symbolic, with very few of them aware of the effort, Ms. Ancipuk said. But it was as much a symbol for her neighbors as it was for asylum seekers, she added.

“People are scared of doing it,” she said. “As soon as I put the light in my window, I started getting hate messages. But I won’t be intimidated.”

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