Nearly four million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded. But these are hardly the only refugees fleeing war-torn countries today. Starting in 2021, the government of Belarus has cynically used thousands of refugees displaced by wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, and elsewhere as a weapon with which to exert pressure on the European Union. EU governments have responded callously, leaving these refugees trapped in limbo between two militarized borders and establishing a restricted zone to ensure that observers could not see them dying. Despite this, anarchists organized in the No Borders Team network have defied the restrictions to provide assistance to the refugees in the name of a world without borders. We spoke with anarchists mobilizing on the border between Poland and Belarus to learn more.
You can donate to support the efforts of No Borders Team here.
For background on mutual aid efforts in Poland during the COVID-19 pandemic, start with this article. To learn about how volunteers act in solidarity with migrants along the border between the United States and Mexico, read this. For perspective from migrants, read this interview with Syrian exiles.
A Tale of Two Borders
Over the past few weeks, the Polish government has commended itself for welcoming the millions of refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and countless people in Poland have extended solidarity toward the mothers, children, and elderly entering their country day after day, with ordinary citizens offering transportation to those arriving at train stations and willingly opening their homes to strangers. Yet for months now, on the northeastern border of Poland, migrants of all ages from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries have been freezing and starving, stranded in the border zone between Poland and Belarus. At a time when there are more forcibly displaced people worldwide than at any previous point in history, this catastrophe highlights the European Union’s bias against non-white migrants and portends a future in which governments will systematically weaponize displaced populations for political leverage.
At the same time, in Poland and elsewhere around Europe, anarchist collectives are demonstrating how we might confront such a future, organizing in solidarity with migrants from the Middle East and Africa despite an atmosphere of fear, prejudice, and violence.
In mid-2021, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko lured people desperately fleeing armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other parts of Asia and Africa by promising them a safe migration route through Belarus to the European Union. Upon arriving in Minsk, they were detained by Belarusian soldiers and forced to cross the borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia outside the official checkpoints.
Now, for more than six months, thousands of women, men, and children have been treated as pawns in a power struggle between Lukashenko’s government and the European Union, repeatedly forced at gunpoint to enter the EU in unauthorized places and then immediately pushed back into Belarus by the border guards of those countries. They are denied access to shelter, food, medical treatment, and legal services. As of February, at least nineteen bodies of presumed migrants have been found in the forests and marshes along the Polish-Belarusian border.
Since the early days of this crisis, a network of Polish anarchist collectives known as No Borders Team (NBT) has joined local residents of the border zone to provide these migrants with food, water, blankets, medical care, and other necessities by means of grassroots mutual aid. For No Borders Team, these efforts are part of a long-held mission to eliminate the borders between nations and counteract their pernicious effects.
“We have witnessed a huge social outburst in Poland in the last few weeks,” says J— of NBT. “Thousands of people welcomed Ukrainian families under their roof. For some time, there were even too many people who wanted to help, as if with this great movement, the Poles wanted to wipe out their passivity towards migrants on the Belarusian border. These detained families are still thrown into the forest.”
Lukashenko, who has been president of Belarus since 1994, is believed to have orchestrated the forced migration in order to exploit divisions in the EU over its migration policy and destabilize the region, as a form of retaliation for EU governments criticizing his authoritarian regime and imposing sanctions on Belarus. When he was declared to have won a sixth term as president in 2020, the EU and numerous other countries rejected the results due to the widespread belief that the election was rigged. The EU has also imposed economic sanctions in response to human rights abuses Lukashenko’s government has committed, including forcing a Ryanair passenger flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk in order to arrest an opposition activist in May 2021. The Belarusian economy is largely dependent on Russia, which is Lukashenko’s one remaining ally. When protests raged for weeks in 2020 in response to Lukashenko’s fraudulent re-election, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to send Russia’s military to crack down on the opposition. In July 2021, Lukashenko reacted to the sanctions the EU imposed after the Ryanair incident by threatening that his government would no longer stop undocumented migrants from attempting to reach Lithuania through Belarus.
A clear human trafficking operation emerged, as state-owned airlines and travel agencies promoted reduced prices for “tours” to Belarus in countries like Iraq, Turkey, and Ethiopia, advertising Belarus as a supposedly safe route to the EU; at the same time, Belarusian officials began to issue more visas, relaxing their rules. After being transported to the EU’s eastern border and placed in camps on military bases, migrants were given wire cutters and forced by Belarusian officers to cut through razor-wire fencing and cross the border outside official checkpoints. By October, Belarus had escalated to trafficking thousands of migrants to the EU border. Nonetheless, in November 2021, Lukashenko claimed that the Belarusian authorities had simply ceased preventing migrants from reaching the EU border, rather than inviting them.
While Western governments have accused Lukashenko of weaponizing these people in a “hybrid attack” against the EU, Putin has defended the Belarusian president’s actions, as he has often done in the past. Since February, Russia’s influence over Belarus has been demonstrated by the fact that Russian troops were allowed to use Belarus as a staging ground for the invasion of Ukraine.
Participants in No Borders Team suspect that Lukashenko’s strategic use of refugees to destabilize the EU has been connected with Putin’s machinations against Ukraine all along. “From the very beginning, our activity on the border with Belarus was related to the political situation in Ukraine,” says J—. “We were aware that one of the reasons for the actions taken by the Belarusian authorities could be the destabilization of the situation in the region, the purpose of which was to facilitate the Russian military operations in Ukraine. Nobody was sure that such an attack would take place, and the scale of the aggression certainly surprised most of us, but we saw the instrumental use of human tragedy on the border as part of the power game in Moscow.”
But the tragedy arising from this power play is also the result of the strategy that the Polish government has adopted in response—a strategy that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the European Court of Human Rights, and several human rights organizations have forcefully condemned. In a tactic commonly known as “pushback,” Polish border guards, soldiers, and police round up people who have managed to cross the border and immediately force them to re-enter Belarus outside of official border crossings, without giving them the opportunity to apply for refugee status. Although the Polish government amended regulations to allow this and the parliament passed a law in October supposedly legalizing these expulsions, the practice clearly violates international and European law by denying people the right to apply for asylum.
In November, the Polish Border Guard escalated its violence against the migrants by firing water cannons and teargas at people trying to cross the border. Many of the those who are caught after entering Poland are held in guarded detention centers, often for months at a time. In one center in Wędrzyn, detained migrants have staged two different hunger protests against the conditions there. NBT includes teams of people who have been able to provide essential items to people detained in these camps, and in some cases have connected people wanting to apply for asylum with legal assistance.
Polish President Andrzej Duda declared a state of emergency on September 2, 2021 in parts of the Podlaskie and Lubelskie regions bordering Belarus. The state of emergency establishes a three-kilometer zone along the border that no one is legally allowed to enter, including journalists, non-governmental organizations, and independent observers. Anyone who enters the restricted zone to provide humanitarian aid risks being arrested or fined. “Since the zone was established from the beginning of September, no medics were let in there,” says D—. “Even if someone was dying in the forest, the soldiers at the border let in no one.” While border guards have turned away medical NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, some medics have been able to enter the borderland undetected to treat migrants suffering from hypothermia and injuries resulting from the violent assaults of Polish and Belarusian officers.
F—, an organizer with NBT, says almost all of the activists participating have been trained in first aid. Typically, when they find people who have requested help in the forest, they address whatever medical needs they have first, then give them something warm to eat and drink. “Depending on the person you encounter,” she says, “sometimes you just help them change clothes and then you leave because they have some plans, but sometimes you spend a bit more time with them. You sit around, you share the blankets, you share the coldness. You drink some tea and hear their stories, and they show you the photos of their kids and their families on their phones.” F— has met many interesting people in the border zone, including some who were political activists organizing for marginalized groups in their countries of origin and now find themselves on the other side of that process in the EU.
D— says they have encountered several people who were in such bad condition they were afraid they might die. Though the NBT activists haven’t seen any deaths in their work yet, they have met people who have been severely beaten, including some children, and women who been repeatedly raped, in most cases by Belarusian soldiers, but also by Polish officers. “It’s amazing how they are able to survive there,” he says, noting that some migrants were totally unprepared for the terrain and weather in the area, being from the Middle East. Activists have provided them with tarps, maps, sleeping bags, new clothes, and sometimes showed them how to build a temporary shelter.
The people who live within the “state of emergency” zone along the border were the first to respond to the humanitarian crisis on their doorstep. “A very big part of any aid that was provided to people that got stuck in the forest after the establishment of the no-go zone, was actually based on the locals,” says F—. In spite of living under constant threat from the officers who patrol the area in helicopters, many residents have risked arrest from the beginning by venturing into the forest to bring lifesaving relief to the migrants stranded there and continually try to provide aid to those being held in the detention centers.
D— talks about the connections that anarchist organizers have formed with the local residents in the process of doing this work together. “It was really impressive for us, because Poland is a super conservative country, to see the organization of the local people, who were not activists before.” Many of them, he says, have come to share NBT’s view of the government after seeing people die in the forest.
Prohibiting the media from entering the border zone has allowed the border guards to operate “like cowboys,” according to F—. She says people providing aid there have had guns pointed in their faces, been dragged out of their cars, and had their phones taken by guards. “They can do anything,” says F—. “Nobody can see them, nobody can judge them, and nobody will ever know.”
“There are some undercover cops that are following us,” says J—. The group believes the police know the location of their base, where they meet and store the items they distribute. J— says they are taking a lot of safety measures, though. While he prefers not to go into the details of how the NBT volunteers carry out their activities, he says it helps that they are a large network and can share information easily with one another. The migrants stranded in the forest know how to contact them and share where they are located, which enables members of the network to respond to calls for aid. Those responding to these calls travel in groups and look out for each other.
Perhaps the most glaring difference between the Polish government’s responses to the two crises, F— points out, is that helping refugees from Ukraine is not criminalized. “To support people from Ukraine, you do not have to hide in the forest from Polish services. You do not have to cover the curtains at home after you sheltered a refugee, you do not have to worry that the police or territorial defense forces will throw you on the ground, that they will intimidate you because you go out to meet people on the move with soup and a warm jacket.”
“Although we are impressed by the scale of help provided by Poles, we cannot fail to notice that it is selective help,” says J—. “While Ukrainian mothers with children can count on support, men and people with different skin colors have a much harder time. Of course, this is not just a Polish problem, as many shipments from Western Europe refuse to take non-white people.”
NBT participants argue that the reason the crisis resulting from the invasion of Ukraine has eclipsed the one on the northeastern border is not only its scale, but also the psychological distance that many Poles feel from the migrants who have attempted to enter their country through Belarus—an attitude fostered by fearmongering from state and capital interests. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is for the Polish society more visible, perceptible and less complicated than the bombing raids in destabilized Syria, Iraq, or Yemen,” says F—. “It is easier for them to recognize that they are war refugees who need help. This is how the propaganda of the Polish state worked.”
While continuing their work on the Polish-Belarusian border, NBT has demonstrated the same solidarity toward people driven from their homes in Ukraine. “From the beginning of the war, people associated with the No Borders Team were present on the border with Ukraine,” says D—, “first engaging in immediate aid, such as the border cuisine, organized by Food Not Bombs collectives from all over Poland, or assistance in the transport of people. Over time, we started more coordinated activities. Together with our Ukrainian comrades, we launched aid transports from Poland to Ukraine, and the direct transport of people escaping from the war to Poland.”
“The chaos and confusion surrounding this situation are slowly stabilizing, so opportunities for organized action are emerging,” says D—. “Friends from different sections travel to the border and help with splitting and sorting packages, cooking, transporting; we organize drops of things and money. We work with an anarchist group fighting in the vicinity of Kyiv; we support them with supplies. A base was also created where people from our environment can come. We are currently running a fundraiser for a delivery truck that will be able to operate in Ukraine.”
Regarding how the Polish state has functioned in response to the influx of Ukrainian refugees, J— says, “It would suffice to say that it does not function at all. However, it is not a particularly revealing sentence for us as anarchists. Practically all help given to victims of this war is organized from below. Millions of people devote their time, work and money to it. On the other hand, the government confines itself to press conferences at which these achievements are remembered. Since the beginning of the war, no coherent policy was created to help refugees.” While the Polish government constructs a 353-million-euro wall along its border with Belarus, despite fierce opposition from both human rights and environmental advocates, participants in NBT view this reactive approach as a symbol of the country’s complete lack of viable policy on migration.
As F— explains, “The activists and residents of the borderland, who have been operating on the Polish-Belarusian border for over half a year, also use this time of social insurgency for Ukraine to emphasize that all refugees can come to Poland and should find their place to live here or a safe way in their future travels. Regardless of papers or nationality.”
While the Belarusian government has begun to transport detained migrants back to Minsk to be repatriated to the countries they fled, hundreds still remain in the border zone. NBT’s continuing work to aid the migrants still trapped there is only one part of their mission to change migration policy in the European Union and beyond. They argue that opening borders and working together is the only way we can prepare for what lies ahead, as more and more people are displaced from their homes by war, political upheaval, economic crises, and ecological disasters. The collective in Poland is part of a wider network; they work together with No Borders groups from Germany, France, Italy, Czech Republic, and the UK.
“We have a different situation than groups outside Poland,” says D—. “This is due to the fact that none of these groups enter the restricted zone and work in such difficult conditions: long trips to the forest and swamps, extremely low temperatures. Poles and Lithuanians are forced to engage in saving lives in the summer in a restricted zone, which is criminalized in these countries.” On March 23, four activists in Poland who were providing humanitarian aid to a family on the border of Belarus were arrested on suspicion of smuggling people over the border.
In the face of this adversity, No Borders movement continues to promote the idea that border crises are not caused by migrants, but by the system of geopolitical division into nation-states. “First of all,” says J—, “we just need to do what the No Borders movement has been doing for years—support people on the move in every way. We need to create support networks, open safe houses, show the way, put up that daily real resistance to borders.”
“Paradoxically, the situation in Ukraine has revealed to us the natural closeness and ease with which mutual assistance is provided in the face of threats across state borders,” says D—. “The elimination of the mechanisms of the development of authoritarian structures is only one of the factors favoring the opening of borders.” Participants in NBT believe that some of the other important steps towards a borderless world include developing a plan for slow demilitarization, strengthening pro-ecological programs, the fair distribution and redistribution of resources, working to eradicate poverty and hunger, education in ethical attitudes, and building a network of self-organizing and self-managing local structures.
“There is a lot to do, but we only have our own borders to lose,” says D—.
Appendix: A Refugee’s Story
The following account appeared on the Facebook page of the No Borders Team on February 23, 2022.
In order to give a voice to those the world does not want to hear, we publish the story of a person who decided to take a huge risk and set off on his way to Europe:
“I’m from Syria, I’m 33 years old and I’m an engineer. I left Syria about nine years ago and traveled to Lebanon—among other reasons, for stomach problems that I had to treat. One day someone told me:
“If you want to go to Europe, there’s an easy way. Just give me the money and I’ll give you a ticket and visa to Belarus, then you can go anywhere. It’s a really simple way…”
I don’t want to go back to Syria because of the war and my religion. If I say what my faith is, they can kill me. There is a branch of Christianity in Syria that few people profess. In 2018, ISIS attacked my village and killed around 300 people: children, women, and men.
…And that’s how it happened that I gave this man $ 4000 to arrange a visa for me and a hotel reservation. We had a direct flight from Lebanon to Minsk. When our group of eight arrived, some man picked us up, put us in a hotel, and said that we needed to get a really good rest for two days. He also told us:
“If you want to go to Europe, you have to pay 3000 Euro in cash. A car will take you to the border, you will walk a kilometer or two, and on the other side (of the border), there will be a car waiting to take you wherever you want. Germany, Belgium… ”
Perhaps we are all stupid, because we believed him.
After two days, the car actually came and took us to the border. But it was not two kilometers to go, it was about 30. As we couldn’t go back, we decided to embark on this terrible journey. We walked for about three days. One person in the group had a phone with internet. One man, I don’t remember his name, gave us directions: “go here… go there …” When we got to the fence in Belarus, there was no way to go through. The man said we had to find a hole in it, but we couldn’t, so we walked under the fence. Then we walked for about 20 hours in the forest and came to a town. The man who was navigating kept saying: “You have to walk 5 kilometers here, 6 kilometers there, 5 kilometers again, 12 kilometers…” and so on and on.
When we got to the last point, it was another day. There, the Polish police caught us. They gave us water and said nothing except that we had to go back to Belarus. The guard took us to the border. Later, on the other side, we were caught by a Belarusian soldier. We said we want to go back to Minsk, Iraq, Syria, anywhere. The soldier laughed and said:
“You are not going back to Minsk. You’ll die sooner. You have two options: you can die here or try to go to Poland. “
And they took us, eight people, to another group of people, a group of about 200 people, in a camp, but with nothing to live on. They didn’t give us water or food. They said:
“You are not human. You are animals. “
We stayed there for five days. We asked for water every day. We didn’t get it. A soldier would come and say if we wanted water, he could give it to us for $100 a bottle [sic]. This water was not fit for a person to drink; it was green, from a puddle. But you can’t live without water… so I paid him every day. One day, the soldiers stole my friend’s powerbank and a pack of cigarettes, and the other person’s phone. They acted like the mafia.
I don’t know why they use us as propaganda. They collected us every night and went to the border with Poland. They (Belarusian “security”) hid among people, wearing normal civilian clothes. They took stones and threw them towards the Polish side, shouting “Yalla” at the same time to make others believe that the Arabs were throwing stones. These were provocations. When we couldn’t get over the Polish fence, they beat us and said:
“You have to go!”
After five days, we were picked up and taken to another place. A Belarusian soldier cut the fence so that we could go to Poland. We walked about five days without water or food. We slept in the snow, we were very tired. In the end, my colleagues and I decided to go out on the main road because we didn’t care what happened anymore, we were so exhausted…
After a while the woman in the car stopped. We just said to her:
“Please help us.”
She took us, but after fifteen minutes, the police stopped the car at the checkpoint.
I fell to the ground and said:
“Please take me to the hospital.”
They took me to a place where a Kurdish doctor worked, a very good man. He told us about the organizations that help, he gave us the papers to be signed.
We cannot go back to Belarus. If they want to kill us in Poland, go ahead, we don’t care. But we don’t want to go back to Belarus.
Finally, people from your group came to the hospital and protected us. And thank God for that help. After two days in the hospital, the guards took us to the police station to submit documents and took me to an open place.
This is my story. I’ve seen very, very bad things.
I saw a man dying next to me in the woods and there was nothing I could do…
If I had to choose between life and Europe, I would choose life.
I’m lucky to have met people like you who know what humanity is.