Refugees on the Belarus-Poland migration route come up against a steel wall and the wilds of the Bialowieza Forest

Refugees on the Belarus-Poland migration route come up against a steel wall and the wilds of the Bialowieza Forest

A volunteer takes clothes and food to refugees hiding in the Bialowieza Forest. 1 November 2022.

(Hanna Jarzabek)
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In 2021, the hard-hitting images of refugees at the Belarus-Poland border were seen around the world. But no sooner did they appear than they disappeared from the media. This was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since 2022, Poland has been presenting itself as a land of solidarity, having taken in 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees. This solidarity stands in stark contrast with the reality faced by the darker-skinned migrants and refugees whose cultural and religious backgrounds are believed not to fit the ‘Polish way of life’ and who are trying to enter the European Union through Poland.

In 2022, Poland topped the list of countries refusing third-country nationals entry to the EU. At the Polish-Belarusian border, the most common procedure was the pushback practice of immediately returning migrants and refugees back across the border without consideration for their individual circumstances, denying them any chance of applying for asylum or appealing their expulsion.

Migrants and refugees, mainly from the Middle East and Africa, are trying to cross this border – in numbers not publicly disclosed by the authorities – through the Bialowieza Forest, the last primeval forest in Europe. Dubbed ‘The Jungle’ by some migrants, this nature reserve is very difficult to cross and, for those trapped there, to survive in, not least for those unaccustomed to the climate of north-eastern Europe. Having to hide from the border guards, many find themselves trapped in the forest for a very long time.


On the left, A. (a 32-year-old oncologist from Yemen), on the right, M. (a 50-year-old man of Syrian origin). Both had been in the forest for five months when the picture was taken. They said that, when need be, they had drunk marsh water, filtering it through a scarf. Untreated water often causes serious digestive problems and diarrhoea. 23 October 2022.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

The absence of refugee camps and humanitarian organisations on this border makes professional medical assistance difficult to access. According to the official narrative, the issue here is not the humanitarian needs arising from migration but the arrival of dangerous migrants and ‘hybrid attacks’ from Belarus – accused of using migrants to put pressure on Poland. As a result, any kind of humanitarian aid is criminalised. The only assistance available in these circumstances is that provided by a network of volunteers who have to conceal their operations. The conditions are extreme. The refugees often develop ailments related to the lack of clean drinking water, diarrhoea, fungal infections such as trench foot, and risk dehydration in summer and hypothermia in winter.


Trench foot is a common ailment among those who cross swamps and rivers without being able to wash or change their clothes and are exposed to low temperatures and high humidity for long periods of time. 23 October 2022.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

Added to these problems are the new ones created by the 5.5-metre-high wall, topped with concertina wire, built by Poland to prevent the entry of migrants. Many nonetheless continue to use this route, considered less dangerous than the Mediterranean, and it is not uncommon for people to sustain serious fractures that require complicated surgery and months of recovery time. Calling an ambulance in such cases means alerting the border guard, which leads to the arrest of those injured. And it is not unusual for a border guard vehicle to arrive instead of an ambulance, with no doctor on board and for the refugee or migrant to be taken to the border post rather than to hospital.


Y.K., a 25-year-old Syrian engineer, suffered from hypothermia after spending several days in the Bialowieza Forest, where temperatures in winter can fall to minus 15 or 20 degrees Celsius. Although the doctor who helped him in the forest recommended that he be taken to hospital, Y.K. was transferred to the border post and then to a detention centre for foreigners. 12 December 2022.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

The doctors providing assistance in the forest have to work under difficult conditions and adapt their treatments to the realities on the ground, from intravenous injections in the middle of the night to urgent medical care in cases as serious as miscarriages. Their main objective is to provide assistance and to do everything they can to avoid the arrival of the border guards.


An injection that rescue worker, Ola G., had to give a woman from Iran during an operation in the forest. 18 March 2023.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

People providing assistance in the forest have observed that the border guards mostly conduct on-the-spot returns, abandoning the refugees on the Belarusian side of the forest, often at night, without witnesses, breaking their mobile phones and exposing them to a high risk of death. Some refugees are returned several times, up to 17 times in some cases. It is not unusual for the border guards’ operations to result in families or groups being split up, according to the testimonies of refugees and volunteers.

Fatima (not her real name), a 30-year-old Iranian woman, together with her husband and a mutual friend, fled her country after being blacklisted by the authorities for taking part in protests. On their first attempt to cross the border between Belarus and Poland they were immediately pushed back, and on the second, they were beaten and pepper-sprayed by Polish border guards. Fatima lost consciousness and was taken to hospital while her husband and friend were returned to Belarus. In hospital, Fatima managed to sign a power of attorney for volunteers to represent her and apply for international protection. She is currently awaiting a decision that can take up to six months, and has no idea when or where she will be able to reunite with her husband.


G., a local volunteer with boots for one of the people who has taken the forest route. Many refugees or migrants come unprepared for crossing this nature reserve and often need dry and suitable footwear. 17 December 2022.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

The Polish government has criminalised the provision of humanitarian aid to refugees at this border, referring to volunteers as “idiots and traitors”, among other things. The Polish Border Guard is currently trying to charge two volunteers with involvement in ‘people smuggling’, an offence punishable by up to eight years in prison. According to the volunteers and their lawyer, there is no evidence to support this charge, and it could be an act of intimidation or a show trial.


What is known as the ‘anti-migration’ wall (having been erected for the sole purpose of stopping the flow of migrants) on the border between Poland and Belarus. Klakowo, 11 March 2023.

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

The government claims that the 183-kilometre-long wall has solved the problem at the border. Meanwhile, the work of the volunteers is becoming a growing nuisance to the authorities, mainly, but also to a section of the population that supports their message, which likens the work of the volunteers to that of anti-government “activists”.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin

This investigative report has been conducted with the support of a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.