A five-meter-high wall of steel spans topped with razor wire constructed by the Polish authorities in the summer of 2022 along a 186-kilometer section of the border with Belarus. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC

Poland: Urgent action needed for refugees trapped in Europe’s ‘death zone’

Published 10. Jul 2024
Access to the Polish-Belarusian border has been restricted, preventing the provision of humanitarian assistance to refugees seeking international protection. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) urgently calls on the Polish government, the European Union, and the international community to address the escalating humanitarian crisis.

“The exclusion zone with no access for humanitarian workers is a recipe for disaster. It affects the weakest and the most vulnerable refugees seeking international protection. Data shows that building fences and pushing back people won’t stop them from seeking safety and protection,” said Neil Brighton, NRC’s country director in Poland. “The European Union and the international community must support the Government of Poland by increasing reception capacity at the border and addressing the root causes of displacement through humanitarian and development assistance.”

Since the crisis began in 2021, NRC and local partners have recorded nearly 20,000 requests for assistance and nearly 9,000 violent pushbacks, including incidents involving pregnant women and minors. 82 deaths related to the conditions at the border have been documented in the ‘death zone’ between the Polish and Belarusian border fences and along the border. This area is characterised by extreme temperatures and dense forests and swamps, making it a dangerous crossing for refugees seeking protection. Those crossing the border irregularly, have endured hardships and long journeys from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries as far as Eritrea.

“They hit you with sticks to make your body grow bigger and swell up so that no one will manage to pass through,” said Amina from Syria, a refugee who experienced nine pushbacks. On the final time, she managed to reach Polish territory, where she sought help from one of the humanitarian organisations operating in the area.

Farid, a refugee from Afghanistan, recalled: “They asked me ‘Where are you from?’ I said I was from Afghanistan. They hit me on my broken leg, and I shouted terribly, which made them very angry - they beat me.”

NRC has been supporting and working closely with local organisations, on the Polish territory, to provide thousands of refugees with life-saving assistance and legal aid. Despite these efforts, the recent reintroduction of the exclusion zone, a legally defined area restricting access for unauthorised individuals along parts of the Polish-Belarusian border, has severely restricted access for humanitarian workers to support those trapped at the border.

“We believe that nobody should be left in life-threatening conditions regardless of their origin, nationality or religion. We strongly believe that a safe border means a border that is safe for all people, where the rights of those seeking international protection are respected,” said Katarzyna Potoniec from Egala Association, one of NRC’s local partner organisations in Poland.

NRC calls on the Polish government to ensure humanitarian access to those in need, and to adhere to the Geneva Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights and ensure all claims for the international protection are properly processed. The European Union and international donors must provide sustained funding and support to address the urgent needs at the border and establish safe, legal pathways for refugees.

Notes to editors: 

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact: