NARIUKA, Poland – It was easy to spot the green light in the window from the main road in Michalów, a Polish town about 15 miles from the Belarusian border where thousands of asylum seekers have been stranded on their way to the European Union in recent months. .
“This means that my home is a safe place for migrants to seek help,” said Maria Ansipuk, a Michalowe resident and head of the local council.
Ms. Ansibok said she decided to act after seeing a news report about a group of children from Iraq’s Yazidi minority who were taken from Michalow and pushed into the frozen forests of Belarus across the border by border guards.
“You just don’t forget such things,” she said in a trembling voice, her eyes tearing up. “I said to myself: I will do everything so that it does not happen here again.”
The European Union has accused Belarus’ leader, Alexander J. Lukashenko, of moving asylum seekers from the Middle East through his country to Poland in retaliation for EU sanctions imposed on his government after disputed elections last year and his subsequent crackdown on opposition.
As the crisis escalates in recent days, with clashes between Polish authorities and migrants trying to break through the heavily guarded border, an informal network of locals, activists and volunteer first responders spread across the border region is working to support asylum seekers. To the best of her ability.
The challenges faced by the few who manage to cross the border – some trying to apply for asylum in Poland, others hoping to continue to Germany and submit their papers there – are enormous. The Polish guards summarily pushed many into Belarus. The rest are cold, hungry and often sick, finding help made nearly impossible by the two-mile exclusion zone that Polish authorities have banned all non-residents from, including journalists, doctors and philanthropists.
Volunteers patrol the woods near the exclusion zone in search of stranded migrants, leaving rescue packages containing food, water and warm clothes on the trees. Some people who live in the exclusion zone have also been able to help immigrants within the exclusion zones to outsiders. Activists say paramedics take care of those in need of treatment, while others help migrants prepare paperwork for asylum claims, or distribute supplies sent from across the country such as food – and sometimes homemade soup – and warm clothes.
Tamara, a 4-year-old from Torun, a town 300 miles from the border, drew a sketch wishing asylum seekers good luck that her parents put into a care package. A local police officer was bringing food and hiding it from her colleagues.
Roman, a local who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of repercussions from the authorities and local far-right groups, said he moved to work after hearing migrants were dying in freezing conditions in the woods. Eleven people have died so far while trying to cross the border, according to Polish authorities, but the true death toll could be much higher.
“I told myself, ‘I can’t 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 assistance is legal, activists describe a “cat-and-mouse game” of getting stranded asylum seekers before border guards. Human rights organizations have accused the Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party, of illegally pushing asylum seekers into Belarus. Some activists reported being attacked or intimidated by right-wing groups.
“There are only a few of us actively helping,” Roman said. The majority remain silent.
Activists said fear of reprisals has deterred many Poles opposed to the government’s tough stance on immigrants from actions such as putting green lights, as Ms. Ansibuek did in Michalow, and that a few homes did.
On the roads around the restricted area, dozens of police and special military units stopped cars and pedestrians to inquire about their whereabouts. The Polish authorities justify the inspections with the need to protect the borders, maintaining the safety of the population during a state of emergency.
These efforts have also been backed by far-right groups that support the ruling Law and Justice party. During a rally on November 11 to celebrate Poland’s independence day, some right-wing participants chanted “Hail, Greater Poland” and “Border guards, shoot.” On the same day, activists reported that a group of three asylum seekers from Iraq and Syria were beaten and robbed on the road to the border town of Hagnooka.
In a sign of rising tensions, five cars of Border Paramedics, a group of volunteer medics helping migrants, were vandalized Saturday night, with windows smashed and tires punctured. Local police said they are investigating.
The improvised medical team, which was supposed to hand over its activities to an existing non-profit group, the Polish Center for International Aid, decided on Tuesday to stop operations a day earlier.
“To some extent I would have expected something like this to happen,” Jacob Szczko, the Warsaw anesthesiologist who started the initiative, said in an interview. “I’m not naive, I know the country we live in.”
Activists say asylum seekers do not want to go to hospital because they fear the Polish authorities. Mr. Szczko described the painful dilemma of treating migrants and having to leave them in the middle of the woods.
“There is no follow up, and you cannot survive in the Polish forests for long in the winter,” he said. “It’s sick of having to hide people from state authorities.”
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Wojciech Wilk, head of the Polish Center for International Assistance, described the situation as an “extraordinary crisis”.
Mr Welk has 20 years of humanitarian experience in countries such as Nepal, Ethiopia and Lebanon, but said he had never encountered such legal ambiguity about the people he was supposed to help as he now sees him in Poland. He added that the charity is currently negotiating access to the restricted area with the authorities.
As the border standoff escalates, some in the region say the situation brings back bloody memories of World War II, which are still fresh in the border region of Podlasie, which suffered badly under Nazi and Soviet occupation.
“During the war, I would have faced execution by firing squad,” said Ms. Ansibek, who lives in Michallow, referring to the punishment that Poles under Nazi occupation risked to help the Jews. “Today, in the worst case scenario, I’m going to jail. That’s nothing.”
Government supporters also drew on images of the war, describing the pressure exerted by Belarus on Poland’s borders in connection with an invasion that undermines the country’s territorial integrity.
While aides acknowledge the need to protect Poland’s borders, they also say they could not stand idly by while people were freezing to death.
Marek Przotovic, a paramedic from Krakow, southern Poland, arrived as a volunteer on a 24-hour work shift in a town near the exclusion zone on Tuesday. “I have two children. I kept thinking what it would be like with them in the woods in this weather.” “I just couldn’t watch – I had to do something.”
So far, Ms Ansibook said, putting green lights as a signal to migrants has been largely symbolic, and few are aware of the effort. She added that she was as much a symbol for her neighbors as it was for asylum seekers.
“People are afraid to do that,” she said. “As soon as I put the light in my window, I started getting hate messages. But I wouldn’t be afraid.