Thousands of people, from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, are trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland where political tensions and humanitarian needs are rapidly increasing. As temperatures drop to below freezing at least 11 people, including a number of children, have died. Alarming images show women, men and children in makeshift shelters trying to keep warm, unable to seek safety or asylum in neighbouring countries and unable to return. Find out more about the deteriorating situation and what needs to happen.

Crisis at the border - a woman sits in a blanket
Thousands of people have been trapped in freezing conditions for weeks after attempting to cross the Belarus-Poland border
Photo: Maciej Luczniewski/Getty Images

What is the situation? 

At least 11 people have lost their lives at the Belarus-Poland border, where reportedly between 2,000 - 4,000 refugees and other migrants remain stranded as governments on both sides refuse responsibility to provide protection.

People have been left for weeks after being pushed back from attempting to cross the border from Belarus to Poland. In Belarus, refugees and migrants, including women and young children, are trapped in freezing conditions and are struggling with hypothermia, hunger and exhaustion. 

Meanwhile, on the Polish side of the border, humanitarian agencies are being prevented from accessing the area where people are trapped. As the area remains off-limits it is impossible to know what support is being provided, which could prove deadly to those who are stranded. With the rapid approach of winter and temperatures dropping, conditions are likely to deteriorate further, with further fatalities becoming extremely likely.

What caused the humanitarian crisis at the Belarusian border?

In the summer, Belarusian authorities began enabling asylum seekers to travel from Iraq and neighbouring countries to cross over its borders with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania following political disputes with the EU, including recent sanctions. Several thousand people have entered these three states since the summer, and more have been intercepted. The exact numbers are unclear. 

In response to the increase in people attempting to cross the Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian borders, all three countries have now established states of emergency. This authorises border guards to return migrants to Belarus who enter their territory without permission. All three countries are also now constructing fences along their borders with Belarus. 

Poland has deployed a significant number of troops to the border and, in October, the Polish parliament adopted a controversial amendment to its law which allows authorities to dismiss asylum applications. This has been criticised by the UNHCR, NGOs and MEPs for undermining the right to seek asylum. 

The refugees and migrants trapped at the border are being prevented from crossing and unable to seek asylum. Those in Belarus are receiving limited humanitarian support that barely meets their needs., while at both sides of the borders people are faced with violence or intimidation.

It’s important to remember that seeking asylum is a human right and any country that refuses this is violating human rights law. 

What needs to happen to help refugees and migrants at the Belarus-EU border?

Vulnerable people, many of whom include people in need of international protection, have been caught in a political crossfire. They must be protected first and foremost.

Provide food, water, shelter and aid

Despite people being trapped without food and shelter, and lives being lost, humanitarian aid has been cut off in Poland with only a limited number of local organisations able to help those in need. It is vital that aid workers are allowed to access the border, where their support is so desperately needed. All states need to refrain from violence, uphold rights and treat people with dignity. 

End illegal pushbacks and uphold the right to asylum

Poland, Latvia and Lithuania must immediately stop forcing people across their borders back to Belarus where they risk facing further violence and abuses by border guards. People stranded at the border seeking protection must be given the right to asylum, no matter how they got there - in line with international law.

We urge support from the European Union

The IRC is urging the European Union to enforce the rule of law and ensure the right to asylum is respected both in practice and in law: “It is clear that illegal pushbacks are happening at Europe’s borders, and any violations must be condemned. How the EU responds to these human rights violations will be a test of its commitment to the rule of law and its own fundamental values,” said Imogen Sudbery, Director of Policy & Advocacy for the IRC in Europe.

Any refugees or asylum seekers who enter Poland, Latvia or Lithuania should be greeted with a dignified, humane and truly collective political response focused on safeguarding, protecting and upholding rights. The EU and its member states can support this in a number of ways, including providing financial support for adequate reception conditions and relocating people to safety elsewhere in Europe.