Refugees from belarus : “suddenly they disappeared”

How can organizations banned in Belarus still help refugees? Alena Chekhovich and Vadim Mojeiko report on the situation.

Outside Poland's emergency area on the border with Belarus, doctors discovered five refugees. They are wrapped in Red Cross blankets and are being led through a forestd help them

Doctors from a Polish organization help refugees on the border with Belarus Photo: Jakub Kaminski/imago

taz am wochenende: Ms. Chekhovich, your organization Human Constanta was founded in 2016 to help refugees in Belarus. Now you’re in exile yourself while migrants are stuck at your country’s external borders. Can you still do something for them?

Alena Chekhovich: At the moment we are trying to get a picture of the situation. Even though our organization has been disbanded, there are still volunteers in Belarus who support us. They are trying to get information. This is very risky for them. We are in Belarus illegally. I can’t give too much away because it could be dangerous for them. Besides, we still have our website. Refugees try to contact us. Or their families back home come forward asking us for help.

The crisis at the border

Since August 2021, thousands of migrants have tried to cross the Belarusian-Polish border. Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko, observers believe, flies people in and transports them to the border.

Poland’s border police bring apprehended back across border, even though pushbacks are illegal under EU law. Although the right-wing nationalist PiS was elected by a majority in the region, many offer help to refugees.

The police attacked in the German-Polish border region on 24. October, around 50 people from the extreme right-wing party "Der dritte Weg" (The Third Way). Pepper sprays, a bayonet, a machete and batons were seized.

Polish government plans fortified border fortifications. She is supported by EPP group leader Manfred Weber, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) and Saxony’s Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer (CDU). The Union of Victims’ Associations of Communist Tyranny (UOKG) criticizes that. "Walls and barbed wire have never stopped anyone from seeking their way to freedom," said UOKG Chairman Dieter Dombrowski.

How can you help migrants or their relatives?

Chekhovich: We offer online consultations. We are preparing a guide to inform refugees about the asylum procedure in the EU. It says, for example, that they should ask for asylum in Poland or Lithuania instead of trying to make their way to Germany. We can also establish contacts with the UN Refugee Agency or the Belarusian Red Cross. However, the latter is difficult for us because it is a pro-government organization. Relatives often tell us that their relatives last reported from Minsk or Grodno. And suddenly they are gone.

Mr. Mojeiko, Belarusian civil society has been at odds with ruler Alexander Lukashenko since the 2020 presidential elections. What are the reactions to the "migrant crisis"??

Vadim Mojeiko: Lukashenko has declared war on civil society and crushed most independent organizations. NGOs therefore drop out as helpers in the crisis. If you stand up for human rights in a country like Belarus, you do it from the heart and knowing the dangers. That is why even now there are individuals who stand up for refugees.

What information do you have about the situation of migrants in Belarus?

Chekhovich: At present we know little. Some volunteers and journalists tell us about homeless migrants on the streets of Grodno and Minsk. We trust these sources, but we cannot confirm it. According to our observers, others rent rooms in hostels or hostels from their own money. We assume that they will provide themselves with everything they need until they are taken to the border.

in the interview:

Alena Chekhovich

Alena Chekhovich

The thirty-year-old lawyer graduated from the European Humanities University in Vilnius. She worked for Humana Constanta. The organization was founded in 2016 because refugees from Chechnya were stranded on the border with Poland.

That makes her afraid

That due to the suppression of NGOs in Belarus, there is no one left to provide organized assistance to refugees.

It gives her hope

That the EU behaves humanely towards migrants and puts pressure on Belarus to respect migrants’ rights.

Mojeiko: The government does not disclose official figures. There are only estimates, of thousands, who are either wandering in the woods or, if their budget allows, renting accommodation.

Poland and the Baltic states erect barriers on their borders to make them impenetrable. What would it mean for migrants in Belarus if the way to the West is blocked?

Chekhovich: That would be the end of her escape. Belarusian authorities would track them down and lock them up until they can be deported.

in the interview:

Vadim Mojeiko

Vadim Mojeiko

Photo: Violetta Savchits

Vadim Mojeiko studied cultural studies. The 32-year-old resigned as an associate professor at Belarusian State University in 2020 in protest against the repressive actions of the authorities. He is part of the Biss think tank, founded in Lithuania in 2006.

That scares him

That migrants are becoming hostages of dictator Lukashenko and are now forced to endure the cold somewhere in the forests on the border with Poland.

This gives him hope

The heroic efforts of Belarusian human rights activists trying to help the refugees despite their own difficult situation.

Some observers say Lukashenko’s attempt to pressure the EU with migrants could become dangerous for himself as the population grows restless. Do they see signs of voltage?

Chekhovich: We formed in 2016 when a group of Chechens were turned back at the Polish border. The dimensions are much bigger today. But on the other hand, the number of migrants is not so huge that the refugees would be noticeable to most Belarusians. I think that Lukashenko will quickly resolve the situation to his liking and methods, if the burden on his regime gets out of hand.

Mojeiko: For sure the regime will crack down. It plays a political game with the EU over the heads of Belarusians and refugees. The exciting question is what happens when the migrants have used up their last resources, the borders are closed and they wander aimlessly and desperately through the country. Then there may be problems with the local population. Belarusians are reminded once again by the refugee crisis that this government is only causing them trouble.

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