The U.N. human rights office is calling on Belarus and Poland to end what it calls appalling treatment of refugees and migrants stranded along their common border and to live up to their obligations under international human rights and refugee laws.
A U.N. human rights team visited the region between November 29 and December 3 to get a firsthand view of the situation. While Polish officials met with the team, Belarusian authorities did not.
U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell says team members were not granted access to the restricted border area. However, she says they interviewed government officials, civil society representatives and dozens of refugees and migrants who had arrived in Poland through Belarus.
Those interviewed, she says, described the dire conditions on both sides of the border.
“The majority said that, while in Belarus, they had been beaten or threatened by security forces and also alleged that the Belarusian security forces forced them to cross the border…Several interviewees said Belarusian security forces had demanded extortionate sums for food and water…They spoke about their fear, their fear about being alone in the forest, even fear of dying because of the difficult conditions there. One of the migrants said it is absolute hell for everyone," Throssell said.
The International Organization for Migration says 21 migrants have died along the Belarus-EU border, many from hypothermia because of freezing temperatures.
The European Commission accuses Belarus of creating a crisis by luring migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other countries to the capital, Minsk, with the false promise of gaining easy entry to the European Union.
Throssell says neither Belarus nor Poland wants the refugees and migrants and push them across borders. She says Poland also systematically detains those whom it has not returned to Belarus.
"Many of those interviewed said they had not been given proper physical and mental health care in detention, and had limited contact with the outside world, including with independent lawyers, human rights monitors and civil society organizations," Throssell said. "We remind Poland that detention should be an exceptional measure of last resort, and only be used for a limited period of time, if at all.”
The U.N. human rights office is urging authorities of both countries to give human rights and humanitarian actors, as well as journalists, lawyers, and civil society representatives, access to the border areas. It is calling on them and on the EU to respect and protect the human rights of migrants in line with international law.