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Thousands try to claim asylum are causing a humanitarian crisis at the Polish border

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The border between Poland and Belarus has become the scene of a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of migrants are making their way to the European Union where they want to claim asylum, but they've gotten stuck in a cold, ancient forest between the two countries. And at least eight have reportedly died. Marta Gorczynska is a human rights lawyer with the Polish refugee advocacy organization Grupa Granica, and she joins us now from Warsaw. Good morning.

MARTA GORCZYNSKA: Good morning.

KHALID: So, Marta, you've just returned from a trip to the Belarus border. Tell us about your visit. What did you see when you arrived?

GORCZYNSKA: Each visit is only more dramatic for people working on the ground because the temperatures are dropping. Right now, the nights can be even below zero degrees Celsius, which means that a lot of people are freezing in this forest. We are reaching people who haven't eaten for days, who are totally exhausted, who are absolutely wet, especially after the nights when it was raining.

KHALID: So part of your work at the border does involve taking the testimonies of people that have crossed, is that correct? And if so, what are you hearing from people?

GORCZYNSKA: We hear stories of people who were looking for better and safer life for them and their families. We meet people from Syria, from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from Yemen, from the Democratic Republic of Congo - so from the countries that are not stable, where people have good reasons to flee these places. Once we meet these people in Poland, we ask them about their personal stories. And we hear stories about human rights activists who are persecuted for being politically active. We hear stories of journalists. We hear stories of members of LGBT communities in Iraq who were not safe there. But also, we hear stories of people who are just looking to join their families, for example, in Germany or in France, or of people who couldn't make a living in their own country, so they decided to sell everything they had and try their luck in Europe.

KHALID: You know, I think for those of us here in the United States, we're hearing what you're describing, and it brings back stories and images that we had heard in recent years. It feels like migration has been a long-standing sensitive issue in Europe. You know, I'm thinking of the refugees who have been coming to the shores of Greece and Italy, a number of Syrian refugees in recent years. Is the dynamic that you're seeing right now in Poland and Belarus distinctly different than what has been happening in Europe over the past few years?

GORCZYNSKA: I would say that the main difference right now that we have a very hostile regime of Lukashenko on the other side of the border who is forcing people to cross the border with Poland. So once these people reached the Belarus and Polish border, they have no way of going back. They're trapped in this death trap between Poland and Belarus because what we hear from these people is that from Minsk, where they arrive, they're being taken to the border on the Belarusian side and concentrated in temporary camps that were put by Belarusian authorities. In these camps, they're being robbed. Very often they're being beaten. Some families are being separated. And from there, they are being forced to cross the border with Poland. Once they're in the Polish territory and they ask for asylum, they want protection. And they beg us not to be sent back to Belarus, which is very violent and very brutal. Nobody hears them, and they're just being collectively sent back to this country.

KHALID: So the border between Poland and Belarus is not just a border between two countries. It's the border between Belarus and the European Union. And that is where people are trying to seek asylum. And I'm curious why we haven't necessarily heard a very vocal response from other European countries given that the situation isn't really just about Poland and Belarus; it's about the European Union.

GORCZYNSKA: Yes, exactly. The pushbacks that are happening there are illegal not only in the international, but also EU law, which means that EU should add - European Commission should condemn Poland for what it's doing at its external borders.

KHALID: That's Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer with the Polish refugee advocacy organization Grupa Granica. Thank you so much for joining us.

GORCZYNSKA: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.