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Helping refugees starving in Poland’s icy border forests is illegal – but it’s not the real crime | Anna Alboth

Voice Of EU



One thought is a constant in my head: “I have kids at home, I cannot go to jail, I cannot go to jail.” The politics are beyond my reach or that of the victims on the Poland-Belarus border. It involves outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, getting through to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus. It’s ironic that this border has more than 50 media crews gathered, yet Poland is the only place in the EU where journalists cannot freely report.

Meanwhile, the harsh north European winter is closing in and my fingers are freezing in the dark snowy nights.

The border situation shows the chasm between what is legal and what is moral. It trumps the endeavours of those acting to save lives. All that we activists in the forests on the Poland-Belarus border can do is to bring water, food and clothes to desperate people. Yet to perform this basic humanitarian act requires stealth. We have to hide and sneak through the forests. Attracting the attention of the border guards, police or army would force another pushback.

I’ve met diverse groups among the trees: families, mothers with kids, fathers with disabled kids, elderly people and people from the world’s most vulnerable groups – ethnic, religious and LGBTQ+. They sought freedom, but find themselves being pushed backed into Belarus five, 10 and even 15 times since August until now, December.

On my night walks, I’m equipped with a big backpack full of flasks of warm soup, socks, boots, jackets, gloves, scarfs, hats, plasters, medicines and powerbanks. I walk in the darkness and hide behind trees when I hear helicopters or see the bright touches of the police. I hear the splash of the soup in the containers on my back, I hear the shortness of my breath – nobody taught me to be stealthy and invisible like a professional soldier. I have worked in human rights for years, visited most of the EU’s borders and refugee camps, but I was never afraid of crackling sticks underfoot or rustling the trees above my head as I move.

From personal stories and evidence collected by Minority Rights Group International with colleagues at Grupa Granica, an alliance of 14 Polish civil society organisations responding to the crisis, we know at least 5,000 people have been in the forests and that at least 1,000 are there currently. We’ve been in touch with all: desperate victims of a disgusting power game between states.

Every time we respond to a call from someone in need, or their mother still in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a cousin in Berlin, we shoulder our backpacks and go. Day and night – long after the world has lost interest. Sometimes, we look for people for hours. Sometimes, because of security issues, they change their location many times Sometimes elderly grandmothers or the little kids with no more energy to walk are stranded in Polish swamps. Now, since snow covers the forests and people cannot call us, because their phones have been destroyed by the Polish army, we use thermal imagers.

We meet scared eyes, exhausted faces, bodies destroyed by the cold, desperately short of immunity after weeks in the icy, wet forest. Freezing, thirsty, hungry humans. I had no idea what hunger meant. I’ve given a piece of chocolate to my kids when they complain before dinner. I’ve read poverty statistics and history books. I knew nothing about hunger.

People on the Poland-Belarus border have not eaten for weeks. Every few days, after a violent pushback over the barbed wire fence, they may get an old potato from a Belarusian soldier, if they have money. They will share that with the kids. They have nothing to drink for days. Or drink swamp or rainwater, which causes stomach cramps and a deadening headache, further weakening them.

We wish them care and luck at the end of our interaction. Leaving them with enough food and water supplies for a few days is impossible: no one has the strength to carry that much. We cannot take people with us or drive them to a safe place. That would be a criminal act. But it is not a crime to leave these people to their slow death.

Where is the Red Cross, the UN’s International Organization for Migration and the UN refugee agency? Those organisations that operate even in war zones? That take food and water to the most dangerous criminals? Is Elina, 5, more dangerous or less worthy? She has epilepsy but no medicine. I met her in the forest with nine other Kurds, all without boots. They survived wars and airstrikes back home but may freeze to death in the Polish forest. During every pushback Polish and Belarusian officers take away everything: money, clothes and footwear.

There was the group of nine women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably trafficked. When I explained the situation to them, they just cried and cried . Or the Yazidi sisters, who escaped genocide in Sinjar, Iraq seven years ago, but are still trying to find a safe place. Or the boys from Yemen, speaking perfect English. Or the three gay men from Iran, desperate not to be sent back to Belarusian soldiers.

We stay in touch. If they manage to hide their phones, we can communicate after a pushback. They share pictures and videos of Belarusian dogs. Show me bite wounds if we meet on the Polish side. They cry. They ask for advice. They don’t want to tell their families about their plight, but they need somebody to talk to.

“The fifth pushback. At six, I’ll kill myself.”

“I lost my son, he has asthma. [The] last time he called [was] three days ago. Do you know where he is?”

“When do you arrive? Do you have water? Even a drop?”

Subjected to a disinformation campaign, the refugees receive conflicting reports from Belarusian services, which distribute forms about the settling in Poland or Germany. This fosters hopes for a safe journey. But the real aim is to camp them on the Polish border to put pressure on the EU. Some disturbing reports suggest migrants are being forced to participate in violence as part of Belarusian attempts to provoke Polish officials.

With the risk of an escalation of violence, we, the activists in the forests, would like to remind the world that refugees are not aggressors. They are hostages to the Lukashenko regime, which is using them for its agenda.

Poles send me messages: “Where should I send warm and dark clothes?” “How is the situation on the border? Media shows us only videos by [the] Polish ministry or Belarusian authorities.” “I cry when I put my children to sleep. Please, write something that can help.”

Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, spent four days in Poland and came to the field with us. She said: “The greatest strength of the aid movement for refugees and refugees from the Poland-Belarus border are the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns – in the zone of emergency and next to it. It is their compassion and empathy that prolongs the life of people in the forest. Their courage and selflessness. Their good saves lives.”

Of course, others see it differently: people helping on the border are “enemies of the nation”, “agents of Lukashenko”, “guilty of destroying European values”, “inviting terrorists here”.

We are guilty of leaving water packs in the woods for the thirsty. We are guilty of sharing soup. Of putting shoes on cold feet that couldn’t move any more. If helping is illegal, do we even understand what crime is?

Anna Alboth is volunteer at Minority Rights Group

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‘We just sleep and hope we don’t perish’: 2m in Tigray in urgent need of food – UN | Hunger

Voice Of EU



At least 2 million people in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray are suffering from an extreme lack of food, with the 15-month conflict between rebel and government forces pushing families to the brink, the UN’s emergency food agency has found.

In the first comprehensive assessment the World Food Programme (WFP) has carried out in Tigray since the start of the war, 37% of the population were found to be severely food insecure, meaning they had at times run out of food and gone a day or more without eating.

Families were found to be “exhausting all means to feed themselves”, with 13% of Tigrayan children under five and almost two-thirds of pregnant and breastfeeding women suffering from malnutrition.

“Before the conflict we were eating three times a day but now even once a day is difficult. I was borrowing food from my family but now they have run out. We just sleep and hope we do not perish,” Kiros, a single mother of six children living on the outskirts of the region’s capital, Mekelle, told researchers.

The assessment, which was based on face-to-face interviews with 980 households in accessible parts of Tigray, was carried out from mid-November until mid-December.

However, researchers were unable to travel to areas where fighting is impeding humanitarian access. Moreover, since the assessment was carried out, the needs of the region are thought to have become even more acute as no aid convoy has reached Tigray for about six weeks.

“This bleak assessment reconfirms that what the people of northern Ethiopia need is scaled up humanitarian assistance, and they need it now,” said Michael Dunford, WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa.

“WFP is doing all it can to ensure our convoys with food and medicines make it through the frontlines. But if hostilities persist, we need all the parties to the conflict to agree to a humanitarian pause and formally agreed transport corridors, so that supplies can reach the millions besieged by hunger.”

Across northern Ethiopia, where fighting has raged in the regions of Afar and Amhara as well as Tigray, WFP estimates that 9 million people are in need of humanitarian food assistance, the highest number yet.

In Amhara, hunger has more than doubled in five months, it says. In Afar, where fighting has intensified in recent days between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces loyal to the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, recent health screening data showed malnutrition rates for children under five were at 28%, far above the standard emergency threshold of 15%.

Since the conflict erupted in November 2020, it has been difficult for the UN and other humanitarian organisations to gauge the level of need in Tigray due to a lack of on-the-ground access and telecommunications. The UN has accused the federal government of preventing food and essential medical supplies from coming into the region in a de-facto blockade. The government denies this.

On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had made its first delivery of medical supplies to Mekelle since last September. The drugs are understood to have included enough insulin supplies to last about a month, after medics at the Ayder referral hospital raised the alarm over severe shortages.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization, recently accused Abiy’s government of imposing a “hell” on Tigray by denying entry to medical supplies.

“It is a huge relief that this first shipment is reaching hospitals,” said Apollo Barasa, health coordinator at the ICRC delegation in Ethiopia. “This assistance is a lifeline for thousands of people, and I can’t emphasise enough how crucial it is that these deliveries continue.”

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Asylum applications on rise in EU

Voice Of EU



The EU Agency for Asylum on Friday said the number of asylum applications in November 2021 was the second-highest in five years, narrowly below the level in September. About 71,400 applications for international protection were lodged in the “EU+” (EU, plus Norway and Switzerland) in November 2021, up by nine percent from October. “This was the second-highest level since 2016,” it said.

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Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion

Voice Of EU



Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.

“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.

Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.

On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.

A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.

The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.

After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.

Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.

Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.

Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.

While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.

“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.

The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.

According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.

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