In the Belarusian border town of Brest, there up to 1,500 Russian citizens, practically all of them Chechen. They are seeking refuge in Poland.
They call themselves refugees and try to get to Poland, where they hope to find refuge on the territory of the European Union. This year, in mid-summer, the Polish authorities refused to receive them. The door which had let through hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge was suddenly shut in front of them. They claim they can’t return to their homes; the reasons for which they decided to leave are still valid.
They shy away from talking to the press, hide their faces, hide from cameras, and wear medical masks so as not to be recognised in the streets. They don’t even trust their fellow countrymen, who appear to be in the same position. Everyone knows that unkind eyes and ears are everywhere, as well as the mouths of informers.
These people hide the real reasons for their escape from their motherland, although in most cases the reasons are same. Everyone is afraid to tell their story, which could aggravate the risk of something happening to them and their relatives.
Magomed is one of the few who agreed to talk to me on the camera — on condition that his face be hidden and his voice changed. In the beginning, several people wanted to be recorded, but the next day almost everyone changed their mind. Fear… Only three people stayed. Magomed is one of them.
Polish officials don’t hide the fact that their government has swung to the right. Its new position is simple: it doesn’t need refugees. That’s why the daily train from Brest to Terespol departs filled with refugees and returns full as well. Everyone requests shelter, but only one or two, or occasionally up to four families are heard out. The rest receive ‘refusal’ stamps in their passports, like tourists without a Schengen visa.
There is one curious detail to their stories. The ticket office at the railway station in Brest doesn’t sell one-way tickets to refugees. The cashier asks for a two-way fare as soon as they see a Chechen. This is how every unsuccessful attempt to cross the border costs a family of five people more than €40. Some Chechens have made up to thirty or even forty such attempts. Once the money runs out, people begin to dwell at the railway station and stop going to the Polish border. They are ready for everything except to go back to Chechnya; whatever it takes. People who arrived in June usually don’t have any clothes with them warmer than a blouse. Yet, even the piercing cold, malnutrition, and children’s illnesses can’t make them go back.
In the summer, when the first refugees came up against the closed frontier, the number of Chechens in Brest reached several thousand. They believed that the border would reopen soon, while others kept arriving, not having realised that the road to Europe was closed. That’s when they conspired and decided to organise a rally right at the Polish border. The rally, which would have been impossible to hold in modern-day Chechnya, didn’t bring the desired effect. European officials weren’t moved by the voices of these desperate people and Poland continues to neglect the international Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention directly prohibits returning a person to a country where they would be in danger. Belarus is such a country: since Belarus and Russia are allies, there are no borders between them, and Russia’s security forces, from which the Chechens are hiding, can operate on its territory undisturbed.
The rally attracted media attention and cameras recorded the faces of several refugees in the crowd. Soon some of them received a ‘greeting’ from their homeland. New threats followed, their apartments in Brest were searched, they received phone calls from unknown numbers urging them to return home.
‘We kept changing SIM cards and moving’, Fatima says, ‘yet they would still always find us. Police would search our homes in front of witnesses, without explaining what they were looking for.’
Fatima doesn’t name the main reason for her family’s flight from Chechnya. ‘Even at the border I say that the problem lies in my child’s illness. I don’t even mention my husband’s persecution.’
It’s understandable. There, at the frontier, almost no-one tells the truth, because one has to talk to Polish officials in front of everyone else. Adequate privacy isn’t provided, while there are some ‘smuggled Cossacks’ in the crowd of refugees.
* * *
I get on the ‘refugee train’ between Brest and Terespol together with Polish human right activists from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Marta Gurczyńska and Marta Szczepanik. The first car is filled with passengers with visas. They will be asked to step out first and only once the very last ‘clean’ passport is stamped will the refugees be let out from their cars.
In the end we get out of the train and proceed to the passport control through a tunnel. Every Chechen in Brest knows this route by heart and could make it with their eyes closed. We are 300 or 350 people. We gathered by the stairs, behind which there is a door to Poland. Everyone hopes to be one of the lucky ten or twelve who will today be transferred to the refugee camp. An exhausting lottery.
Every refugee is checked by a guard with a metal detector, without excepting pregnant women, despite the fact that such a procedure is harmful for the unborn child. Suddenly, we hear shouts. A thin lady tries to make her way through the crowd, bearing in her arms a thick overweight woman. She felt sick in the train. People say that she was seriously ill and she even had a fever the day before, yet she continued to live together with her children at the railway station. And then she wasn’t able to exit the train herself.
A young man takes her upstairs, to the border guards. An ambulance arrives and takes the woman, together with her children. We don’t know what happened to her later, but we hope that her family was allowed to stay in Poland.
Refugees complain about the dismissive attitude of border guards. Sometimes there are arguments between them, even fights.
I, together with a Belarusian activist and two Polish human rights defenders are taken outside through a side corridor. We don’t manage to see the rest of the border farce.
‘They don’t want asylum, they just want to give a European education to their children’, Marta is told by one of the older border guards about a family, which gave her power of attorney. She is unable to be together with her trustees. Border guards, being fully aware of the illegality of their actions, don’t give a written denial, rather they simply isolate us from the refugees.
This time the train was ‘successful’: four families were received. One of them is the family of the man who gave me an interview. I am very glad, because from all the people living at the railway station, he was one of the poorest and most worn out. The youngest of his children is less than one year old. The mother pushed them around in a shabby pram or carried them around close to her breast.
* * *
The Brest railway station is the meeting place for Chechens. Here people find out who managed to cross the Polish border, who was returned, who went back home, who just arrived and is storming the border for the first time. Here, like in a casino, a novice can be lucky. In such cases, more will follow him, bringing fresh money to Brest.
‘The railway station as well as local shops and landlords make a lot of revenue from us’, the refugees believe. They try to save money on everything, because food, accommodation, and train tickets aren’t cheap. Even if a family rents the cheapest room they can find, they spend around a hundred euros a day. And this continues for two months straight, and there are hundreds of such families…
* * *
Here, an atmosphere of fear prevails. It’s not easy to enter a free, confidential conversation. My interlocutors, Ali and his wife, sit at the table and look suspiciously at my phone.
‘Aren’t you recording?’
‘Please, check’, I pass them the phone and Ali smiles confusedly.
We continue our conversation, but my interlocutor keeps covering his mouth with his hand and mutters so much that I can hardly tell the words apart. He still doesn’t believe that I’m not recording. That’s why he sneezes expressly and leans away from the table and me and my phone. ‘I don’t want to infect you’, he explains.
I’m really not recording. Anyway, what he says is another typical story. Only the details, like the dates, names, street names, and places are different. Of course, I ask questions, but mostly in order to better understand the characters and fates of different people. In the end, a picture emerges which is typical for Chechnya. He was in the military, he fought, like everyone else, or he did some trading, he was shot and wounded… In the mid-1990s he became an officer, he was confiscating illegal weapons, he fought crime in his region, he carelessly gave the wrong person a ride, or he saw something he shouldn’t have, or maybe he helped the family of a dead insurgent not to die of hunger… ‘Later the authorities changed. I decided to live peacefully, but it didn’t turn out so. They remembered the old times and came to call me, to interrogate for every reason, or without one.’
It's all connected to the experience of transferred violence: ‘I’m not at an age anymore to be beaten up and humiliated by people half my age!’
Today, my next interlocutor will say the same, with the addition of: ‘I couldn’t stand being insulted in front of my children’.
The few who agree to be interviewed often talk very abruptly, with scant phrases, laconically, without any details. One needs to ask a lot of questions in order to make the story a more or less coherent whole. It’s not an easy task.
However, there are other cases as well. This evening, one Chechen gives me a description of his life from 1994 until today. The story is clear, consistent, exhaustive. He makes me promise that his story won’t leave the room and won’t be heard anywhere else. I can’t record anything and I can’t tell a living soul about our meeting.
* * *
At the railway station, where the most disadvantaged refugee families live, people are allowed to sleep between midnight and five in the morning. People dress their children in the warmest clothes they can find and lay them on benches. Adults huddle nearby and sleep in turns. In the morning, the station’s employees tell people to get up. They try to snooze while sitting in order to compensate for the lack of sleep. The Chechens have adapted themselves to compactly manage their belongings under the benches: during the day it is hardly noticeable that there are any people there except normal passengers. Very neat and tidy, Chechens go every day to their friends who rent apartments in the city in order to bathe. Some people find money to stay indoors for at least a couple of days, to warm themselves up. Later they return to the railway station anyway. Boiling water, toilets, everything is a problem. They suffer, they are half-starving, they eat dry rations. If you offer them something, they will refuse. They live on dry instant noodles.
* * *
I take a girl and her mother to the doctor. The child’s cheek is swollen, her tooth must be removed and the abscess must be cleaned. In Belarus, Russian citizens can receive external medical help free of charge. Chechen refugees, however, sincerely believe that one can’t even get a blood analysis without a bribe. Some people spend time in the hospital, including one woman who has had a stroke, but they were taken there by the ambulance. The mother of the child didn’t even try to go to the doctor due to a lack of funds. It became hot and the child developed an oedema.
Luckily, we managed. The city dentist removed the tooth without asking for a kopek.
* * *
Lawyer Roman Kiślak explains:
‘To appeal against the actions of Polish border guards needs time, it’s a process which can’t happen fast. Additionally, I work with cases involving racist statements against vulnerable groups. In this case, it concerns refugees. I also work with cases of discrimination against women. I cooperate with the European Court of Human Rights and with UN structures. Refugees approach me and then they either make it to Poland, or return home if their money dries up and they couldn’t afford to stay in Belarus. In such cases, I continue to work on their appeals in their absence, having taken power of attorney at the beginning. When border guards realise that a person is persistent enough, sooner or later they let them through. Still, the appeal hardly ever works the first time, it’s not a magic wand. Some people suffer for months, spend a lot of money and they still can’t overcome the barrier. We will continue to move their cases forward in order to make the authorities admit that they committed violations and to make them pay compensation, although nothing will return to people these months. At the moment, I am working with 10 appeals from refugees — this is the maximum number of cases I can work on simultaneously. Except for this, activists from Human Constanta help refugees to file new appeals against the actions of border guards, and these are handled by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland.’
Marina Hulia, a Polish pedagogue, activist, and volunteer, travels to Brest’s railway station every morning in order to play with the children amongst the Chechen refugees. Little Chechens every morning wait impatiently for their teacher, as since they left Chechnya they haven’t been at school even once. Marina Hulia is their only teacher here. And almost certainly, from all the Poles around, she’s the only one who knows some Chechen.
‘I’m a teacher and a mother’, she says. ‘I can’t help these people cross the border, I can’t even give them advice, but I can help their children. The organisation National Forum for Non-Public Education collected markers, colouring books, children’s books, and stickers over literally just one day. I got a chance to come here and play with the children. We spend days in a meaningful way: we sing, dance, colour, learn Polish. It’s easy to learn some Polish words when you play. But first of all we distance ourselves from the boredom and despair that rules the railway station. Life is life no matter where, and it’s up to us how we’re going to make use of this place. My mission is to return childhoods stolen by their parents to the children. Refugees’ children are ill, tired, warm, and open. They are happy for everything: a marker, a colouring book, casual hugs. They are children and children have no nationality. They are tired of seclusion, of railway stations, they don’t go to school, they have been through more than any child should go through.
* * *
Marta Gurczyńska and Marta Szczepanik, employees of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights gave me their impressions after travelling with refugees towards the Polish border:
‘Today we tried to be present as authorised personnel in the process of submitting applications for international protection. We followed our trustees to passport control. We weren’t allowed to pass through together with refugees or to be present during the submission of applications, despite the fact that we had documents proving our power of attorney over these people.’
According to Ms Gurczyńska:
‘One of the families from among my trustees managed to submit an application and when they were separated from the rest of the crowd, I managed to join them. I attended their interview where they talked about the reasons for their flight. It happened privately, in a separate room. They explained everything to the border guards. According to the procedure, a refugee asks a border guard for asylum, the guard’s task is to register them and to send them to the immigration office. The interview took place in Russian. I could ask questions or make comments on the procedure so everything my trustee says was registered. I helped the refugees understand everything the border guards said.’
‘Border guards took their fingerprints, took their pictures, and gave them forms to fill in, including detailed questions on their situation: have they ever been to Poland or to Europe, what is the reason they are seeking asylum, and many others.’
‘Later, border guards gave them documents confirming that they were formally requesting asylum and directed them to a centre for refugees. That’s where they have to register and stay. They are entitled to benefits and help. If they choose to live in such a centre, they receive food and they are entitled to receive medical and psychological help. They will also receive a small amount of pocket money. They can also find apartments in the city, in which case they’ll receive 500 złoty ($125) a month for every person in the family.’
‘Refugees whose applications are in the process of being considered don’t have the right to work. Yet, if the procedure takes longer than six months, they have a right to try to obtain a work permit.’
Ms Szczepanik says:
‘We’ve been working with refugees and participating in migration issues for a long time. Lately, Polish border guards have been systematically violating the law. We’ll try to eliminate violations using first, the administrative way, and later by going to court. We want to achieve a judicial agreement which will forever forbid them to isolate us from people who gave us power of attorney.’
‘Refugees started to arrive to Poland through Brest and Terespol in the early 1990s, during the first Chechen war. Later they came during the second one. This eastern route has always been their main route to safety. They have no chance to receive a visa to Europe. Currently, the new Polish government is trying to shut down this route using political pressure. Border guards are obeying the order instead of the law. Our aim isn’t to let into Europe everyone who wants to come here, but to give everyone the chance to be heard and to be treated with attention and understanding. One must take into account that in Chechnya, conflicts between different families are possible: people sometimes don’t want others to find out about their problems.’
‘We have repeatedly addressed the Polish border service with written complaints. They thank us for bringing things to their attention. They say that they constantly train their employees and practice an individual approach, etc. It is a standard answer which they keep on repeating. It’s not much more than an automated reply.’
‘Today one family wasn’t allowed in because the guards argued that they tried to get to Poland in order to give their children a European education. I have the feeling that people are provoked to speak as if they were economic migrants. There are many questions like: What do you do in Chechnya? What would you like to do in Poland? Where do you have money from? People obviously say that they want to work and give an education to their children, and border guards will use this as an excuse for refusal.’
* * *
In October, in Warsaw, a round table on the issue of refugees was held. Jakub Dudziak, press secretary for the Polish Migration Office was present. He declared that many Poles don’t have the same quality of life as refugees in Poland. He said that people who storm the border every day despite being ignored by border guards (who continue to claim that Chechens don’t need any asylum) are a kind of tourist without a visa. He didn’t want to confirm border guards’ violations of international law. He just turned aside.