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Migrants are freezing to death at Belarus-Poland border

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn now to the ongoing crisis along the border between Poland and Belarus. That's where thousands of migrants, many from the Middle East, have been stuck as they try to enter Poland and the European Union. Polish authorities have taken to increasingly harsh measures to stop the migrants from entering, even firing water cannons at them last week. Poland accuses Belarus of creating the crisis by encouraging the migrants to travel to the border. As they waited in freezing temperatures, the migrants had been staying in makeshift camps on the Belarusian side. But just a few days ago, Belarusian officials cleared the camps, moving the migrants to a nearby processing center. Some of the travelers have started to head back to their countries of origin, while others remain still hoping to reach Western Europe.

Now, authorities on both sides have made it difficult for journalists and aid workers to make contact with the migrants, so trying to assess their conditions has also been difficult. So we've called the president of the Polish Center for International Aid, Wojciech Wilk, to hear what he has been seeing and hearing and to hear about what his organization has been trying to do to help. And he's with us from Warsaw after just completing a trip to the border. Mr. Wilk, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

WOJCIECH WILK: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: So what can you tell us about the situation at the border? Specifically, what are the conditions that people are exposed to or are trying to survive in?

WILK: The temperatures are close to the freezing point. It's normally not warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The temperatures drop down to the freezing point during the night, and we expect actually the snow to come in next week. So this is definitely not a situation where anybody, including the migrants, could camp in the open. The conditions are increasingly harsh and are increasingly life-threatening because there are cases of people dying of hypothermia. Hypothermia is No. 1 reason for migrants to be admitted into hospitals on the Polish side.

MARTIN: So I was going to ask you about that. Who are some of the people that you're meeting? And are they families traveling together? Are they - are there any women and children among the group? Are they mainly single men?

WILK: It's - vast majority these are groups of young men, sometimes with a few women and in sporadic individual cases of children. The main - the largest number of migrants that are at the border of Poland on the Belarus side are actually Iraqis originating from northern Iraq, from Iraqi Kurdistan, who have purchased tickets into Belarus through, you know, inverted commas, travel agencies. And they have paid quite substantial amounts of money to fly into Belarus to get to the vicinity of the Polish border because they were lured by a false promise that this is only 600 kilometers, so about 400 miles, away from Germany. So some of the migrants hope to even trek, to walk on foot, all the distance to the German border. But in the freezing rain, in the pre-winter conditions of Poland, that's - A, it's not possible, B, this is directly life-threatening.

MARTIN: I understand that by the time you encounter people, they're in tough shape, and they're probably not up for a lot of conversation about, you know, what has been happening to them. But do they have any sense of what's happened to them? I mean, do they know that they're being in a way sort of used as political pawns? Or - I'm just trying to understand, like, what is their sense of what's happening here?

WILK: For us, the conversation, direct conversation with the migrants, is not very easy because the vast majority of them don't speak English. And - well - and they don't speak Polish, so communication is difficult. But I have a sense that the foreigners who are grouped at the border of Belarus, they're becoming increasingly disillusioned with the way they are treated by the Belarusian authorities. And what is my worry is that as the situation - as the border situation deteriorates and the snow is going to come in, there could be groups of people who may want to make this last desperate dash through the border into the woods, trying to get into Germany before the winter sets in. And I'm afraid that if this happens, there could be a lot of emergency calls with people wandering to swamps, suffering from hypothermia and other diseases. But, you know, I hope to be wrong. I hope that that if only possible people would be allowed to voluntarily evacuate back to their home countries because other than - I mean, nobody can survive a winter in the open now.

MARTIN: That was Wojciech Wilk, president of the Polish Center for International Aid. We reached him in Warsaw. Mr. Wilk, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your insights today.

WILK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.