Editor's note: Poland's government announced Thursday it plans to build a new barrier on its border with Belarus. The move comes as Poland says migrants from around the world are sneaking in from across the border. NPR's original story, published Tuesday, follows.
SOKOLKA, Poland — For the past 10 days, Doniel Machado Pujol and Raydel Aparicio Bringa say they've been surviving on river water and kernels of raw corn, plucked from dying stalks among the frozen fields of eastern Poland. Sleeping under piles of leaves and hiking through forests and farmland for days was more than they bargained for when they left Cuba three weeks ago.
"We flew from Havana to Moscow, and then a man picked us up and drove us to Belarus, and that's where our journey got a lot worse," says a malnourished and injured Machado Pujol,who has just been caughtby Polish police after sneaking into the European Union.
The two men are among an estimated 16,000 migrants stopped by Poland's border patrol for illegally crossing the country's 250-mile-long border with Belarus since August.
Leaders in the EU say Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's government is organizing the illegal passage of migrants from war-torn and impoverished countries into Poland and other EU neighbors. They suspect this comes in retaliation for EU economic sanctions placed on Belarus after the bloc accused the authoritarian leader of stealing last year's election and ordering human rights violations. Now humanitarian groups are criticizing Poland for pushing some migrants back to Belarus rather than reviewing their asylum applications.
But for Machado Pujol, the crisis is more personal. After Polish border guards arrive to take him back to Belarus, he struggles and cries, screaming, "Don't send me back! They'll kill me! Look at what they've done to my legs!"
The 29-year-old's legs are cut, bruised and swollen, and he walks with a limp. Polish border guards have already sent him back to Belarus twice, he says, and he accuses Belarusian soldiers of beating him with metal pipes and threatening worse if they saw him again.
"They have no respect for human dignity or human rights," he says. "We are like footballs in a game between Poland and Belarus. Nobody wants us."
A humanitarian crisis in the making
The two men are not alone. "There are many Iraqis, Kurds, there are people from Yemen, Syria, there are people from African countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, and now we've got people from Afghanistan," says Kalina Czwarnog, who works for the Polish humanitarian organization OcalenieFoundation. The group is delivering food and water to migrants and helping them with asylum applications.
She says the government of Belarus is orchestrating this humanitarian crisis. "They are inviting them to Belarus, saying that they can cross the EU border from there. And they are getting a seven-day visa or stamp," she says.
From there, Belarusian soldiers escort them to the border and help them across. Czwarnog says when Polish border guards catch them, they're supposed to allow migrants to apply for asylum. Instead, she says, they're putting most of them in vans and taking them back to Belarus, where soldiers often beat them and send them back to Poland again. At least five migrants have died from the harsh conditions along the border, according the Polish officials.
Czwarnog fears more will perish as the weather gets colder. She says in recent days she found a group of migrants from Iraq with three young children suffering from hypothermia.
"They were very, very cold," she says. "The youngest child — we didn't really see if she was breathing. We had to get her warm, so she started to breathe normally. We couldn't communicate with the younger children because they were so weak," she says.
Czwarnog called an ambulance, and Poland's border patrol took two children and two adults, but sent a 6-year-old child with five adults back to Belarus.
A Syrian family pays $16,000 to get to Belarus
But not everyone is sent back. A Syrian family who wouldn't give their names for fear of being identified by Polish authorities spoke to NPR at a homeless shelter in Bialystok. The father, a psychologist whose family fled war, says he paid a travel agency $16,000 to secure visas to Belarus and to be escorted to the Polish border. Belarusian soldiers helped him, his wife and their two young children cross a river along the border and then they hiked through dense forest for 12 hours before being caught by Polish border guards.
He says his son's spirit kept him going. "He was just saying to me: 'Daddy, don't lose my hand. Catch my hand and I will keep walking.' He's my hero," he says.
He thinks Poland didn't send his family back because they were suffering from hypothermia, they had young children and they have a good chance of being granted asylum in the EU.
Poland says Lukashenko is weaponizing migration
The EU has hit Belarus with several rounds of economic sanctions since last year, accusing Lukashenko of stealing his country's election as well as ordering violent crackdowns and other rights abuses of citizens, including a forced plane landing in May to arrest a Belarusian journalist.
Poland says that Lukashenko, backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, launched a hybrid attack to destabilize the EU in response.
"This phenomenon that we've been witnessing there recently is a kind of weaponization of migration," says Marcin Przydacz, the deputy foreign minister of Poland.
Lukashenko has denied all these accusations.
Poland has also come under criticism from rights advocates for sending people back to Belarus without processing their asylum requests in violation of EU law and United Nations conventions on refugees.
When pressed on this point, Prydacz defends the country's policy:"If we allow more and more people to cross the border, then Mr. Lukashenko, who's also doing business on this, will invite even more of those people. So what should we do?" he says.
Polish journalist Patryk Michalski with the online news outlet Wirtualna Polska says his reporting could support the claim that Belarus' government profits from human trafficking. Michalski discovered a trove of documents left behind by a group of migrants in the forest along the border and shared them with NPR.
Among the tattered and ripped up papers are lists of travelers from Iraq, passport numbers and receipts of payments made to Belarusian travel agencies for flights to Belarus on the state's Belavia airline. There are invoices of stays at five-star hotels run by the Belarusian government, as well as documents signed by Belarusian officials who helped facilitate the trips.
Belarus has helped build the infrastructure to accommodate these travelers, too. At the beginning of the year, there was only a single flight from Iraq to Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Now there are several flights a week from multiple Iraqi cities. Iraqi Airways says their flights from Iraq to Belarus are sold out through November.
"Suddenly there are thousands of migrants from the Middle East or African countries in Belarus and suddenly, somehow, it is a very popular holiday destination for these people," says Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Przydacz. "As we all know, Belarus has never been a popular destination where you spend a nice weekend, especially in the autumn or winter."
Belarus' leader has himself acknowledged the country is not a final destination. "If someone thinks that we will close the border with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a filtration camp for fugitives from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, they are mistaken at least. We will not hold anyone. We are not their final destination after all. They are headed to the enlightened, warm, cozy Europe," he said in July.
As for the Cuban migrant, Machado Pujol, his family says after his latest arrest along the border he was sent back a third time to Belarus.
According to his family, Belarusian soldiers beat him and his companion Aparicio Bringa so badly that they fractured the latter's skull.
The two men are still along the border, injured, scared and hoping to make it to the European Union.
Grzegorz Sokol contributed to this report from Sokolka and Warsaw.