Europe’s fences have holes – Poland: Fence in the swamp


In Greece, Hungary and Poland, there are people who believe fences protect them from external threats, in whatever form those threats might come.

Along the borders of each of these states, huge sums of money have been spent to keep out those who would seek asylum; the fences differ in size and design, but they have one thing in common – they are more a political symbol than an actual barrier.

A closer look at the fences, at the people who man them, who live alongside them, who try to breach them, gives the lie to government claims that fences stop migration. They don’t; they just make lives more miserable.

In Poland, some 2,500 surveillance cameras and more than 10,000 soldiers and border guards monitor the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border. Despite the part fence and part concertina wire barrier, the area has become a major headache on NATO’s eastern flank.

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On a cold November day in the Białowieża Forest, Aleksandra Gnap, former midwife and now medical rescue volunteer, received a pin with GPS coordinates on her smartphone. She grabbed a backpack with hot tea, dry clothes and medical supplies and set off into the wilderness. 

“Six men from Syria begged for help a few kilometres from the border with Belarus,” Gnap told BIRN. “They have spent the last 20 days in the forest without water or food. Their clothes are completely soaked. They have first-degree hypothermia and trench foot, a typical injury for migrants here.”

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More than 3,700 people built the fence in eight months. Photo: Piotr Drabik


Normally, Gnap would call an ambulance given the severity of the symptoms. But that would mean involving soldiers and border guards, who would eventually push the refugees back to Belarus. Gnap and her fellow volunteers gave them water, food, medicine and dry clothes. And then left them. It has become a familiar story since Poland built the fence at the border with Belarus.

“Crossing the border fence is not a problem for most men and young people,” Gnap said. “On the Belarusian side, they can buy so-called survival kits – ladders, spades, secateurs, etc.”

“They lived and slept in the forest” – a volunteer on migrants at the Polish border fence - Birn Balkans

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Permanent state of emergency

Before the summer of 2021, nothing of note ever happened on the Polish-Belarusian border.

But then tensions between the regime of Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko and the West saw Minsk steer migrants to the border with Poland. 

On November 4, 2021, during a state of emergency in the border area, the Polish government announced plans to build a barrier on the border. Eight months later, it was finished.

The barrier – part fence, part concertina wire – runs the entire length of the 186-km border with Belarus. It cost 1.3 billion zlotys, or over 301 million euros, and consists of 40,000 steel posts standing 4.5 metres above ground.

Some 2,500 surveillance cameras and more than 10,000 soldiers and border guards monitor the situation at the border. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Polish-Belarusian border has become a major headache on NATO’s eastern flank.

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The border looks more like a fence than a wall. Photo: Polish Border Guard


Anna Michalska, spokeswoman for the Polish Border Guard, said 3,755 people built the barrier, “both Polish and foreign citizens”.

But journalists, activists, and residents were barred from following the fence’s construction due to the state of emergency in the border area.

Rivers run along more than half of the border with Belarus. The fence was built only on parts where the border runs along land, with concertina wire unfurled along the rest.

The area around Białowieża, Hajnówka and Dubicze Cerkiewne, where the bulk of attempted crossings have occurred in recent months, is a de facto military zone, with a huge presence of soldiers and military vehicles. 

Getting snagged on the concertina wire can be painful, but it doesn’t stop people from trying. Locals in the Podlaskie region know the situation well.

Volunteers spend long days searching for lost refugees on the Polish Belarusian border - Birn Balkans

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“This fence is not working”

Katarzyna Mazurkiewicz-Bylok, Mariusz Kurnyta and Agata Kluczewska left the car near the small historic village of Kruszyniany. They walked about a kilometre. The closer they got to the border, the more their shoes got stuck in the swamp and mud.

Finally, they spotted a long line of concertina wire – in the Svislach River and along its banks. There was no fence or wall. Two soldiers with guns asked what they were doing there. “Just walking,” Kluczewska said. They didn’t take any photos, knowing that the border barrier is classified as a military object and violation of the ban on photography can result in a fine or arrest.

They looked at the most challenging section for migrants to cross.

“This fence isn’t working,” said Mariusz Kurnyta. “The steel posts can be cut through with a normal angle grinder. Also, the concrete was poured very shallow in the swamp. In most of the border area there is the fence. But if it collapses, the rest will follow like dominoes.”

Nicknamed ‘Forest man’, Kurnyta, like Mazurkiewicz-Bylok and Kluczewska, is a member of the Podlaskie Voluntary Humanitarian Emergency Service, POPH, a local NGO providing emergency assistance for migrants in the forest. 

They spend long days and nights searching for lost refugees and migrants after receiving a pin with their GPS coordinates. They say that there are many asylum seekers still trying to cross the border, regardless of the fence, the surveillance and the beefed up army presence.

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Katarzyna, Mariusz and Agata spend long days and nights looking for look migrants. Photo: Piotr Drabik


A symbol, not real protection

“The route through the Białowieża forest is still one of the safest ways for asylum seekers to reach Europe,” said Dominika Pszczółkowska, a researcher at the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw. “The alternative is to cross the Mediterranean by boat.” 

Pszczółkowska said politics was behind the construction of the fence. “This fence has a lot of flaws, so I see it as a symbol, not as a real border protection.”

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“The route through the Białowieża forest is still one of the safest ways for asylum seekers to reach Europe”, says researcher Dominika Pszczółkowska. Photo: Piotr Drabik


According to Michalska, the border guard spokeswoman, the data demonstrates the fence’s effectiveness.

“Between August and December 2021, there were 40,000 attempted illegal border crossings at the Polish-Belarusian border,” she told BIRN. “The fence was completed in July 2022. During that whole year, there were 15,700 attempts. Between January and November 2023, there were 25,700.” 

But volunteers, researchers, refugees and migrants have reported violent pushbacks by border guards. The Polish Ombudsman and judges have confirmed that the regulations allowing pushbacks, created by Poland’s previous conservative government, are illegal in a number of cases.

New government, new policy?

Late last year, a pro-European coalition led by Donald Tusk took power and his government promised changes.

Yet, on January 12, migration expert and Undersecretary of State in the interior ministry, Maciej Duszczyk, said that “pushbacks will not be stopped for now, and this will only happen when the migration route through Belarus and Poland is closed”.

Business Insider Polska reported that Tusk’s government plans to spend 2.5 million Polish zloty [571,000 euros] on maintenance of the border fence this year.

Researcher Pszczółkowska predicted that the new government will cooperate more closely with the EU on migration issues and may also ask for Frontex’s help.

But on the ground, in the Białowieża forest, Gnap said fences would not stop desperate people.

“Barriers like the one on the US-Mexico border cannot stop people from seeking safety,” she said.. “There is a great determination in these people, they always find a way to get across. The fence on the Polish-Belarussian border is a tool of torture.”



This article was first published on 29 February 2024 on Balkan Insight.

It has been produced with the financial support of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Thessaloniki.

Its content is the sole responsibility of the author and does not represent the Foundation’s views and opinions.