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Belarus-Poland border crisis has become a roadblock for illegal Indian migrants in Europe

🔴 As the Belarus-Poland border crisis tightened, four men from Punjab were stranded after being detained by Poland’s border guards. Neha Banka traces their journey.

Written by Neha Banka | Kolkata |
Updated: December 25, 2021 2:28:36 pm
Polish, center, and Belarusian boundary posts are seen at the checkpoint "Kuznitsa", the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus Dec 23, 2021. (AP)

For years, countries in Eastern Europe have been favoured ports of entry for illegal Indian migrants hoping to enter and settle in the European Union. But the ongoing crisis along the Belarus-Poland border has cut off one of the common routes taken by these migrants. Possibly unaware of the enormity of the crisis at this border, many of these migrants have found themselves stranded in the region.

This summer, migrants began travelling to Belarus in large numbers, hoping to enter the European Union. The crisis that began developing at these borders led the EU, NATO and the US to claim that Belarus’ leader Alexander Lukashenko had deliberately orchestrated the border crisis with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in retaliation for sanctions imposed on his country for its brutal crackdown on opponents and citizens who participated in mass protests after the August 2020 election in the country.

In late November, indianexpress.com learned of four migrants from Punjab, travelling overseas for the first time, who had found themselves stranded at this border after being detained by Poland’s border guards. “They expect me to arrange some sort of rescue team, which is beyond my ability,” a source in Belarus told indianexpress.com, requesting anonymity.

Hours after reaching the border, one of the four, Baljinder Singh, sent a desperate voice message: “Hello sir. Please help us. We are four people in the jungle… have been starving. We have not eaten in the last three days and not had a drop of water in our stomach. Our two guys are already on the floor and they are dying. So please send your rescue team to save our lives…I am sending you my location. Please send a rescue team as soon as possible (sic).”

In comparison with migrants from other countries attempting to enter Poland, there has been little reporting on the presence of Indian migrants at the Belarus-Poland border, in part because they may not be a very large number. In October, however, the Polish Border Guard announced that during that month, there were “11,300 attempts to illegally cross the Polish border from Belarus. 16 Iraqis, 2 Indians & 1 Syrian were arrested by security forces, the rest were turned back…”; the first confirmation from a government body that Indian nationals had been apprehended at this border. Through interviews with multiple sources for this report, there appear to be only ten known cases of Indians who attempted to enter Poland using this border, but the actual numbers could be greater.

Communication with the four Indian migrants was intermittent. They had sent similar messages to whomever they knew across Europe and Russia, pleading for assistance. One such message reached Sharma, an Indian national in Portugal, whose first name has been withheld on request. “I have been speaking to their parents and I haven’t slept for a week or stayed away from my phone. They met someone in Russia who directed them to me saying I could help,” Sharma told indianexpress.com in November. 

Illegal immigration from India and South Asia at large, relies heavily on informal networks of referrals and contacts for assistance when migrants find themselves in difficult situations on the route to Europe or elsewhere. It was for no other reason other than humanity that Sharma said he attempted to help them. The men were relatively young, aged between 21 to 25, and had never travelled overseas before, and were just about able to communicate in basic English.

Sitting in Portugal, there was little that Sharma could do. “I tried helping them with the police and ambulance, but the situation became such that nothing could be done,” he explained. There were no figures immediately available to indicate how many Indian nationals have been caught at the Belarus-Poland border trying to enter the European Union since the surge in the border crisis this year. The Embassy of India in Belarus did not respond to indianexpress.com’s requests for information. 

“Look, they went with the intention of going to Poland. Nobody told them to go,” Sharma said. While the men had hoped for a different outcome, they should have known the dangers and pitfalls of embarking on this journey across Europe, sources said.

A familiar story

In a village in Punjab’s Samana district, 48-year-old Raj Kumar Singh was worried for days on end after a call from his his son, 22-year-old Hardeep. “He was in the jungles of Poland. He had crossed the Belarus border. He is very young and he can’t put up with so much difficulty,” said Singh, his voice cracking with emotion.

 

Hardeep’s story is a familiar one in the villages and towns of Punjab. “He went abroad because he couldn’t find opportunities here. We filled so many forms for the army, the police, private companies etc. but nothing materialised…nothing. Then we took this step thinking that it would take two to four years, but he would grow up and gain experience,” Singh said. There weren’t any opportunities that could hold his son back and neither did the family have any agricultural land where he could be put to work, said Singh.

Singh does not know much about his son’s friends. “When he used to call, he used to say that one is from Jalandhar, one is from Ludhiana and one is Jamsher. They were all from distant villages. They didn’t know each other here. They met there.”

In this image taken with a drone, migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere gather at the checkpoint “Kuznitsa” at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus. (AP)

“He had never travelled abroad. This was his first visit and that is why he got caught in this difficult situation. He didn’t know anything,” said Singh. Sometime in September this year, Hardeep packed his bags and left India. “He went to Russia telling us he would go to work there. He lived and worked there for 1.5 months. Approximately a month after he reached, someone instigated him, brainwashed him. They filled his head with rubbish that he would be able to do this and that in Europe.” 

Weeks after Hardeep reached Russia, he told his father that he was going to Poland by car. Singh does not know the specifics because his son did not tell him much. “They duped him and he got influenced by that. He was told that he would be able to go to Poland and he would get a better life,” said Singh. He does not know who his son interacted with or who inspired him to seek opportunities in Europe or even what his son was doing in Russia.

Informal contacts and donker services

“They used a donker. It is a code word,” Sharma said of the four men who found themselves stranded in between Belarus and Poland. The origins of the word ‘donker’ is not clear, but it may have Indian roots, from the word ‘donkey’, used for transportation, and is now widely in the business of illegal immigration. In Europe, the word ‘donker’ is used for a car service that ferries migrants from one country and leaves them at the border of another.

When the four men reached out to Sharma, he used his network to help them connect with a reliable donker who would help them leave the Belarus-Poland border. “This group of four boys did not listen to me and tried to book a donker that charged less so that they could save money. Now they are stuck. Their parents began calling me every minute and messaged constantly. I was replying to them and giving them moral support,” Sharma had said in November.

Travelling using donkers is a risky business, but one that many migrants are willing to take. It relies on a network of unofficial connections who know routes well and ferry illegal migrants across Europe. Videos available across YouTube and social media platforms provide instructions, mostly in Punjabi, on how these donker services work, with a disclaimer that they can be dangerous.

In Europe, the word ‘donker’ is used for a car service that ferries migrants from one country and leaves them at the border of another. This is a photograph taken inside a donker in Belarus in 2017. (Photo credit: Freek Jansen/Facebook)

indianexpress.com’s research indicates that it is not only illegal migrants who use these donker services. Sometimes, it is just a case of individuals with legal paperwork, wanting a cheaper way of travelling across Europe and the donkers’ familiarity with the regions’ borders, particularly in Eastern Europe, come handy.

Nadeem Jatt operates a donker service across this region but did not want to speak about his business in detail because of the work it entails. On Sharma’s referral, Jatt reached the Belarus-Poland border to help the four men leave. “The last time the boys contacted me, I told them to wait for me at a specific spot. Then within a few minutes the boys and their acquaintances…took over and began coordinating their own thing,” Jatt told indianexpress.com. It was during this time that the four men began searching for cheaper donker services.

It may just have been a decision that added to their difficulties. It is unclear what happened to the four men at the border, but their presence there that week coincided with an escalation in pushbacks of migrants by Polish border guards. Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish organisation that helps migrants and refugees, had reported that the Polish border guards were also taking away phones from migrants and pushing them back towards Belarus, from where they were eventually being deported. None of the four men responded to indianexpress.com’s requests for interviews and soon after, their phones were reportedly confiscated by the Polish border guards.

“It’s not my fault. It’s their fault that they decided (to travel). When our people themselves create these fiascos, they blame the other person,” Jatt said of his inability to help the men. Sharma cited the case of three other Indian nationals who had been stuck at the same border just days before. “I helped them and they went back to Russia and the three are safe now. But that is because they listened to me and relied on a trusted donker,” said Sharma.

 

In the business of illegal migration, the route through Belarus to enter the European Union is not an unfamiliar one. But for migrants from South Asia, Belarus’ domestic upheaval and its disputes with its neighbours only created complexities that they had not anticipated and about which their brokers had not bothered to inform them. 

“Getting a Belarusian or a Russian visa is relatively easier than getting a Schengen visa. The men come here and then they sneak into the Polish and Lithuanian border, because up until recently, they were pretty porous borders,” said an Indian national in Belarus, requesting anonymity, who has lived in the country for over three decades. 

While border closures due to Covid-19 had temporarily brought a halt to international travel, earlier this year,  some countries like Russia restarted visa processing for Indian nationals, which has allowed migrants to use these routes to resume their attempts to enter Europe.

“These cases give Indians a bad name,” the Indian national said. The rise in the number of illegal migrants who use the route through Belarus to enter the European Union has caused difficulties for Indian nationals with legitimate paperwork, the source said, because now border authorities routinely take Indian passport holders aside to check for discrepancies.

Back in Russia

This past week, Singh finally heard from his son. Hardeep told his family that he was back in Russia with his three friends after being deported by Belarus and had found accommodation in the city. “He is unemployed nowvellabut he is all right,” Singh said. “We thought that he would work in Russia and collect some money and manage his living expenses. After he had collected enough, he would come back and then we would see what to do next.” 

Hardeep and his friends are among the more lucky migrants who attempted to cross into Poland in search of fortune and opportunity. Temperatures began falling days prior to the week that these four men decided to enter Poland and there were reports of migrants freezing to death in the border region. 

That week, Belarusian officials began clearing makeshift camps that migrants had set up on the Belarusian side of the border, moving migrants to a nearby processing center. Some migrants, having lost hope, started to head back to their countries of origin. Others like Hardeep and his friends have stayed on in the region, still clinging on to their dreams of reaching Western Europe. 

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