Construction of a controversial wall along Poland’s border began this week as the eastern European country continues to pursue tough policies aimed at barring migrants from neighboring Belarus from entering its territory.
Environmentalists and human rights activists say the wall, which will cut through a protected forest and cost £394 million ($527 million), could destroy a vital biosphere without providing lasting solutions to the refugees’ plight.
The barrier runs through one of Europe’s last pristine forest areas, the Bialowieza Forest, and cuts through a World Heritage Site that is home to European bison, lynx and other endangered species.
The UN’s UNESCO World Heritage Agency has said construction should be halted until Poland can prove the wall will not harm local wildlife.
“Poland should not proceed with this until we have the necessary assurances, and our Natural Heritage Advisory Board believes this can be done without compromising Outstanding Universal Value,” said Guy Debonnet, Head of Unesco’s Natural Heritage Department.
The European Commission has also called for an appropriate environmental impact assessment.
Natalia Gebert of the Grupa Granica (border group), which helps migrants and asylum seekers in Poland, says the wall “only stops the disabled, the weak, the sick”.
“That doesn’t stop desperate people fleeing danger from crossing the border,” she said.
The relief group said it received requests for help from about 350 people, including 51 children, in the first three weeks of 2022.
Kalina Czwarnog of the Ocalenie (Deliverance) Foundation said the money for the wall, about 10 times the total budget of the Polish Migration Board for this year, could be better spent on ways of managing migration in a “humanitarian way and in accordance with international law”. .
Poland has been locked in a geopolitical standoff for months with Belarus, which its neighbor and the EU have accused of staging a “hybrid attack” by encouraging migrants to enter the EU member state.
At the height of the crisis, thousands of people were stuck for weeks in frigid temperatures in the forest between the borders and faced alleged ill-treatment by border guards on both sides. At least 19 migrants have died in the forest area so far.
Several refugees from the Middle East told The National about their travels and the life-threatening captivity they faced after being forced to camp in the freezing forests after being pushed back by both sides of the border.
Ground is being prepared for the construction of a 5.5 meter high metal barrier near the closed Kuznica border crossing in eastern Poland, intended to prevent potential asylum seekers from entering.
Poland’s right-wing government says the wall, due to be completed in June, will serve the interests of all EU states.
“The Belarusian side is ready for anything when it comes to provocations, so we have to be prepared for any kind of event,” said Major Arkadiusz Tomaszewski, deputy commander of the border guard in Kuznica, where clashes with migrants and Belarusian security officials were found held last year.
The barrier, topped with barbed wire, stretches 185 kilometers along the land portion of the border that includes the Bug River. Cameras and electronic alarm systems are installed.
Building walls has increasingly become a common measure for right-wing governments looking to block or restrict access.
While Poland’s barrier tries to block people from the Middle East, one of the most notorious concrete partitions is in the region itself. Built by the Israeli government in the early 2000s, the 708 km long West Bank wall separates the occupied Palestinian territory from the rest of the country.
During his 2016 campaign, former US President Donald Trump famously pledged to build a “great, beautiful wall” along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, at a cost of $15 billion.
During the influx of migrants into the EU in 2015, Hungary was condemned when it built a wall on its borders with Croatia and Serbia to block migration routes.
Last year, Lithuania began building a wall on its border with Belarus, while Poland sealed off its border with Belarus with barbed wire, increased guards and restricted access to the border.
Updated January 28, 2022 1:46 pm