It is 11.57am. The arrival hall in Brest railway station in Belarus slowly begins to fill with people. The place is full of old-world charm: crystal chandeliers, a black and white tiled floor. But the faces of the arriving passengers – women with headscarves, dark-haired men with tired features, and a lot of children – are exhausted and full of resignation.
“Just one,” says a woman in a loosely tied headscarf. “They only let one family in”.
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Like others, she immediately starts to queue to buy another ticket. Like others, she will take the same train back to the Polish border at 8.18am tomorrow, hoping this time she and her family will be the lucky ones.
The scene in Brest, a city of around 300,000 people situated on the Eastern border of the European Union, has been repeating for almost two years. The only thing that changes is the number of people who board the train. Less than a year ago there were 400-500 of them every morning – at its peak, as many as 3,000 refugees were waiting in Brest to cross the Polish border by train, the vast majority of them Chechens, with some Tajiks, Uzbeks and Armenians as well.
Among them, according to organisations such as Amnesty International and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, are victims of torture, persecution and other forms of violence. A humanitarian crisis is looming over this quiet border city that itself has a complex history of changing national affiliations.
Today the numbers of people trying to cross are much lower. Around 200-300 asylum seekers now wait in Brest, explains Maksim Kavaleu, a lawyer from the Belarusian human rights organisation Human Constanta, and each day 60-80 take the train to the Polish border town of Terespol. But the numbers constantly change. Kavaleu tells me that the record for the most attempts made by a refugee to cross the border is 65.
Among those trying to cross is Madina, tall and erect in her long dark dress, and with a steely look of determination.1 With her two sons, aged 11 and 12, she travelled to Brest by taxi from her small village in Chechnya (there is no border control between the Russian Federation and Belarus).
Madina has been in Brest for only a week but she has already tried to cross the border five times. Every time she tried to explain to the border guards that she wanted to request asylum she heard the same question: “Are you going to Europe to work?”
You only have two minutes to explain your situation, she complains over a cup of tea in the hostel room next to the train station that she is renting for US$7 a night. There is no privacy; everybody around can hear what you are saying. But the worst thing, she says, is that they do not want to listen. “They interrupted me many times and they kept asking: ‘Do you have family in Europe?’”
If “they” – the Polish border guards – were willing to listen, she would tell them her story. It is a story about her husband who was killed a few years ago, his body dumped at a petrol station. He had problems with the military, she tells, her eyes empty. Madina escaped to France, but returned to Chechnya after a few months, where the police, Madina says vaguely, kept harassing her and her family. She did not feel safe. Besides, her late husband’s family, in accordance with Chechen custom, wanted to take custody of her sons. “I want to give my children a future; I want them grow up in a safe place,” she says.
Madina has some savings, but the money is quickly running out and she is worried. Each journey to and from Terespol costs $10 per person. Staying in Belarus is not an option. Human Rights Watch described the country’s asylum system as “dysfunctional”. The Chechens do not feel safe here, and there have been reports of undercover Chechen security force agents intimidating asylum-seekers in Brest. KGB, the Belarusian secret service, closely cooperates with Kadyrovtsy, the security service of the Putin-backed Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Madina casts a glance at her sons, who are watching a cartoon on a mobile phone. “Do you know a lawyer, anyone who could help us?” she asks, looking at me expectantly.
The migration flow into the Eastern border the European Union is not a new phenomenon. Since the 1990s, around 80,000 asylum seekers from the former USSR have crossed the border. The majority are Chechens, who fled their country after the first and then second Chechen wars with Russia.
Larisa Suleymanova, a philologist and translator, came to Poland via this route from the Chechen capital Grozny in 2004. “There was nothing … no integration courses, no psychological counselling, almost no NGOs dealing with migrants,” she recalls when we meet in Warsaw, where she has been living for the last few years working as a mentor and translator for other Russian-speaking refugees. “The whole assistance system was under construction. But people received us warmly’ there were no problems.”
Even in a homogenous country such as Poland, where in 2013 immigrants amounted to less than 1% of the population (a statistic that has started to change with the influx of Ukrainian migrants over the last few years), the 8,000 Chechen refugees who came to Poland were not a big group. Nor were they very visible –many of the refugee centres were located in non-urban areas, far from big cities.
Besides, Poland was a transit country for most: at least 75% of asylum-seekers who entered Poland continued their journey further west, to Germany, Austria or France.
That may help to explain why Poland had some of the highest levels of openness towards refugees in Europe – pollsters CBOS in May 2015 found that 72% of people thought that Poland should take in refugees. That would soon change.
In September 2017 a young Chechen woman was beaten in Warsaw after dropping her children off at kindergarten. The attacker was a Polish father whose children went to the same preschool. This was not an isolated case. Between 2014 and 2016 the total number of proceedings concerning hate crimes in Poland tripled.
Joanna Subko, from the office of the Polish Ombudsman, said the nature of hate crimes has also worsened. “While before the dominating form of hate crime was hate speech, now the proportions have changed and there are more cases of physical violence,” she said. “Their most common targets are Muslims now, though their minuscule number in Poland has not changed.” According to the State’s Prosecutor’s Office, in 2015 there were 64 reported cases of hate crimes against Muslims; in 2017 the number was 328.
Politics has contributed to this change of attitude. In autumn 2015, while thousands of asylum-seekers were crossing the ‘Balkan route’ and Europe started to talk about a “migration crisis”, Poland was in the middle of an election campaign. And while the Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans coming to Europe rarely reached Poland, they soon became one of the election’s main topics.
The refugees bring “all sorts of parasites and protozoa”, declared Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which went on to win with an absolute majority. Kaczyński and other right-wing politicians also linked refugees to terrorist attacks in Europe, repeating that they would not expose Poland to such danger by accepting refugees from Muslim countries.
Despite the fact that the only well-known Muslims in Poland are a small community of Tatars who have lived there since the 14th century, and that the vast majority of the population has never had any contact with Muslims, these campaign statements had a deep impact.
Poles started to be afraid. A new CBOS poll in May 2016 found that 63% of respondents were against accepting refugees from the Middle East and Africa. According to various opinion polls, Poles are now more afraid of terrorist attacks and refugees than losing their job or being victim of a crime.
The new, more hostile, political climate inevitably affected the situation at the border. In August 2016, when a few hundred desperate asylum-seekers organised a strike in Brest, appealing to the Polish state to recognise them as refugees, the then-Polish Minister of Interior, Mariusz Błaszczak, replied: “We will not succumb to the pressure of those who want to create an immigration crisis.” He added: “There is no war in Chechnya – it is an attempt to create a new route for Muslims who come to Europe.”
A significant number of people trying to cross the border in Terespol could probably be defined as ‘economic migrants’. But a sizeable minority are not. The Warsaw-based International Humanitarian Initiative Foundation, which provides psychological assistance to asylum-seekers and torture survivors, identified 320 people affected by torture in Chechnya and 122 direct victims of it among the migrants in Brest in the second half of 2016.
According to Maria Książak, a psychologist with the foundation, they found evidence that migrants had been struck with electricity, burnt with cigarettes, and beaten with sticks, cables and plastic bottles filled with water. They were illegally arrested, deprived of sleep, food, light and medical help. Many, she says, were threatened with death and forced to watch others being tortured.
Only a very small number of them were granted entry to Poland. Two particular cases ended up in the European Court for Human Rights. In the case of “Hamid K”, a Chechen asylum-seeker who tried to enter Poland 31 times, the court ordered interim measures that explicitly prohibited Polish authorities from returning him to Belarus. The Polish government ignored the order.
For the Polish Ministry of Interior, it is simple: the war in Chechnya finished in 2009, so Chechens – who are officially Russian citizens – who come to Europe are economic migrants. But for many, Chechyna isn’t safe.
Iwona Kaliszewska, an anthropologist from Warsaw University who regularly visits Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan, says Chechnya is essentially a police state. Ruled by Kremlin-backed Kadyrov, it is a place of human rights violations, political persecution, torture and forced disappearances.
“Apart from the classic categories of political opponents and independent journalists, who face problems in the whole Russian Federation, one of the groups exposed to persecutions are homosexual men,” explains Kaliszewska. Last year, the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta revealed the existence of camps in which up to 100 gay men were detained, beaten and electrocuted, with at least three allegedly murdered.
Many women are also fleeing to Europe to escape from domestic violence that usually goes unpunished in the region. There are people fleeing honour crimes –not uncommon in the Caucasus region. And unsettled personal feuds – many dating back to the war – are often solved using the state apparatus of violence.
Finally, explains Kaliszewska, there are the Salafis, the followers of a purist movement within Sunni Islam who are considered terrorists by Kadyrov, who supports and promotes only ‘traditional Chechen Islam’ – Islam inspired by practices of the mystical Sufi order, Qadiriya. Salafis2 are often the ones whose arrests, or even extrajudicial killings, boost the statistics of the ‘war on terror’ – for which the Chechnyan government receives funding from Kremlin.
The fate of some of those who are returned to the Russian Federation should also sound alarm bells. In February 2015, three months after being deported from Sweden to Chechnya, 23-year-old Kana Afanasyev was killed in Grozny. His corpse bore the marks of electric shocks. In July 2015, 30-year-old Zaurbek Zhamaldaev, recently deported from Poland, was believed to have been kidnapped in Moscow, and has not been heard from since. The total number of such cases is difficult to estimate because the families are often too afraid to speak up.
Ms Książak told me she recently got a WhatsApp message informing her of the death a man she met in Brest who had been trying to cross the border. His wife says he was beaten to death. She too is afraid to make it public. On 8 June, former Chechen policeman Artur Aydamirov disappeared in Brest, after trying to apply for asylum at the border nine times. He fled Chechnya with his family when he learnt he was required to perform military service in Syria. According to Amnesty International, witnesses in Brest saw uniformed men force Aydamirov into a van and drive away. He has not been seen since.
At the end of 2017, the Provincial Administrative Court in Warsaw quashed several of the Border Guard decisions to deny entry to Chechen migrants seeking international protection. The attorneys representing the migrants believe that, slowly, they are opening a new legal path.
But for now, nothing changes for the desperate people in Brest. On a Sunday morning, the 8.18 am train to Terespol is full of people. Among them is Madina, hoping it will be sixth time lucky.
A few days later, then-Polish Minister of Interior, now Defence Minister, Mariusz Błaszczak said on television: “It is thanks to the fact that Poland does not accept refugees that we are a safe country. We will not repeat the errors of Europe.” No matter the human cost.
The Ministry of Interior was working on a decree that will see asylum seekers, including children, placed in container camps, though this particular idea seems to have been put on hold for now. Unsuccessful asylum applicants may be deported without the chance to appeal.
The day I leave Brest, I get a text message from Madina in the early evening. “I didn’t make it. Do you know a Polish man I could marry? I need to cross the border as soon as possible. Help me.”
This story was written as part of ‘Reporting Migration and Trafficking in the Western Balkans’, a journalism workshop run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.