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Poland says Belarus has turned human trafficking into a business

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Belarus, a country in Eastern Europe, is being accused of bringing migrants from war-torn and impoverished countries to its capital, Minsk, and then encouraging them to illegally cross the border into the EU. It is in revenge for economic sanctions the EU placed on the Belarusian regime. Poland estimates 16,000 people have illegally crossed in its border with Belarus since August.

NPR's Rob Schmitz was on that border last week. Rob, Poland says hundreds of migrants are crossing into its country each day. Were you able to talk to any of them?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah. And after we arrive at the border town of Sokolka, my producer and I heard that police were looking for two migrants wandering around the town. We went outside to check, and a few minutes later, we found police officers with two men who looked exhausted.

(Speaking Spanish).

DONIEL MACHADO PUJOL: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

SCHMITZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

MACHADO PUJOL: (Speaking Spanish).

SCHMITZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MACHADO PUJOL: (Speaking Spanish).

SCHMITZ: And you can hear me speaking to them in Spanish here. The two men were from Cuba.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Poland's border with Belarus, I wouldn't imagine, Rob, is a typical place where you'd find Cubans, at least I wouldn't think.

SCHMITZ: No - these are the forests of Eastern Europe, quite a distance from the Caribbean. I asked them how they had gotten here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

MACHADO PUJOL: Belarus.

SCHMITZ: OK.

They said they had visas for Belarus. They flew from Havana to Moscow, and a smuggler drove them to Belarus. They said Belarusian soldiers helped them climb through razor wire into Poland. And for the past 10 days, they have been hiking through forests, sleeping under piles of leaves. And they were caught by Poland's border patrol twice. Each time, they were taken back to Belarus. And that's where Doniel Machado Pujol says soldiers beat him with batons before sending them back to Poland. He shows me his legs. They're cut, bruised and swollen, and he can barely walk.

MACHADO PUJOL: (Speaking Spanish).

SCHMITZ: "After we were pushed back, they beat us badly. And they refused to give us food or water. And now we're going on ten days with hardly anything to eat or drink," he says. They've been drinking water from a river and eating raw corn from the fields. He's starving. And he says he feels like a ball that's being tossed between Poland and Belarus. Nobody wants him. He's not alone.

KALINA CZWARNOG: Some of them are Iraqis. Some of them are Kurds. There are people from Yemen, from Syria. There are people from African countries, like Nigeria, Cameroon.

SCHMITZ: Kalina Czwarnog works for the humanitarian organization Fundacja Ocalenie, which is delivering food and water to migrants, helping them with asylum applications. She says the government of Belarus is orchestrating this crisis.

CZWARNOG: They are inviting them to Belarus, saying that they can cross EU border from there. And they are getting, like, a seven-day visa or a stamp.

SCHMITZ: And then Belarusian soldiers escort them to the border and help them illegally cross it. Czwarnog says, when Polish border guards catch them, they're supposed to allow them to apply for asylum. Instead, 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. Czwarnog fears more will perish as the weather gets colder. She says, the other day, she found a group from Iraq with three young children suffering from hypothermia.

CZWARNOG: They were very, very cold. 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 get in contact with the younger children because they were so weak.

SCHMITZ: 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. But not everyone is sent back.

A Syrian family, who wouldn't give their names for fear of being caught, spoke to NPR at a local homeless shelter. 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. He, his wife and their two young children crossed a river and hiked through dense forest for 12 hours before being caught. He says his son's spirit kept him going.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He was just saying to me, Daddy, don't just lose my hand. Just catch my hand and I will keep walking. He's my hero.

SCHMITZ: He thinks Poland did not 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.

MARCIN PRZYDACZ: This phenomenon we've been witnessing recently is a kind of weaponization of migration.

SCHMITZ: Marcin Przydacz is the deputy foreign minister of Poland. He says Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and his financial backer, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, have launched a hybrid attack on the European Union. After the EU accused Lukashenko of stealing his country's last election, it placed economic sanctions on Belarus. And Przydacz says this migration crisis is Lukashenko's plot to destabilize Europe. Lukashenko denies all of this. When I asked Przydacz why Poland is violating European Union law and the U.N. Geneva Conventions by sending these refugees back to Belarus without processing them, he stands his ground.

PRZYDACZ: If we allow more and more people to cross the border, then Mr. Lukashenko, who's doing also business on that, will invite even more of those people. So what should we do?

SCHMITZ: Meanwhile, activists along the border report that Belarusian soldiers are becoming more violent when Poland's border guards send back migrants.

MARTINEZ: Rob, Poland says Belarusian President Lukashenko has turned human trafficking into a business - any evidence of that?

SCHMITZ: Yes. A Polish journalist found a trove of documents left behind by a group of migrants along the border. He shared these documents with us. There are a list of travelers from Iraq, receipts of payment made to Belarusian travel agencies for flights to Belarus on a state-owned airline and receipts of stays at state-run hotels. There are also signatures of Belarus and officials who made all of this happen. What's also telling is at the beginning of the year, there was only one flight a week from Iraq to Belarus. Now there are several from multiple cities. Iraqi Airways says their flights are sold out through November. And that's just Iraq. There are flights coming from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

MARTINEZ: Going back to that Cuban man you met at the beginning of the story, what's the latest with him?

SCHMITZ: Well, I've been in touch with his family. They tell me that after I interviewed him, Doniel was sent back to Belarus. When he got there, soldiers beat him up again. And they beat the other Cuban man he was traveling with so badly that they fractured his skull. The two men are still along the border, injured, scared and still hoping to make it to the European Union.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz, who just returned from a reporting trip to the border of Poland and Belarus. Rob, thanks a lot.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLASHBULB'S "TRAVELOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.