Photography

In the Polish forest, desperate migrants and a grave marked by a red light

The Kurdish family with five children had spent 20 days in the Polish woods. They were cold from sleeping on the damp ground. They had gone five days without eating.

Kasia Strek

Like thousands of others, they had left their home and flew to Minsk weeks earlier after hearing of a rare opportunity: an easy gateway into the European Union by crossing the Belarusian border with Poland.

Kasia Strek

An Iraqi Kurdish family of seven, with 5 children from 15 to 5 years old, have already spent 20 days in the woods. They were exhausted, had not eaten in five days. One of the girls needed medical assistance.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

Instead, they encountered a tragic limbo. Belarusian authorities told them to go to Poland. But Polish authorities blocked the border. That process repeated itself more than five times, leaving the family stuck in the forest.

Kasia Strek

The standoff between the European Union and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko started as a political gambit. Western leaders say Lukashenko is orchestrating the increased flow of Middle Eastern migrants and others as revenge for tough E.U. sanctions over Lukashenko’s political crackdowns.

Kasia Strek

A group of Yemeni and Palestinian migrants continue their journey near Sejny, Poland, after receiving food, warm clothes and batteries from a group of activists on Nov. 1.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

Five men from Iraq were caught in Hajnowka, Poland, after crossing from Belarus as they begged for food and water. They were kept in the police car until arrival of the border guards on Oct. 19.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

Ibrahim Sangar, 26, from Kirkuk, Iraq, said he fled his homeland after his family abandoned him, and he was accused of burning the plantation where he worked. He claims the Islamic State destroyed it and that he was robbed, beaten and jabbed with electric probes Lithuanian and Belarusian guards. He crossed the Polish border and reached Fracki on Nov. 1.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

Soldiers patrol near Werstok, Poland, on Nov. 11.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

But the fallout has been devastating for the people caught in the middle. They were first given hope with eased entry requirements into Belarus. Once in Minsk, they took taxis or buses to the border with Poland or Lithuania, both E.U. member states. Migrants have said that Belarusian border guards then help them get through the border.

Kasia Strek

Those that make it across into Poland and are caught are often deported even if they claim asylum, even though the practice runs contrary to international law. That means migrants can be trapped and pushed back and forth between the two countries for weeks, during which time they have little access to food and water.

Kasia Strek

Nazwer, 36, together with his sister-in-law and her children, hopes to reach his brother in Germany. Nazwer, who gave only his first name to journalists, spent at least 20 days in the woods before reaching an area near Siemianowka, Poland, on Nov. 13.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

Afrah, 17, from Somalia, spent 15 days in the forest, first on the Belarusian side and then in Poland. She had breathing difficulties, severe hypothermia and potential heart problems when she was examined by doctors in Siemianowka, Poland, on Oct. 25. Afrah, who only gave her first name to journalists, was taken directly to a hospital.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

A Somali refugee, who spent 15 days in the forest around Polish and Belarusian border, shows wounds he said he received in Somalia by local soldiers. He was held in Siemianowka, Poland, on Oct. 25.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

A group of seven Somali refugees, including four children, being transported to a border guard station in Siemianowka, Poland, on Oct. 25. They seek asylum in Poland.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

A 50-year-old Syrian woman named Sena cries while looking at an image of the grave of her sister, who died in a bomb back in Syria. Sena, who gave only her first name at a migrant center in Bialystok, Poland, on Nov. 11 said some of her family is in Germany.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

A group of five Yemeni migrants in the forest next to a main road in Hajnowka, Poland, on Nov. 4 waiting for a smugglers' car to pick them up. They asked for warm food and clothes to survive one or two nights before being taken west to try to slip into Germany.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

A migrant woman with hypothermia near Swinoroje, Poland, being transported to a hospital on Nov. 12.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

A 49-year-old woman from Turkey's Kurdish region reached an area near Augustow, Poland, on Nov. 2 after several days of walking in wet shoes through the forest. She had huge blisters on her feet and a painful abrasions on her stomach. Volunteers provided basic medical help, food, water and clothes.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

Khedr, 39, a Syrian from Homs is helped by Michal Wolny, an aid volunteer with the Ocalenie Foundation, after being found near unconsciousness in the woods near Orla, Poland, on Nov. 14 after crossing the border with Belarus. Khedr, who gave only his first name to journalists, spent at least four days in the forest with his older brother. They were taken to a hospital.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

A 19-year-old Syrian, Ahmad al-Hasan, was found dead in the Bug River in eastern Poland last month. A few activists and some members of the local Muslim community held a funeral for him. A red light was left on his grave, a symbol of the beacon aid groups use when they enter the Polish forests to rescue migrants.

Kasia Strek

As the late autumn temperatures dip below freezing, especially after sundown, hypothermia is a greater risk. Volunteers found two Syrian brothers lying together under leaves, tree branches and moss. They suspected that the brothers would not have survived more than a few hours longer.

Kasia Strek

A funeral of Ahmed Al Hassan, 19, a Syrian who drowned in Poland's Bug River after crossing the Belarusian border. The funeral on Nov. 15 was organized by the Muslim Tatar community in Bohoniki, Poland.

Kasia Strek

Kasia Strek

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