The refugees freezing to death a few miles from where others get a warm welcome

Poland has been praised for its generous greeting to Ukrainians, but just a few miles away other desperate refugees are surviving on swamp water in the forests. Credit: Getty

Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer Allegra Goodwin

At Poland’s border with Ukraine, Polish border guards help elderly women with their luggage, hand out cups of tea, pick up small children and even play with them. 

After the warm welcome, the refugees are passed through to volunteers like Khaled, who understands their plight better than most.

The 27-year-old software engineer was forced to flee Kabul after the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan last year. But his arrival in Europe was far less welcoming.

Several miles north along Poland's border, others seeking asylum continue to be violently pushed back when they try to enter from Belarus.

They have been met with beatings and tear gas, blasted by water cannons, forced back to no man’s land without food, water, or shelter as temperatures plummeted below zero. Some are so weak, they drink swamp water. Some walk on bare feet, their shoes stolen by Belarusian soldiers.

So far, 21 people have died in the freezing forests between the two countries.

A refugee family from Kurdistan in no man's land Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS Agency

Last winter, a crisis erupted at Nato’s eastern border when Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko was accused of funneling thousands of desperate migrants into Europe, an accusation he denied. This year alone, there have been 3,419 illegal attempts, the Polish Border Guard's office said on Twitter.

Khaled was one of many who became pawns in Belarus's political game with the European Union in retaliation over western sanctions. He was stuck on the border for four nights in November.

He told ITV News how he was lured towards Poland by Belarusian soldiers, who gave him scissors to cut the fence along the border, only to be told it was “a trap” by Polish guards.

Khaled explains how he became 'trapped' at the border

Most of those trudging to the border are from countries in the Middle East and Asia, including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, lured by the promise of safe travel to Europe.

“We didn’t have enough water, food and clothes for this trip because we were thinking that after one day we will go to Poland and after that everything will be okay, but it was not like that," Khaled said.

“The Belarus border guards were pushing us to cross the border and go to Poland, and Polish border guards were pushing us back to Belarus, and we were in the middle.”

Khaled said when he tried to cross back to Belarus, a soldier told him, “if you come back then we will kill you”, adding Belarusian soldiers encouraged dogs to bite him.

“They hit us, all of us, and it was the worst day in the border because after that the dogs destroyed our clothes, and because of the weather in the forest it was hard to be alive, and at first we didn't have water and food and after that we didn't have good clothes or a jacket.

“I was crying, 'why they did that?' and they are worse than (the) Taliban, because (the) Taliban will kill you in a second and you can’t feel anything. But here they are killing you very slowly, it’s more hard.”

Khaled decided to post a video on Facebook to warn people back home not to come to the border.

“I said okay, we are dying here in the forest, and maybe it’s my last post on Facebook, and I was crying in that time. I said okay, why God don’t see us here in the forest, we are not human, even God don’t care about us, the people don’t care about us, (the) Taliban don’t care about us, our president don’t care about us, even Europe don’t care about us.” 

Khaled thought this would be his last post on Facebook

Europe showed solidarity with Poland's approach.

“This is a hybrid attack. Not a migration crisis," EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted, while Polish President Andrzej Duda declared the country would always be “part of a Europe based on Christian values”. 

Meanwhile, the British government said it would send 140 military engineers to Poland "in response to the pressures from irregular migration at the Belarus border".

The barbed wire fence along the Polish-Belarusian border Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS Agency

But Ukraine is a different story. 

“These people are Europeans,” Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said of Ukrainian refugees, days after Russia invaded.  “This is not the refugee wave we have been used to; people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”

Meanwhile, Denmark, which also jumped in to help Ukrainians, continues to tell some Syrian refugees to return to war-torn Syria.

More than four million people have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion began, according to the UN Refugee Agency. It took five years for the same number to flee the conflict in Syria.

It's an appalling double standard, activists say, since Syrians and Ukrainians are fleeing the same aggressor - Russia helped the Syrian regime to flatten Aleppo, the scenes are a mirror image of Mariupol today. 

And with the world's eyes firmly fixed on Ukraine, Polish forces continue to push back refugees.

Anna Alboth, an activist from from Minority Rights Group who works at the Belarus border, told ITV News the situation is "insane".

Anna is technically committing a crime every time she goes to the forest - Poland declared a state of emergency banning journalists and aid workers from the area - but she goes anyway, sneaking between the trees to try to bring people to safety.

She said the Polish government is letting vulnerable people “systematically die” there.

This includes “kids with disabilities, people in wheelchairs, old people who cannot move anymore ... little babies and pregnant women", Anna said. She is also aware of three women who claim to have been raped by Belarusian soldiers.

The Polish Border Guard's office, however, said on Monday on Twitter that food and hygiene products were delivered to the border "on an ongoing basis" for refugees coming from Belarus.

For those who managed to cross the border, it is hard to believe how differently the same country is responding to Ukrainians. “I know how difficult it is for them to watch it. I'm often asked, ‘how can it be that we had to go through this hell, why is it like this?’”, Anna said.

She recently went to a pro-Ukraine demonstration in Germany with a group of Syrians who she helped to cross.

“They had their flags, and they were supporting Ukraine, but they were just looking around with tears in their eyes, because nobody had ever done such a big demonstration for them.”

Anna Michalska, spokesperson for the Polish Border Guard, told ITV News: "The people who came from Ukraine and ask for help in Poland are refugees of war. They cross our border through designated crossing points."

She said the people who come from Belarus "attempt to cross the border illegally" and are trying to get to western European countries like Germany.

A toddler in the forest between Belarus and Poland Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS Agency

The spokesperson also said border guards had been "attacked" and "injured" by refugees coming from Belarus, and added cars and infrastructure had been destroyed.

"We protect integrity of the Polish border, which in part is also the external border of the EU", she said, adding the border guards "always help everyone who requires protection", and that they had "saved (the) lives of many illegal immigrants".

Dr Melina Platas, assistant professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi, told ITV News race and religion can influence the treatment of refugees.

She said it could be that people are more likely to sympathise with refugees who look like them and pray like them, which could explain why Ukrainians, who tend to be seen as white and Christian, have been so warmly welcomed. 

Dr Platas explained perceptions of a security risk was also a factor.

“Maybe there’s one terrorist attack that was conducted by someone who had come from a country that experienced conflict, and then that sticks with people, and they overestimate the extent to which refugees are going to be involved in terrorism, which is actually very low, much lower than domestic terrorism in the United States, for example, so that is certainly a misperception.”

Border patrol officers in the forest Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS Agency

Other experts argue the language we use can also have an impact.

Dr Lamis Elmy Abdelaaty, assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, tweeted that the Ukrainian crisis was rightly being framed as a crisis for Ukrainians, unlike the arrival of Syrian refugees which was reflected as a crisis for European countries.

She added the conflict had shown “that the EU (the third largest economy in the world) is more than capable of receiving large numbers of refugees who are fleeing deadly violence. We need to bring this empathy to all refugee groups, who are equally worthy of our compassion and assistance.”

It's empathy that Khaled offers to Ukrainian refugees at Poland's train stations and hostels, giving them food and clothes, and helping them to find a place to stay.He says his volunteering makes him happy. “It’s a very good feeling I think.” With the help of a journalist and some aid workers, Khaled was finally able to come into Poland after his perishing ordeal in the forests by the Belarus border.

But months after his arrival, he hopes that he can receive the same support. His family are still in Afghanistan, and he wants to help them escape. But he can’t do anything while he waits for his asylum application to be processed.

“I have to do something for my family. I need money, I need a job, I need to start everything from the beginning because I lost everything. I had a house in Afghanistan, a car, my family, money, everything. But now I don’t have anything”, he said. 

“I can’t force anybody, I have to have hope.”

But activists say as spring approaches and brings warmer weather to Europe’s eastern border, there will be more and more tragic cases and grim discoveries in the forest.

For those left out in the cold, hope will not prove enough.