Throughout the year, the MSF team has treated over 220 people – 10% of whom needed life-saving referral by ambulance – and trained local civil society groups in topics such as basic first aid, and how to manage conditions like hypothermia and trench foot (damage to the feet caused by them being damp for prolonged periods of time).
“Many of the patients have injuries caused by long, 5-5m-high razor wire-lined border wall. These people have experienced violence during their journey, and when they reach the border, they are faced with a heavily militarised environment. They cannot go back, and they risk being trapped in “no-man’s land” between the Polish wall and the Belarusian fence, and so they try and go forward”, explains Andreas Spaett, MSF Head of Mission in Poland. “We treat people with sprains, fractures, and dog bites, but there are also men, women and children who are exhausted and dehydrated or have serious physical injuries. When the temperatures drop, there is also a high risk of frostbite and hypothermia, and we will likely see the number of these cases rise in the coming weeks.”
In 2021, Poland amended its domestic legislation to allow for people entering irregularly from Belarus to be pushed back, a practice contrary to EU and international law. Those crossing are therefore forced to hide from border guards and military in swamps and forests like the Białowieża, for fear of violence. This includes families, pregnant women and those with serious medical conditions. People can be in the forest for days, often with limited access to food and water, and there have been instances where they have drunk swamp water and become violently ill. Earlier in the year, the MSF team met a young man who had been in the forest for over a week without food or water, and who was so physically and mentally exhausted and in such pain that he was unable to get up off the ground. He refused to go to hospital because he scared of being sent back to Belarus.
“As a medical humanitarian organisation, we feel compelled to help those who are facing extremely difficult, often life-threatening situations. For us it is a question of medical ethics but also one of ensuring basic human dignity”, says Spaett.
Since 2022, teams have been responding to the needs of Ukrainian refugees. MSF in Poland supports an innovative multidrug-resistant tuberculosis programme in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and World Health Organization to achieve a new model of care, linking Ukrainian TB patients to medical facilities and psycho-social support. MSF withdrew from the Poland–Belarus border region in December 2021 due to a lack of access authorisation, but our teams returned to the area in November 2022. MSF works with people on the move in other European countries, including Greece, Italy, Belgium, France, Serbia and on the Mediterranean Sea. MSF first worked in Poland in 2005.