Belarus-Poland border crisis deepens, with thousands trapped in dire conditions

By Kara Fox and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 5:53 p.m. ET, November 11, 2021
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6:21 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Syrian man details beatings and grueling conditions at border

Scene from the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on Thursday, November 10, 2021.
Scene from the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on Thursday, November 10, 2021. Ramil Nasibulin/Belta/AFP via Getty Images

Youssef Atallah, a 37-year-old Syrian, recently arrived in Poland after his third attempt at crossing the border from Belarus.

Speaking at a refugee center in Białystok, in northeastern Poland, Atallah said that upon arriving at the border, guards caught his group of four and he was beaten, leaving him with facial injuries, a broken nose and bruised ribs.

"They took us to the forbidden area. That was the first try to cross the border to Poland," he told CNN. He said Belarusian officials refused to provide medical aid and repeatedly told them to head to Poland rather than return to Minsk.

While making their way through the forest, the group got separated while trying to flee Polish guards, he said. While making the journey into Poland, Atallah said he had no food and drank water from a swamp.

"I saw stuff left by another refugee group (and) I found a cube of sugar. I just start sucking on it because I can't chew, I can't bite or anything," he said.

Atallah said that his memory of the journey was clouded by the medical issues he's faced as a result of the beatings. He understands, however, that he spent three days in the forest before he was picked up by Polish police and brought to the refugee center.

Atallah said the experience he's had with Polish guards and at the refugee center has been starkly different to his experience with Belarusian officers.

"They are very kind with us actually. They took me to the hospital and the crew at the hospital are marvelous. The doctors even gave me clothes," he said.

Despite the treacherous journey, Atallah said he'd make the trip again for his family, citing an even more perilous situation back in Syria.


5:31 a.m. ET, November 11, 2021

Germany's Merkel asks Putin to "exert his influence" to ease tensions

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt and Kara Fox

Migrants continue to wait at the Polish-Belarusian border on November 10 in Belarus.
Migrants continue to wait at the Polish-Belarusian border on November 10 in Belarus. Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to “exert his influence” on Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko to stop the escalating crisis on the border. 

"Human beings are being used. They are victims of a misanthropic policy and something needs to be done about this," Merkel said in a joint press conference with Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Wednesday.

Merkel thanked countries that are trying to protect the borders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland under pressure from flow of migrants. 

She called for a humane solution to the crisis, while stressing the importance of securing the EU borders simultaneously.

Some background: In 2015, Merkel's so-called open-door refugee policy was both hailed as the epitome of a liberal, compassionate approach to migration and condemned as the nail in the coffin of the European project.

As a result of that policy, Germany has received more asylum applications than any other EU country since 2015 -- and remains the top destination for people seeking protection in Europe today, even though Merkel agreed to cut down migration in 2018.

In recent months, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have also seen a surge of people attempting to enter their countries from Belarus. Many of the people are hoping to travel on from Poland deeper into Europe. Lithuania declared a state of emergency for a month, which went into effect at midnight on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, video from Belarus state media showed children shouting "Germany, Germany" towards the barrier on Tuesday.

In an interview with the German tabloid Bild on Tuesday, acting Interior Minister Horst Seehofer called on the EU for support, saying: "Poland or Germany cannot handle this on their own."

''We have to help the Polish government secure the external border. That would actually be the task of the EU Commission. I am now appealing to it to take action. All EU states must stand together here, because Lukashenko, with the support of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, is using human fate to destabilize the West," he told BIld.

"That's why we have to stand together now," Seehofer said, adding: "Poland or Germany cannot do this alone."