BIALYSTOK, Poland: Umm Malak, 26 and due to give birth in weeks, was willing to go through chest-deep water, hiding in cold forests with her three small daughters in the hopes of giving them a better life in Germany.
The Iraqi woman said she did not regret her efforts, even though she said she and her family had been shunted between Polish and Belarusian border guards six times in the last few weeks.
“The future of my children, I have to think about this first, because in Iraq, there is no future, neither for us nor for them.” A Polish police spokesperson said police did not conduct activities such as taking migrants back to the border. Neither the Polish Border Guard nor Belarusian authorities responded to requests for comment on her case.
Reuters could not independently verify her account.
Umm Malak, who declined to give her full name, is one of thousands of refugees, many of them Iraqis, who have tried to get into the European Union through Belarus starting in the spring.
Reuters spoke to her in a migrant centre in the Polish city of Bialystok, where she was staying with her husband and three daughters. The migrant centre is an open one, meaning refugees can come and go freely, once they have fulfilled any coronavirus quarantine requirements.
Umm Malak said she was due to give birth in three weeks and hoped it would be in Germany.
The European Union accuses Minsk of creating the crisis as part of a “hybrid attack” on the bloc - distributing Belarusian visas in the Middle East, flying in the migrants and then pushing them to cross the border illegally.
Belarus denies fomenting the crisis, but has also said it cannot help resolve it unless Europe lifts existing sanctions.
Poland has detained some migrants in closed detention centres and transferred others to open centres, mostly those who are sick, elderly or have small children.
Umm Malak said she landed in Belarus from a Gulf country at the beginning of October and had hoped to cross the Belarusian border then go by road to Germany with her daughters, all under the age of 10, and her husband. She said six of their attempts to cross into Poland were foiled.
FELL IN A POND
On a few occasions, she said the Polish authorities caught them, taking them back to the border with Belarus. On another attempt, she said they crossed into Lithuania but got tired and returned.
On one attempt to enter Poland, Umm Malak said the Belarusian authorities helped her cut the border fence with Poland to let her and her family through.
She said she then fell into a pond near the border and got sick, already eight months pregnant. The Polish authorities detained her for three days, then took her to a closed refugee centre for a day, then to an open one, she said.
“We fell into the pond at noon then overnight... they (the Polish border guard) got us. When they got us, I couldn’t stand by myself,” she said.
Some refugees at the open centre in Bialystok told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity, that they regretted the journey to Poland and that they were calling loved ones back in the Middle East telling them not to come.
But Umm Malak said migrants, especially those from Iraq like her, should still try getting over the border to the EU.
“I would advise all those thinking of coming to do it, because there is no future or security or anything in Iraq,” she said. “So bear the difficulties of the journey for a month or two, for a week or two, instead of continuing to suffer in Iraq for years.”