‘They wanted me to fight, and I knew I had to leave, or die.’ My translator, a former English teacher from Syria, was explaining how, after the army knocked on his door one day, he had fled the country and moved more than 2,000 miles to Liverpool. This was 2018, the bloody civil war was raging.
Everyone we met in the north west – an old couple, a young family, single men – had said the same thing. As soon as it was safe, they just wanted to go home. Now, three years on, thousands of their countrymen are in a far more precarious situation, sleeping rough in tents and makeshift shelters on the Belarusian border, as temperatures plummet to below freezing at night.
Earlier this week, Polish police officers and soldiers deployed flash-bang grenades, riot shields and fired water cannons at the crowds as they tried to breach the barbed wire fence. The groups, which include women and children, are part of a far larger battle being fought between Belarus and the EU.
Brussels accuses the Eastern European nation of laying on flights from war-torn places like Syria and Iraq, encouraging desperate people to try their luck with a new route to the continent. Some were undoubtedly displaced by conflict, but many will have just jumped at the opportunity to start a new life. Once in the country, they stock up on tinned goods, buy SIM cards and tents, and jump in taxis or buses to the border.
However that, for many, is where the journey has ended. Neighbouring Poland and Lithuania have announced the construction of vast frontier walls, fortified and kitted out with surveillance equipment, in an effort to control a sharp spike in illegal crossings. Warsaw has even now called in British engineers to help reinforce the barricades.
Videos from the area appear to show Belarusian troops forcing would-be migrants to assault the barbed wire fences, handing out bolt cutters and allegedly deploying plain clothes officers to help dismantle the defences.