Refugees and asylum seekers have been seriously injured by a “dangerous” razor-wire fence that the UK helped to build to keep asylum seekers out of Europe.
At least 16 people have been gravely hurt, some hospitalised, when recently attempting to reach Europe by crossing a 5.5m-high barrier the British military helped to construct on Poland’s border with Belarus.
Humanitarian groups last night called for an inquiry into why the government had aided “inhumane anti-migration measures” and demanded answers from ministers over Britain’s “role in the harm and misery inflicted upon vulnerable people”.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed it sent Royal Engineers personnel to Poland between December 2021 and August 2022 to provide “border infrastructure support” in response to “pressures from irregular migration”.
The Polish defence minister stated British soldiers would work on a fence on the Belarusian border.
Now the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has revealed it has been treating a series of grave injuries sustained at the barrier.
During the month up to 24 April, at least 16 people, mainly from Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and Afghanistan, were treated for blunt injuries, sprains, cuts, and suspected fractures – some requiring urgent hospitalisation – as a “direct result” of trying to cross the razor-wire border wall stretching 116 miles along its frontier with Belarus.
The types of injury led MSF medics to conclude that the border fence, completed last June, was “dangerous.”
Sophie McCann, advocacy adviser at MSF UK, said: “MSF medical teams have seen the injuries and suffering caused by abusive treatment at Europe’s borders of refugees, people seeking asylum and other migrants.
“It is therefore deeply alarming that the UK government is actively and directly supporting these inhumane anti-migration measures.
“Given the government sent personnel to help construct fences in response to ‘irregular migration’, ministers have serious questions to answer about their role in the harm and misery inflicted upon vulnerable people searching for sanctuary.”
A defence source said the UK had become involved after Belarus began forcing migrants towards Poland, a Nato ally, in an apparent attempt to undermine EU security.
“Belarus’s deliberate policy to use migrants as weapons has sadly led to many being forced across secure border fences. The UK government condemns such use,” said the source.
The developments come as the UK government refuses to say what anti-migrant and border security support it has given to Hungary, whose nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, previously described asylum seekers entering Europe as “a poison”.
Since January 2021, MSF teams at the border have treated 498 patients for physical injuries, allegedly because of physical assaults by Hungary’s border police and army, or due to a steel fence built on the border with Serbia to keep out migrants.
The charity said it was investigating recent reports of children locked up in shipping containers and teargassed in Hungary.
Another country accused of serious abuses towards refugees is Greece. The UK government has, in the past, been transparent about helping Athens with anti-migrant measures but now appears to have adopted a policy of secrecy, not answering queries from the Observer or sharing details following Freedom of Information requests.
“The excessive secrecy around the provision of assistance to other states’ harsh migration policies is deeply alarming,” said McCann.
This month the New York Times published video showing asylum seekers taken to sea and abandoned on a raft by the Greek coastguard – despite the country claiming it does not ditch migrants at sea.
McCann added: “We have seen the horrendous human cost of policies such as violent pushbacks – where people arriving in Greece are aggressively forced back out to sea and abandoned. Yet the Home Office is refusing to share even minimal information about what support it provides to border forces in Greece or Hungary – two states where many of the worst abuses happen.
“It is completely unacceptable that the UK government continues to support this approach while seeking to cover up the evidence of its support at every turn.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “Between December 2021 and August 2022, personnel from the Royal Engineers were deployed to Poland to help secure its border.
“Personnel supported Polish troops with specific engineering tasks along the border including infrastructure support and repairing access roads, as well as planning support.”
The Home Office referred queries to the Foreign Office who said the issue was one for the Home Office.