The bars of metal barbed wire at the Polish-Belarusian border feel like an extension of a grim prison cell. Outside the clothing shops, children play in what used to be fields and families search the hotels, restaurants and homes of strangers passing through.
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Inside the Budu Ijuly apartment complex in the town of Ijuly, 8km (5 miles) from the border, two lodgings are filled with families. The rooms are cold and draughty, and the kids aren’t allowed to stay in them because of the cold.
To make matters worse, every night after six, 12 families arrive with children who have no idea where they are staying or how long they will be here. They have been recruited from Belarus and they travel across the border by bus, accompanied by parents asking the border guards for asylum. For many parents this seems a last resort, they say they have already fallen on hard times in Belarus.
“We know the rules. We’ve got no access to education or work,” said Nekzia Daganenko, 37, who had brought her one-year-old son with her to escape the cold in Minsk.
“The cold is the worst part,” said Cherelina Comina, 32, from Ternopil, who had brought her nine-year-old daughter to the city of Ijaly for the first time. “We put our lives on hold to come here. We need places to stay, we need somewhere to go to sleep.”
She says her daughter is terrified of sleeping in the middle of nowhere.
“It was a choice between using my money to get here and travelling by bus,” Comina said. “I went by bus to Belarus and walked a couple of hours to the border. I’m terrified and I don’t have a place to stay here tonight.”
Overnight temperatures are below zero in Belarus and young children freeze in the street at night. A winter crisis has broken out in the nation after citizens took to the streets in protest at the unpopularity of the new pension system that keeps pensioners on lower incomes.
Alexander Hrybin, a Belarussian reporter who is reporting on the crisis, says many border guards don’t want to be involved in the trouble. “They don’t want to do things that are unpleasant, they’re cold themselves. They feel things are getting out of hand, and they want to stop the unrest,” he said.
A young border guard named Iset recently said he received hundreds of complaints from Belarussians who couldn’t find places to stay. “In the last couple of weeks, the order was given to make sure this goes away,” he said.