Amnesty International reconstructs suspected illegal pushback of group of 32 Afghan people in August using photogrammetry and spatial modelling techniques.
Amnesty International has used spatial reconstruction techniques to show how a group of 32 people from Afghanistan was left stranded at the border between Poland and Belarus without food, clean water, shelter and medicine for weeks, despite attempting to claim asylum in Poland.
Amnesty’s analysis shows irrefutably how the group’s position shifted from Poland to Belarus in late August, as a result of what Amnesty suspects was an illegal pushback by Poland.
Polish and Belarusian border guards have been keeping the group trapped in a small area on the border for over a month, as both countries avoid responsibility for the four women, 27 men and one 15-year-old girl. On 20 August, Poland introduced a ministerial decree which limited movements at selected border crossing points and allowed for the return of those intercepted in the area. Subsequently, Poland declared a 30-day “state of emergency” at the border, restricting journalists’ and NGOs’ access to the area . Despite the dire situation of the asylum seekers, the European Union has been closing its eyes to their plight and is failing to end the stalemate and assist those in need.
To evaluate the situation on the border between Poland and Belarus, Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab collected and analyzed satellite imagery over the border and over 50 videos and photographs of incidents on the border since 12 August 2021. This digital content was then analyzed and verified. Photogrammetry and photo-matching to reconstruct models in 3D of the exact location has allowed Amnesty International to verify the position of the border, confirm the movements and locations of the group of Afghans since 12 August and detail how they are now living in a makeshift camp in inhumane conditions. This reconstruction also shows why Amnesty International suspects that an illegal pushback of the group of Afghans from Poland to Belarus happened on 19 August.
Under EU and international refugee law, Poland is obliged to ensure an individual assessment of all asylum claims and refrain from unlawful returns, including pushbacks and collective expulsions which do not take into account the specific circumstances of those being returned nor allow them to challenge the return decision. Amnesty International calls on Poland’s government to ensure access to its territory to those seeking protection, end pushbacks, and urgently provide adequate shelter, food, water, sanitary facilities and medical care to the group of Afghans stranded at the Poland-Belarus border. Poland should also repeal the ‘state of emergency’ and grant unhindered access to journalists, activists, NGOs and lawyers, so that they can continue their vital human rights activities.
To identify the border line between Poland and Belarus on site, Amnesty International identified and located border posts in high resolution satellite imagery. The line connecting the posts was then drawn.
This border location was then compared to Polish government data by overlaying the border data on a high resolution satellite image. This placed the border 4.5 metres further west than the government data. Both border lines have been placed over the satellite image.
The resulting discrepancy of approximately 4 to 5 metres has been taken into account in Amnesty International’s analysis. The line connecting the border posts has been assumed to be the more accurate border estimation.
Placing the makeshift camp on the border
Polish broadcaster Polsat News filmed the camp from a helicopter on 27 August. Amnesty International turned this footage into a model (through a process called photogrammetry), providing an accurate representation of the camp on this date, and allowing the creation of an accurate mapping of the landscape and the location of features within it.
Matching photographs in the space
With location of characteristic features precisely established against the satellite and geodesic data, available photographs were photo-matched in the 3D space. By using the characteristic features of the tall clotbur plants, the forked tree and burdock plants in front of the camp, the people in the camp can be more accurately placed in the 3D model.
Analyzing the suspected pushback
The photo-matching of photographs results in the estimation of the position of figures in the 3D space. With the estimated position of the border mapped in the model-space it becomes apparent that the group was shifted from being partially on the Polish side and partially on the Belarusian side on the 18th of August, to being completely moved to the Belarusian side the very next day.
Conditions in the camp
With the location of the camp mapped, videos taken by the group and posted to social media, as well as narrations of the witnesses and short phone calls with asylum seekers, expose the horrendous conditions in which this group is living. These conditions include a lack of adequate shelter, food, clean water, and sanitary facilities. Progressive suppression of medical aid as well as of support and communication with the outside world is documented by increasing physical distance, introducing visual and auditory blocks between the asylum seekers and the NGO ‘monitors’ and journalists whose contact with the group was cut off following Poland’s declaration of a ‘state of emergency’ in the area.
State of emergency
Since the events reconstructed here, the group has remained stranded between Polish and Belarusian border guards. Poland has further restricted movement in the area and, on 2 September, declared a state of emergency at its borders with Belarus. This limits journalists and NGOs from accessing the area. These restrictions are preventing the monitoring of potential human rights violations, raising concerns about the treatment of refugees and migrants in the area, including the unlawful return of other people across the border. Since 19 September, five people have died in the border area, including as a result of hypothermia.
Poland’s obligations under international law
Under EU and international refugee law, Poland is obliged to ensure an individual assessment of all asylum claims and refrain from unlawful returns, including pushbacks and collective expulsions. Amnesty International calls on Poland’s government to ensure access to territory to those seeking protection, end pushbacks, and urgently provide adequate shelter, food, water and medical care to the group of Afghans stranded at the Poland Belarus border. Poland should also repeal the ‘state of emergency’ and grant unhindered access to journalists, activists, NGOs and lawyers, so that they can continue their vital human rights activities.