The migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border: It is not over yet. Views from the Polish civil society.
Is Poland the villain?
When in mid-August the news broke that 40 Afghans were trapped at the border between the Polish and Belarussian Border Police, few knew what was coming. Members of the Afghan group claimed they had managed to get 50 kms into the Polish territory, before they were returned forcibly to the border by the Polish army. The story of Polish state agents pushing people out of Polish territory without the benefit of a due process seemed unbelievable at first. After all, the Polish Border Police, despite their history of violations at eastern border crossings (confirmed in the ECHR judgements: M.A vs. Poland, D.A., and others vs. Poland), had hitherto used legally prescribed procedures towards people they apprehended within the territory.
Over 4 months have passed, at least 10 people have died, and we can safely say that the practice of pushbacks, i.e., measures by which people are forced back over a border – after they crossed it – without consideration of their individual circumstances and without possibility to apply for asylum, has become a new standard procedure at the Polish border.
…or is Lukashenko the villain?
“What is indisputable is the fact that large numbers of people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and several other countries, are being pushed through the Belarussian border into Polish territory with the use of manipulation, threats, and violence.”
There is an abundance of evidence that migration pressure on external EU borders is orchestrated by the Belarussian state, however, opinions regarding Lukashenko`s ultimate goals vary. What is indisputable is the fact that large numbers of people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and several other countries, are being pushed through the Belarussian border into Polish territory with the use of manipulation, threats, and violence. Their goals, motivations and dreams are very diverse. Some of them escape persecution, others flee war or the Taliban. Some want to join their families in Western European countries, others just want better lives for their children anywhere safe in the world.
Those who are very lucky, reach Germany. If Germany decides not to return these individuals to Poland, most of them have a high chance of receiving international protection and starting a new life in the EU. Those less lucky land in Polish detention centres. These are overcrowded and often re-traumatize migrants however they offer a hot meal and a roof over one`s head. Placing a person in detention means that one is registered, proper procedures are initiated, and the risk of sudden disappearance decreases.
The most difficult fate meets those who – despite being apprehended by the Polish armed forces – are not processed, but immediately pushed back to the Belarussian border. They are at once pushed once again by the Belarussian forces back towards the border with Poland, and soon realise that there is no way back for them to Minsk or anywhere else in Belarus. Their world shrinks to these few square kilometres in the dark, damp, freezing, Polish forest, where they wait for weeks trying to save their phone batteries, foraging, and drinking from the streams. At first, they wait for the smugglers who were supposed to take them further, to the promised land. After a while, as they lose their strengths and start getting sick one by one, they only ask for the most basic assistance.
Where is the law when one needs it?
Migration lawyers agree: pushbacks are contrary to European and international human rights standards, particularly the principle of non-refoulment. This principle is described, with some variation in scope, in a number of international legal instruments, including the 1949 Geneva Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. In short, the concept prohibits the expulsion of any person if their destination country would be unsafe for them. To execute the principle properly, individual screening mechanisms need to be in place. After all, if a state does not examine an individual case, how does it know if the migrant will be safe upon deportation? Similarly important is the ban of collective expulsions, enshrined in Protocol No. 4 to the ECHR. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, is the principle of requesting asylum in the country where a person is located. A person`s claim should as a rule withhold all proceedings aimed at their removal, until their claim is either recognized as legitimate or not.
All these rules have been violated at the Polish-Belarussian border repeatedly. The Polish government even made two successful attempts to incorporate its illegal practices into law. During the beginning of the crisis, through a lower-level administration order, and later, through a law passed swiftly through the Polish Parliament, the Polish government introduced legal norms which made it “lawful” to bring back a person to the border immediately after they crossed it without examining their case. These political manoeuvres obviously do not mean that the practices become legal in the light of international law. However, as there is no “asylum police” in the international system of human rights, the consequences of today’s violations will come to light only months or years later, when the European Court of Human Rights or the Court of Justice of the European Union issues its judgements.
History repeats itself – community organizing
“Polish civil society organisations do not sit idly by. Many organisations set up their own bases or formed larger consortia, the biggest of them being Grupa Granica who brought together 13 organisations, independent activists, journalists, artists, and local residents to alleviate the situation at the border. Quite quickly infrastructure was set up, which made it possible not only to provide basic relief services like food, water, and warm clothes to those in need, but also to monitor cases of human rights violations, provide the general public with reliable information and advocate against various policies of the Polish state.”
From day one of this crisis dozens of activists, professionals, and civil society organisations moved to the border to provide humanitarian assistance to those who were trapped in the Polish woods. Local communities, whose polarisation mirrors that of Polish society, responded in two ways: some remained loyal to the Border Police, which is one of the prominent employers in the region. Others have decided it is their human and religious duty to serve those who are hungry, sick and on the verge of hypothermia. The stories of people hiding in the woods in this region during WWII have not been forgotten in these families. These regular citizens are real heroes, as they risk their reputations, livelihoods, and the safety of their families every day to help those near them who find themselves in dire straits.
Polish civil society organisations do not sit idly by. Many organisations set up their own bases or formed larger consortia, the biggest of them being Grupa Granica who brought together 13 organisations, independent activists, journalists, artists, and local residents to alleviate the situation at the border. Quite quickly infrastructure was set up, which made it possible not only to provide basic relief services like food, water, and warm clothes to those in need, but also to monitor cases of human rights violations, provide the general public with reliable information and advocate against various policies of the Polish state. Further down the line, additional support for activists engaged in rescue operations was organised, including legal (24/7) and psychological support as well as capacity building training and workshops. The scale of the operation is significant, considering that only a small part of the Polish non-governmental sector has had earlier experience in rescue operations and humanitarian assistance.
Finally, the response of Polish society to the ongoing crisis has been overwhelming, be it through financial support, collection of clothes and essentials. Still, forward-looking strategists are already thinking of how to transform this haphazard through genuine activism displayed by many regular people into sustainable systems and structures capable of lasting beyond the attention span of today’s social media.
It is not over yet
“Poland’s response to this unexpected crisis will serve as a litmus test for whether the principles of law and justice with regards to migrant law will be maintained and implemented, or whether the Polish State will flout the law to hastily sweep this problem under the rug. The world is watching.”
Two groups of migrants currently need our urgent attention.
First are the cold, hungry and sick trapped in the Polish woods. They are on the decrease today, as the border is being systematically locked down and crossing it is becoming completely impossible. However, the situation is dynamic and may escalate quickly at any moment. Every day, new reports emerge of children separated from their parents, persons requiring urgent hospitalisation, asylum seekers being denied access to procedures and instead of being pushed back for the tenth, twelfth, fifteenth time. The efforts of activists go into providing these persons with food, warm clothes, medical assistance (if possible) and fighting for their right to claim asylum.
The second group is constituted by migrants placed in detention centres throughout Polish territory. They require first and foremost legal assistance. In overcrowded detention centres, a handful of lawyers work tirelessly to draw the attention of courts to the individual vulnerabilities of detainees, facilitate their access to basic services and monitor detention conditions. It is crucial to pay close attention to what the Polish state`s policy towards this group will be in the near future. Of chief importance is whether legal procedures will be followed at the expense of efficiency, or whether the Polish state will prioritize efficiency at the expense of established legal procedures regarding migrants. Poland’s response to this unexpected crisis will serve as a litmus test for whether the principles of law and justice with regards to migrant law will be maintained and implemented, or whether the Polish State will flout the law to hastily sweep this problem under the rug. The world is watching.