Global Human Rights Defence

Poland Denies Migrants and Refugees’ Rights at its Border

– Interview With a Lawyer from the Association for Legal Intervention

Source: EPA-EFE/ Artur Reszko

At the border of Poland, the condition of migrants and asylum seekers has been extremely worrisome since August 2021. The number of people trying to transit from Belarus to Poland has increased significantly, with more than 16,000 people being arrested by police forces while attempting to cross.[1] The government reacted by reinforcing the security at the border, conducting push-backs and refusing to take asylum applications. Moreover, on the 2nd of September, a state of emergency was declared in eight districts situated at the border, prohibiting access to the press and NGOs in the area. Despite the condemnation the government has faced by the European Union, it is still going on.

On the 19th of October, we interviewed a lawyer working with the Association for Legal Intervention, an organization providing free legal counseling and humanitarian relief to the people in need, and representing people before the Polish courts and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Her testimony gives us a deep understanding of the current situation at the border, the violations committed against the migrants and how the organization manages to continue its operations in this context.[2]

What actions are you undertaking to assist asylum seekers and migrants at the border?

Our organization operates within a group of few NGOs working both on the ground but also giving some legal counseling. At the border, we are currently monitoring part of it. We receive information about a group of migrants that is lost or found in the woods at the border, then an action group goes there and provides them with humanitarian relief, food, water, clothing and if there is a need, medical assistance. Having in mind that we are not doctors, we always cooperate with other groups of doctors that we consult or ask to come directly in case of an emergency. The last part of our job is to provide people with legal information and offer legal assistance. However, since most of the time the border police do not take the asylum applications, people do not ask for legal counseling and just want humanitarian assistance.

People do not make asylum requests anymore?

Yes. They know that applications are rarely admitted. We do provide this information because it is what the situation looks like [right] now. But we cannot make the decision for them, it is their lives: whether they want to make an application, move further from the border or go to the police border and ask for asylum, or try to cross the internal EU border. We [have] heard that there are thousands of persons who managed to do that and got to Germany so I suppose this information flows between the migrants at the border. Of course, as lawyers, we inform them that it is illegal and that they are not allowed to cross the internal EU borders, however, that is up to them. Due to the behavior of the Polish border guards, there is no good solution for them.

You are saying that the asylum system is blocked… Are the police forces still taking applications?

I cannot say that they are not taking any applications anymore because sometimes they do take applications. But there is no way to guess when they will accept the application and move forward with that, and when they will just refuse and pretend not to hear. Therefore, we started to prepare interim requests to the ECHR and we received some positive decisions; however, we are not 100% sure whether those interim measures will be respected. Also, migrants’ lawyers are not allowed in the border zones where the migrants are. Migrants’ lawyers have to wait for the asylum request decision and can access the premises only if the group is not deported. But if the group is deported, they are banned from entering the premises. That is not legal but that is what is happening. In practice, the only people worrying about the respect of human rights in Poland, and are actually allowed in, are the representatives of the Polish Ombudsperson.[3]

Related to this, I saw that a law authorizing not to take asylum applications was passed by the Polish parliament this summer…

Yes.Such a law, as of today, is the practice even if it is not based on anything legally. They are trying to formulate some legal basis for their current actions. This law is still in need of the signature of the president but it is known that he will sign it. According to the law, you do not have to accept the application of someone who crossed the border illegally. If we had a working constitutional tribunal, this law would not have passed, but this is not the case currently. Also, that piece of regulation allows police forces to escort a person to the borderline, not to the border crossing. Therefore, people found crossing illegally are escorted in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the night. That is a problem that concerns a large number of people that were pushed-back, they are brought to unsafe locations.

What happens to the people once they are pushed-back?

There are two types of situations: the first one concerns a minority of people. People are pushed-back at the border and then the Polish and Belarusian encircle the group and they are forbidden to take any step in either direction. The case concerning this situation has been notified to the Polish government and there is a case before the ECHR.

The majority of the people are left in the woods by the Polish border guards and they make them cross the border in the direction of Belorussia. From the information we get from the people, some of them claim that they were forced by the Belarusian armed police to cross the Polish border once again. Some people reported to have been beaten and intimidated with weapons by the Belarusian armed forces. Those who just wanted to try again crossing to Poland were assisted by the Belarusian who regrouped them and showed them the direction to take. 

People stranded by the border guards. Source: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP

Do you know what happened to the minority group that was encircled by the police?

We do not know because that is in the part of the border that is currently closed. They have been there since the beginning of August; we assume they are still being held there. They receive some food sometimes from the UNHCR and the Belarusian red cross. But they cannot move. The situation of this group was widely covered by the media and the group was visited by the Polish Ombudsperson. There are hygienic problems, no toilets, no food and people drank water from the swamps…

And the majority group ends up succeeding to cross one of the two borders?

I think that is an endless circle until they either manage to go through Germany, inside of Poland, or until the Polish border guards decide to take their asylum applications. Also, I guess that the people ending up in a hospital have a bit higher chance to have their asylum application reviewed.

Did the government react to the condemnation of the ECHR, asking Poland to provide assistance to the people stuck at the border?

I was one of the lawyers there. But they just ignored that. They assume that some of the migrants are not [in] the country’s jurisdiction and that, therefore, they cannot provide them with assistance. They claim to have prepared a humanitarian convoy that was blocked by Belorussia who did not want to let them enter. In the same decision, the ECHR said that the Polish government must allow lawyers to access the group, but Poland did not comply with this either.

Regarding your activities, did the state of emergency affect the humanitarian relief you provide?

Yes, we are banned from entering certain areas close to the border. If we get information about people in need within that restricted area, as a rule, we are not approaching them and we provide them with information. However, we are cooperating with a group of local activists that are residents of those municipalities and are living close to the border and can move freely if there is a situation of emergency.

But how do you get information? Are you in direct contact with the migrants?

At first, we just went to the border and educated people. We had a whole team of educators going throughout the villages and we explained them who are the people immigrating, and most importantly, how they can react in a safe way. Because the vast majority of people, the first thing they do is they call the police or they call border guards, then they come and they push them back. But there is also a group of people living there that is willing to help them so we are in contact with them. 

So, what would you say is the main reaction from the population? Did this subject raise tensions within the population?

The tensions are rooted deeper than that. The tensions within Polish society began a few years back with the dismantling of the legal system in Poland and there is a very strong polarization of the society. This crisis is used for political gains and it seems to be working for one political party to present migrants as threats and present themselves as the only solution to keep Poland safe. So there is a group that is hostile and happy with the heavy presence of the police and army, and there is another group, smaller, that is willing to assist. There is a large support from different groups; there are attorneys trying to organize themselves and provide assistance to Afghan refugees; there are also groups of doctors trying to support the migrants at the border, so there are also heartwarming signs.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I also want to add that we know 7 people were already confirmed dead… they froze to death or were severely injured. Since the weather is going to be [getting] worse within the coming months, we think the deaths might be higher, if it is not already higher. Those are only the numbers reported by the border police and are numbers publicly available, but migrants are saying that in the restricted areas, there are dead bodies but we have not seen them so we cannot confirm that. The situation is really worrying…

Protests in Warsaw to denounce the pushbacks of migrants at the border. Photo: Aleksander Kalka/imago images

Since our interview, the situation has worsened significantly. On the 8th of November, a video published by the Polish Defence minister showed thousands of people at the Polish border[4]. For the Polish government and the EU, Alexandre Loukachenko instrumentalizes migrants to put pressure on the EU which imposed economic sanctions against the government last summer. Even though the situation has been going on since August, the recent events have increased the tensions between Loukachenko and the European governments who decided to extend the sanctions against Belarus. For its part, the Polish government announced the construction of a wall at the border with Belarus, starting in December[5]. At the same time, the European Union concerned that a situation similar to that of 2015 happens again, did not condemn the systematic refoulement practices of Poland which are in violation of European and international law. The political considerations have overshadowed the humanitarian crisis engendered. Currently, around 3 000 and 4 000 are blocked at the border[6], brutalized by police forces from both sides and unable to request asylum. For now, there are no solution for the children, women and men forced to survive outside while the winter has already started.

If you want to know more about the situation in Poland and the human rights violations committed against minorities, please check the report on Minorities’ rights from October 2021. https://ghrd.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Minority-rights-violations-in-Poland-2.pdf

Sources :

France Info. (2021, November 15). Crise migratoire : quelles sanctions de l’Union européenne contre la Biélorussie ?https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/europe/migrants/crise-des-migrants-a-la-frontiere-pologne-bielorussie/crise-migratoire-quelles-sanctions-de-l-union-europeenne-contre-la-bielorussie_4845663.html

Kamiński, M. (2021, November 15). Construction of a wall [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/Kaminski_M_/status/1460260853937287172

MinisterstwoObronyNarodowej. (2021, November 8). “A group of migrants is currently
located in the vicinity of Kuźnica”
[Tweet]. Twitter.

https://twitter.com/MON_GOV_PL/status/1457647830882045952?s=20

Mortensen, N. C. K. A. A. (2021, 11 octobre). Belarus : Record number of people attempt to cross the Polish border, officials say. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/10/10/europe/poland-belarus-border-crossing-migrants-record-number-intl/index.html

[1]Mortensen, N.C.A.A. (2021, 11 octobre).Belarus : Record number of people attempt to cross the Polish border, officials say. CNN.

[2] Due to the sensitive nature of this topic in Poland, the interviewee prefers to remain anonymous.

[3] The Polish Ombudsman is the Commissioner for Human Rights in Poland, an independent office established by the constitution in 1988.

[4]MinisterstwoObronyNarodowej. (2021, November 8). “A group of migrants is currently located in the vicinity of Kuźnica” [Tweet]. Twitter.

[5]Kamiński, M. (2021, November 15). Construction of a wall [Tweet]. Twitter.

[6]France Info. (2021, November 15). Crise migratoire : quelles sanctions de l’Union européenne contre la Biélorussie ?

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