A group of 32 refugees from Afghanistan, amongst them a 15-year-old girl, has been stuck at the Poland-Belarus border for the last three weeks. Hoping to reach the European Union, they attempted to enter Poland from Belarus near the village Usnarz Górny but were halted from doing so by Polish border guards. Belarus has not allowed the group to turn back either, leaving them stranded in between the two countries. According to Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish non-profit organisation, there is no clean water, food is extremely limited and shelter is insufficient. Guards have reportedly prevented medical treatment from reaching the refugees despite many suffering from fevers and other sickness-related symptoms – the health condition of a 53-year-old woman with a kidney problem has become increasingly worrisome. The group has also not been able to apply for asylum or ask for international protection in Poland, as lawyers have repeatedly been denied access.
Poland and other European Union countries have accused president Alexander Lukashenko of deliberately encouraging refugees to come to Belarus and to then send them across. Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki sees it as “an effort to create a pan-European migration crisis” and says the Afghan refugees are used as a “political instrument” to retaliate against EU sanctions imposed on Belarus partially in response to the diverted Ryanair flight and following arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich on May 23rd. Another reason for Belarus’ actions is thought to be Poland’s decision to welcome Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya after she refused to return to Belarus from Japan fearing reprisal for her criticism of the team. In a press briefing, the European Commission echoed Morawiecki’s position, saying it “firmly rejects attempts to instrumentalize people for political purposes. We cannot accept any attempts by third countries to incite… irregular migrations towards the EU.” Lukashenko has refuted the statements made by the Polish prime minister and other EU officials. He, however, warned the EU back in May of this year Belarus would no longer stop “drugs and migrants” from crossing if economic sanctions were forced upon them.
Seeing the situation at the border unfold, Polish authorities sought to tighten their security, as well as existing regulations on migration. In 2021, more than 4000 people crossed into Poland irregularly, with over half of those trying to enter the country in August alone – a barbed-wire fence and soldiers stationed along the border are supposed to halt this. The Ministry of Interior and Administration has authorized so-called ‘pushbacks’, allowing guards to seize anyone illegally crossing the Belarus-Poland border and force them to go back. Further legislative changes intend to make it more difficult for those who illegally entered the country to apply for and obtain asylum. Bartosz Grodecki, Undersecretary of State for the interior ministry, said these developments are to “speed up the processing of refugee applications” and mentions the interests of the EU as a driving force: “…as a member state, we are obliged to fulfill our community obligations, i.e. to protect the state border of both Poland and the external border of the community”. On September 2nd, a state of emergency was declared over the influx at the border. It will be in effect for 30 days in 183 towns and villages and will, amongst other limitations, prohibit demonstrations and restrict movement.
What is currently happening at the Belarus-Poland border is not the first time there has been a dispute over people crossing into EU territory from Belarus. On August 17th, Belarusian border guards dressed in riot gear were reported to have entered Lithuania illegally while rushing a group of 35 Iraqis into the country. Lithuania’s interior minister claimed Belarus “forcibly pushed” the group and deemed it a “provocation”, Belarus said it was the Lithuanians who were violent towards the migrants. In a forest on the border between Latvia and Belarus, several people from Iraq have found themselves in similar circumstances to the Afghan refugees. They were sent away by guards after walking for hours to reach Latvia and Belarus denied them re-entry, leaving the group, including children, stranded in the middle. Both countries have introduced measures to “protect their border”: Latvia has declared a state of emergency under which ‘push-backs’ are permitted and Lithuania is building a metal fence with razor wire and are planning to offer those who successfully entered 300 euros to return back home.
International organisations have, however, urged Poland and the other two countries to respect their international obligations when dealing with refugees at the border. Christine Goyner, the Polish representative of the UN’s refugee agency, called on “the Polish authorities to provide access to territory, immediate medical assistance, legal advice, and psychosocial support to these people,” and asked them to consider every person’s individual situation before denying them the possibility of asylum. Amnesty International further stresses the need to protect the refugees, noting they are “victim[s] of the political game between countries.” Some have also expressed concerns surrounding the legalisation of ‘push-backs’ in several EU countries. The Association for Legal Intervention, a Warsaw-based civil society organisation, believes it to be in conflict with national, as well as international law. Under the principle of non-refoulement, a refugee should not be returned to a country where they could face persecution or torture – forcing them to go back to Belarus can become problematic considering Lukashenko’s treatment of migrants, criticism sounds.
On August 25th, the European Court of Human Rights published a statement addressing the situation. It had received requests from both groups, hoping the court would help them enter and ask for protection in either Poland or Latvia. The court, however, denied this appeal and instead ordered Poland and Latvia to carry out several interim measures. For a period of three weeks starting immediately, they were to provide “food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter.” In response to the court’s decision, the foreign ministry claimed to have offered to send supplies to the Afghan refugees, but Belarus had refused. Poland insists the group is on the Belarusian side of the border and could not render aid without the agreement of Lukashenko.
Humanitarian Content Writer, Act for Displaced
LLM in international law from Tilburg University and LLM in human rights from the University of Edinburgh. Previously worked on migration, nationality deprivation, and statelessness, but also passionate about women’s rights and the issue of climate change.