Written by Mari-Luz Kerkhoven

In recent years, tensions between the European Union (EU) and Poland have been rising over the deteriorating situation of the rule of law, free press, and human rights in Poland. Although the EU has been critical of Poland in the past, it has not condemned the current dire situation of migrants and asylum-seekers at the Belarusian-Polish border. While Poland has abused and pushed back these people into Belarus, thereby violating EU law, the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), and international law, the EU has expressed solidarity with Poland (Amnesty International, n.d.; Charlish & Strauss, 2021; HRW, 2021a). Despite Belarus’ deliberate attempt to orchestrate the situation at the border (BBC, 2021; Cherlish & Emmot, 2021; Human Rights Watch, 2021a; Roth, 2021), Poland and the EU share a responsibility to protect people from human rights violations and safeguard international law.

Since this summer, Belarus has been luring people, mainly from the Middle East, to come to Belarus and have transported them to the Polish border (BBC, 2021; Cherlish & Emmot, 2021; Human Rights Watch, 2021a; Roth, 2021). This has come as a reaction to the sanctions imposed by the EU on Belarus due to human rights abuses in the country (BBC, 2021; Charlish & Emmot, 2021; Charlish, 2021; Child & Siddiqui, 2021; Roth, 2021). Once they arrive at the border, Belarusian border guards ‘help’ people to cross the border (HRW, 2021a). Although Belarus has denied any involvement, stories from migrants and asylum-seekers reported by Human Rights Watch and journalists show that Belarus has indeed lured and aided people to cross the Belarusian-Polish border.

Poland has responded by violently pushing back people into Belarus (BBC, 2021; Charlish, 2021; European Council on Refugees and Exiles, 2021; Glansk & Vulliamy, 2021; Henley, 2021; HRW, 2021a; Ibrahim, 2021, Morris, 2021; Save the Children, 2021). However, once back in Belarus, they are pushed towards Poland by Belarussian border guards and are not allowed to return to Minsk or their country of origin (HRW, 2021a). This leaves the migrants and asylum-seekers stranded at the Belarusian-Polish border where there is a lack of water, food, and medical assistance (BBC, 2021; Charlish & Emmot, 2021; Henley, 2021; HRW, 2021a; Ibrahim, 2021). People are drinking water out of puddles and swamps with the risk of getting ill, and some migrants have already died of hypothermia due to the combination of below-zero temperatures and inadequate sleeping equipment (Glensk & Vulliamy, 2021; HRW, 2021a; Ibrahim, 2021). The matter is further complicated by the fact that at both sides of the border there are emergency zones where humanitarian organisations and civil society are not allowed (ECRE, 2021; Henley, 2021; HRW, 2021a; Morris, 2021). 

When crossing the Belarusian-Polish border, people are violently pushed back into Belarus. Push-backs are illegal under EU law, the ECHR, and international law. Push-backs are “practices of refusal of entry at the border as well as the expulsion of individuals from a state territory without an assessment of their personal protection needs and with disregard for basic procedural guarantees” (Stefan & Cortinovis, 2021, p. 180). Under EU and international refugee law, Poland is obliged to ensure individual assessment of all asylum claims (Amnesty International, n.d.; HRW, 2021a). However, in interviews with Human Rights Watch, people explained that Polish authorities had failed to consider their protection needs and ignored pleas for protection and asylum (HRW, 2021a).

Moreover, state parties to the ECHR are forbidden to expel individuals to another state where they will face inhuman or degrading treatment (Fullerton, 2017; Stefan & Cortinovis, 2021). This is the principle of non-refoulment as set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which stipulates that states must not expel or return a person to territories where they would be exposed to serious human rights violations such as torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Stefan & Cortinovis, 2021; UNHCR, 2007). In Belarus, migrants and asylum-seekers are exposed to violence, abuse, theft, and extortion by Belarusian border guards (HRW, 2021a). Migrants and asylum-seekers are beaten, detained in open-air spaces for extended periods of time, and coerced to cross the border with Poland (HRW, 2021a). Moreover, they are deprived of food and water (HRW, 2021a; Morris, 2021). By pushing back migrants and asylum-seekers, Poland is exposing them to inhuman and degrading treatment in Belarus (HRW, 2021b). However, Belarus is not alone in its human rights abuses, as Polish border guards have likewise violated human rights at the border. They separate families from each other, commit violence with push-backs, deprive migrants and asylum-seekers of food and water, and often smash their phones before turning them back to Belarus (HRW, 2021a; Morris, 2021).

Although the EU prides itself on the protection and respect of human rights, it has not condemned the abuses and violations of rights of migrants and asylum-seekers by Polish border guards. Instead, the EU has expressed solidarity with Poland and used a ‘security’ frame to discuss the situation at the border (Charlish & Strauss, 2021). The situation has been called a ‘hybrid attack’ orchestrated by Belarus (Charlish & Emmot, 2021; ECRE, 2021; Euronews, 2021; Henley, 2021; Roth, 2021). Hybrid warfare refers to a combination of different methods of warfare, both military and non-military, such as drone attacks and cyber-attacks (Marovic, 2019). The EU is thus framing the situation at the border as a threat to the EU. It has ascribed the dire situation of migrants and asylum-seekers to Belarus and has therefore imposed new sanctions on Belarus (Child & Siddiqui, 2021; ECRE, 2021).  

Although the EU is correct in stating that Belarus is orchestrating the situation at the border, they are wrong in ascribing blame for the dire situation of migrants and asylum-seekers solely to Belarus. Poland, as a member state of the EU,  also shares a responsibility to protect people from human rights abuses. By expressing solidarity with Poland and framing the situation as a security issue, the EU is failing to address the human rights abuses by Polish border guards and is allowing this to occur on EU soil.

In conclusion, since the summer migrants and asylum-seekers have been trapped at the Belarusian-Polish border. While Belarusian border guards push these people into Poland, Poland pushes them back into Belarus without due process, thereby violating EU law, the ECHR, and international law. Migrants and asylum-seekers trapped at the border are living under very dire circumstances as they do not have access to basic necessities and services. To make matters worse, both Belarusian and Polish border guards have engaged in human rights abuses. The EU has failed to respond adequately to those abuses by neglecting its responsibility under EU and international law to prevent people from being sent back to a country where they will face serious human rights violations and is furthermore allowing human rights violations on its own soil. Instead, the EU should make the safety of the people at the border its top priority.


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