The deadly political game being played at the EU’s eastern border
Amid accusations of “hybrid war”, Poland and the EU have forgotten that the migrants caught up in its stand-off with Belarus are human beings first and foremost
On Sunday 19 September, four people were found dead at the border between Poland and Belarus, the latest development in a diplomatic stand-off that has lasted more than a month.
In August, a group of thirty refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq became trapped at the border when Polish armed forces prevented them crossing into the country from Belarus. Although the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, and Poland’s human rights commissioner have called on the Polish government to let asylum seekers enter its territory, the country has so far refused, arguing that they are the responsibility of Belarus. The Belarusian authorities, for their part, have refused to let the refugees re-enter its territory.
Polish NGOs like Fundacja Ocalenie and Fundacja Polska Gościnność, in addition to volunteers, lawyers, and politicians, have been trying to provide the trapped migrants with food, water, medical care, and legal support despite the obstacles created by border guards.
The deaths on Sunday – at least one man is believed to have died of hypothermia – illustrate the difficulty of the situation.
One of the biggest obstacles for NGOs and volunteers has been the inability to talk to the migrants and collect their claims for international protection. To further complicate matters, the Polish government is pushing to temporarily make it legal to push asylum-seekers back to Belarus and other neighbouring countries such as Ukraine and Russia, even though this potentially contravenes international refugee law.
On 18 September, the Polish government accepted a draft law amending the Act on Foreigners and the Act on Granting Protection to Foreigners in the Territory of the Republic of Poland. This would allow the authorities to refuse applications for international protection from people who have been detained after illegally crossing an external EU border. Under the amended law, it would be at the discretion of individual border guard commanders to refuse applications.
The UNHCR has warned that the law undermines the right to seek asylum, and allows “the possibility that asylum applications can be arbitrarily rejected by the asylum authority without examination of the individual circumstances, the consequences of the removal, and/or the availability of effective protection elsewhere”.
On 2 September, Polish president Andrzej Duda declared a state of emergency in the regions bordering Belarus for at least 30 days and the Polish government approved it on 6 September. This means a ban on mass gatherings and public assemblies within a 3km-deep strip of land along the border.
This is the first time a state of emergency has been declared in Poland since the end of socialism in 1989
In practice this prevents aid organisations from helping refugees, and journalists from documenting the situation and capturing images of the border areas. In response, some NGOs have created a joint Border Group and continue their aid activity in places surrounding the restricted border region.
This is the first time a state of emergency has been declared in Poland since the end of socialism in 1989. According to the country’s constitution, the President of the Republic, on request of the Council of Ministers, can only announce it “in situations of particular danger, if ordinary constitutional measures are inadequate”, or “in the case of threats to the constitutional order of the State, to the security of the citizenry or public order”.
But is the state of emergency really needed in this case? The Polish government says that it is needed to protect Poland’s security in the face of a Russian military exercise in Belarus planned for September, and to limit the influx of migrants.
The argument goes that migrants planning to cross the border are part of the “hybrid war” waged by Belarus against the EU, in retaliation for sanctions imposed on the country last year. Poland joins Lithuania and Latvia in claiming that Belarus has deliberately encouraged migrants to transit through its territory en route to the EU, in order to stoke a border crisis There are currently an estimated 10 000 migrants trying to cross into get to the EU from Belarus.
The EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell recently expressed his support for Poland, the Polish decisions saying that the EU’s foreign ministers “stand in solidarity with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland and we are ready to take all measures to support them if the situation continues deteriorating.” He added that Lukashenko’s regime has “cynically” used “migrants and refugees to artificially create pressure” on the EU’s eastern borders.
A political game?
The situation is undoubtedly complex, but it is hard to forget about the group of human beings stuck in no-man’s land. The unanswered question is: what will happen to them, and when?
The state of emergency has complicated the situation and limited the opportunities for these people to tell their story, or for others to provide help. The Polish government’s reasoning for its use of emergency measures is unclear; as one commentator wrote, it has “failed to provide any convincing reason why other measures at its disposal are insufficient”.
Is the Polish government simply following the same strategy as Lithuania or Latvia to stop the influx of migrants, or does it have some other hidden goal? Some opposition figures see it as a cynical political game, aimed at winning votes. But while this can be part of an internal political conflict, polls show a diversity of attitudes towards the events unfolding at the border.
According to one recent survey, 38.5% of the Polish public approve of the government's decision to impose a state of emergency, while 30,1% disapprove and 31,4% do not have an opinion on the matter. Another survey asked Poles whether they agree to letting migrants and refugees in. Some 54% were against it, while 38% were in favour. Asked specifically about the case of the refugees stuck at the Polish-Belarusian border, 23% said that they should be immediately admitted to Poland and asylum procedures should be initiated, while 46% thought that they should be provided with humanitarian aid and 30% thought that all forms of help should be refused.
The restrictions caused by the state of emergency have made it difficult to access information about the current situation of the people stuck at the border since August. But worsening weather conditions will be followed by more deaths if nothing is done.
The reality is that political conflicts, wars, and climate change will lead to future waves of migration to Europe. The issue will be manipulated by right-wing populist and authoritarian leaders.
The EU must finally develop a strategy to respond to this situation and to future challenges. Although this is a new situation at the eastern border of the EU, we have observed similar situations for years at the Turkish-Greek border. But first and foremost, rather than treating migrants and refugees as pawns in a ‘hybrid war’, it needs to see them as human beings seeking their right to safety.
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