“There are no illegal people, there is illegal violence”

The Polish-Belarussian border as frontier to human rights and rule of law in Europe

In August 2021, a group of 40 people from Afghanistan appeared at the Polish-Belarusian border. Although they sought asylum in Europe, the border guards did not allow them to return to Belarus or enter Poland, and instead trapped them in the border strip. Humanitarian aid, doctors, lawyers, politicians and representatives of humanitarian organizations were also not allowed in. The situation quickly became a high-profile media and political topic. Just as quickly, the Polish President attempted to silence it by imposing a state of emergency in 183 towns along the Polish-Belarusian border in September 2021. This was the first situation so significantly restricting civil liberties since the introduction of martial law in 1981 in Poland. Due to limited access to the zone, which also included the media, politicians and civil society organizations, the public lost a reliable source of knowledge of what was happening on the Polish-Belarusian border.

The state of emergency has been repeatedly extended by both the President and the decrees of the Minister of Internal Affairs and Administration of the Podlasie Governor. Its legality, as well as the practices of the Border Guard or other state officials and institutions during its duration (pushbacks against refugees or trials against activists, including students), were criticized by politicians, NGOs, the media, and even the Supreme Court. Both in Poland and abroad attention was drawn to international legal standards, which were not observed on the Polish-Belarusian border, including the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. The Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, reported on the illegality of pushbacks. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on Migrant Human Rights, issued UN reports after visiting Poland and Belarus that alerted and informed about the violence happening on the border.

Violent laws and a hostile state have contributed to the deaths and disappearances of many people. According to the Border Group (Grupa Granica, in short: GG) – one of the most important activist initiatives saving the lives of refugees on the border – in the winter of 2022, activists managed to document 200 refugee pushbacks and the disappearance of 21 people. Since the beginning of the border crisis, 195 disappearances and 28 deaths have been confirmed, although as GG points out, “we may never know how many people have died at the border.” Operating since August 2021 in response to the humanitarian crisis, GG provided legal, humanitarian and medical assistance to a minimum of 13,500 people by the end of November 2022: women, men, the elderly and people with disabilities. They raised alarms about direct violence by Border Police, separated families of asylum seekers, cases of hypothermia of refugees who got lost in the primaeval forest in winter, and the increased risk of human trafficking due to the non-application of safe asylum procedures. They also pointed out the illegality of refugee deportations to Belarus according to Polish, EU and international law.

Local communities, the Border Group, as well as other collectives and activist organizations, such as the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Association for Legal Intervention, UNHCR, Podlaskie Ochotnicze Pogotowie Humanitarne, Ocalenie Foundation, Open House, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders or Medics on the Border, provided assistance to refugees, monitored the situation on the border and provided regular information to the public. Moreover, they opposed the criminalization of refugees, pointing out the dehumanizing and racist practices of the Polish government. As GG emphasizes in its demands: “There are no illegal people, there is illegal violence (…) Let’s collectively counter the incitement of hatred and manipulation of fear.”

Public involvement in the situation of refugees crossing the Polish-Belarusian border diminished when the war in Ukraine escalated and most of the attention, both state and civic, was focused on this problem. As much media and public attention as at the beginning of the border crisis has also not returned. When the construction of the wall with razor blade wire separating Poland and Belarus began, or when the end of the state of emergency was declared, the media and public were no longer as interested as they were at the beginning of the border crisis.

The change to this situation was pinned on the upcoming 2023 elections and the shift of the government. Unfortunately, the new parties that appeared to be more “democratic” and liberal in comparison to previously ruling conservative and nationalist right-wing, manifested similar anti-refugee views as their predecessors.

On January 9, 2024, more than 100 NGOs and hundreds of individuals, including academics, cultural figures, and lawyers, called in their appeal to the Prime Minister to stop violence against refugees at the Polish-Belarusian border and thus stop the illegal pushbacks. However, the government has taken no steps on this issue and nothing has changed in its official actions. From December 13, 2023, the date the new government was sworn in, until February 7, 2024, more than 100 refugees were deported from Poland. At least 55 people have lost their lives on the Polish-Belarusian border since the crisis began.

The situation on the Polish-Belarusian border complicates the assessment regarding a pro-democratic change in Poland after 2023. For the time being, it is almost entirely certain that the hopefully greeted announcements of a new pro-European ruling coalition will not respond to the needs of racialized migrants who seek new life opportunities in Europe. This confirms the stability and permanence of the colonial past, the maintenance of which is the consensus among parties, which seems to be on the opposite sides of the political spectrum in Poland.

By Barbara Dynda and Zuzanna Rokita