POLAND’S NEW GOVERNMENT CONTINUES MIGRANT PUSHBACKS ON BELARUS BORDER

The liberal-democratic government of Donald Tusk is continuing the hardline approach of its predecessor over migration on the border with Belarus, with an announcement expected on Monday about billions more to be spent on border security.

Ahead of an announcement on Monday by Prime Minister Donald Tusk that his government will spend billions more euros on fortifying Poland’s border with Belarus, graphic new evidence has emerged about how the authorities continue to push migrants illegally crossing back over the border.

Footage published by local activists from the Podlaskie Ochotnicze Pogotowie Humanitarne (Podlaskie Volunteer Humanitarian Emergency Service, or POPH) show uniformed Polish officials carrying the bodies of seemingly unconscious migrants to the border fence with Belarus, and pushing them through a small door in the 5.5-metre metal fortification back towards Belarusian territory.

The migrants do not seem to recover consciousness before being carried out of Poland and there are no indications they were given a chance to apply for asylum.

The events captured on film happened on the night of May 20-21, more than five months since Tusk’s coalition took office, which had led some activist groups to hope it would start accepting more asylum applications.

According to calculations made by the NGO Grupa Granica, the new Polish government has been responsible for over 4,000 pushbacks at the border since coming to power, based on data provided daily by the Polish Border Guard on the number of prevented illegal entries into the country.

“The person we see officials carrying back across the wall is a young woman who had been unconscious for hours and had heart problems,” claimed Agata Kluczewska from POPH, who was part of the activist group documenting the incident.

“Based on our information, that woman is to this day still lying on the ground where she was left by the officials,” she told BIRN on May 24.

BIRN could not independently confirm any information about the woman’s health or current status. The Polish Border Guard had not responded to a BIRN inquiry about the incident by the time of publication.

On May 20, Kluczewska said she and her colleagues were monitoring the border area around the locality of Wygon, in the Bialowieza forest on Poland’s eastern border with Belarus, when they spotted a group of about 40 people, including more than ten minors, gathering on the other side of the border fence.

From their location about 15 metres inside Poland – civilians are barred from accessing a 15-metre-wide border strip along the border fence inside Poland – the activists communicated verbally with the migrants, leading to communication via SMS.

According to Kluczewska, on May 20, five migrants in the group, three women and two men, were so sick as to be unconscious or lying immobile on the ground, leading the activists to contact the Polish authorities for help. As a result of their intervention, Polish officials took one man with a spinal injury to the hospital, but pushed four others, including the woman seen on video, back through the fence.

‘Humanitarian’ pushbacks
When the Tusk government came to office in December, many activists had been hoping it would bring a new approach to the Belarusian border situation, especially as the parties that make up the coalition previously criticised Law and Justice (PiS) for its handling of the migration crisis since 2021.

That crisis was initially fomented by the Belarusian regime, which over the last three years has lured tens of thousands of migrants – mainly from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa – to Minsk, bussed them to its borders with the EU, and herded them towards the border. In the last year and a half, migrants have increasingly arrived first in Russia before moving westwards, highlighting Russia’s involvement in creating this new migratory Eastern Borders Route.

As if to signal a change in direction, Prime Minister Tusk appointed an academic specialising in migration, Maciej Duszczyk, to the post of deputy interior minister in charge of the matter. Duszczyk not only began work on a much-needed comprehensive migration policy for the country, but also announced an end to what he called “non-humanitarian pushbacks”.

“I assure you that the Border Guard no longer conducts pushbacks like those seen under Law and Justice since 2023,” Duszczyk told Gazeta Wyborcza in an interview in early 2024, shortly after his appointment. “As a migration researcher, I have seen films with pushbacks conducted in a very non-humanitarian way. Such actions cannot take place in a democratic state that respects human rights.”

In March, the Polish Border Guard set up so-called “search-and-rescue teams”, formed to seek out and assist migrants whose life and health might be in danger on the border.

Yet according to Katarzyna Czarnota of the Helskinski Foundation for Human Rights, “there is a legitimate risk that the setting up of these search-and-rescue teams actually increases the number of migrants being ‘disappeared’ on the Polish-Belarusian border”, referring to those migrants who are pushed back, die or their fate becomes unknown.

Czarnota told BIRN that based on observations by activists at the border, Polish officials – whether from the search-and-rescue teams or regular border guards – might indeed now be more open to searching for migrants than during the time of the previous PiS government. However, upon finding them, beyond checking their vitals, the conduct remains the same: if the migrant is considered stable enough, he or she is taken back across the border, regardless of nationality, age or having expressed a clear intent to apply for asylum in Poland.

As a consequence, beyond the lives potentially saved, the number of migrants detected and pushed back could actually be higher than before the setting up of the teams, Czarnota suggests.

Despite many appeals by human rights groups, the Tusk cabinet has yet to repeal the so-called border regulation of the Ministry of Interior and Administration, passed by PiS in 2021, that claims to legalise pushbacks in Poland, but which legal experts and the Polish Ombudsman argue is contrary to national and international law protecting the right to asylum, and thus illegal.

“The new Polish government conducts ‘humanitarian’ pushbacks’,” Czarnota drily noted, repeating a common wordplay used by Polish activists.

‘Eastern Shield’
Activists’ pre-election hopes notwithstanding, Tusk’s long-held views on migration have always favoured a tightening of Europe’s borders, for which he has been arguing since the 2015 migration crisis when he was then president of the European Council. Those convictions appear to have hardened since Belarus together with Russia began instrumentalising migrants as part of its hybrid war with the West.

The security of Poland’s borders with Belarus, Ukraine and Russia is a main campaign theme for Tusk as his Civic Platform party prepares for the European Parliament elections on June 9, with the prime minister increasingly describing irregular migration on the Polish-Belarusian border as a threat.

At a May 21 press conference, Tusk presented what he claimed was fresh information received from the Polish intelligence services about the Belarusian border.

“Today, we got confirmation that the migratory pressure on our eastern border is not spontaneous, these are not people escaping to somewhere,” Tusk said. “90 per cent of the people who illegally cross our border are people in possession of Russian visas. Today, it is the Russian state that is behind the recruitment, transport and smuggling of people.”

BIRN reported already in December 2022 that 90 per cent of the migrants coming to Poland via Belarus have travelled through Russia with Russian visas.

“Those are not refugees, those are less and less migrants, families, poor people needing help,” Tusk continued. “In 80 per cent of the cases, these are organised groups of men, aged 18-30, very aggressive.”

Creating a sense of impending threat, Tusk added that intelligence sources have suggested several groups of migrants numbering in the thousands were waiting in Russia ready to move westward.

According to Grupa Granica, out of the 1,855 migrants that have requested help from activists since the beginning of the year, 193 were women and 178 children, including 131 unaccompanied minors.

On Monday, Tusk is due to announce an extra 10 billion zloty (about 2.3 billion euros) for fortifying the border with Belarus and the northern border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. That package of measures, called “Eastern Shield”, is designed to “significantly limit the mobility of the potential aggressor”, Tusk said, referring more generally to threats coming from Russia.

As the number of migrants trying to enter Poland via Belarus is on the rise again, reaching 200-300 a day in May, their ability to enter Europe via this route is set to become harder and harder under the new Polish government.

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