Pushbacks in Poland – putting Human Rights enforcement in the EU in focus

By Leonie Glaser

This article is part of a short publication series in which articles written by the new editorial team will be showcased. This article is written by Leonie Glaser (Dutch, cohort 2021/2023), currently doing her first semester at the University of Uppsala.

This year, Poland experienced a large influx of refugees arriving over the border of Belarus. Poland claims that they are not able to host all the refugees, so they pursue controversial and illegal “pushbacks”. The refugees, most of whom claim to be from Afghanistan and Iraq, cannot ask for asylum. What might be more striking than the illegal pushbacks, is the openness that the Polish government talks about this policy. There is no effort made to conceal the pushbacks of refugees to Belarus. The refugees find themselves now stuck between the armies of the two countries without help – eight refugees have already died of hypothermia. They are victims of a geopolitical struggle, which does not seem to end soon. The EU, self-proclaimed promotor of Human Rights, now sees violations of these rights on its own territory. What is the EU’s role in this conflict and with the new geopolitical tensions? 

Pushbacks in the EU

The Polish approach, proclaiming a “state of emergency” around the border with Belarus, enables them to block NGO’s and lawyers that want to assist the refugees in need. On top of that, they refuse help from Frontex, the EU border agency, claiming that Frontex does not have the necessary means to assist them. Despite the controversy around these pushbacks, the people from Poland seem to support the policy of their government. The sitting party has risen in the polls, and 54% of the population agrees with the current state of emergency around the border. Moreover, during a large rally in the capital Warsaw, the far-right showed their support for the harsh pushbacks and the security forces who defend the “attack on the Polish border”.  

Poland is not the first to engage in illegal pushbacks. Shocking stories of pushbacks at sea by the Greek coastguard dominated the news last year. Croatia, Italy, and Malta also pursued these illegal activities. The Guarding reported at least 40.000 illegal pushbacks during the pandemic. They described how the pushbacks are getting more violent and resulted in the death of more than 2000 people. Even Frontex, the decentralised EU border agency, has been accused of knowing that pushbacks happened and, worse, actively participating in these. 

What does the EU do?

The EU started an investigation on Frontex to gain clarity on these illegal pushbacks and Front-Lex filed a lawsuit against Frontex based on their behaviour in Greece. Regarding the current Polish case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) urged the Polish government in a press release on the 25th of August to provide the refugees with water, food, medical care, and clothing. On the 27th of September, the Court stated that the people had the right to contact their lawyers, but, most importantly, the “applicants should not be sent to Belarus… [since] …the applicants are on Polish territory.” Thus, the ECHR takes a clear stance against the pushbacks. 

Geopolitical “Games”

We see a shift in the border policies of EU countries. Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” during the refugee crisis in 2015 seems to have been replaced by nations openly discussing the pushbacks they use. However, the current situation differs from the crisis in 2015. The influx of refugees in Poland is not just due to worsening situations in countries elsewhere, like Afghanistan or Iraq. Refugees are becoming pawns in a geopolitical struggle between the EU and countries like Belarus. These refugees were sent to the Polish border – under a new policy devised by Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus. His actions are a response to the sanctions that the EU imposed on Belarus in October 2020 after the “fraudulent elections” there. Lukashenko allowed refugees to fly to Minsk, and from there, they got help to travel to the border where they could try to get into Poland. Refugees were often lured into the planes with false promises. After paying a high amount of money to finance the trip, they were promised a safe journey to Western Europe, only to be used as pawns in Lukashenko’s geopolitical game. They arrived in Poland, despite the aim of their journey being countries as Germany and Sweden. Consequently, these circumstances sparked the debate in those countries, as the refugees at the Polish border, longing for asylum, are seen as a threat to their national security. 

An estimate of 3000 to 4000 people are hidden in the forest between Poland and Belarus, and while these numbers remain uncertain, Belarus is starting to fly people back to Iraq. While this might seem like a form of de-escalation, it is the start of an attempt to blackmail the EU: Belarus states it will take back 5000 refugees if the EU takes in 2000. It is not likely that the EU will adhere to this forced plan, but a solution from their side remains absent.

What does it mean for Human Rights in Europe?

Belarus is trying to disrupt the European Union, by exposing how Poland, a Member State, is actively violating Human Rights. Nevertheless, solidarity from other EU countries to help relocate and take in refugees remains missing. There is no progress in the new EU pact on migration and asylum that the EU Commission started last year – member states cannot agree and seem more divided than ever. Meanwhile, refugees are still stuck, Poland is asking for funding for a fence as means of protection, and Human Rights keep being violated. 

An amendment in Poland’s parliament passed that allows border guards to expel migrants who cross the border illegally, which is in sharp contrast to the European Charter of Human Rights. Nevertheless, the EU states that it supports Poland in its border issue. The European Council president, Charles Michel stated that: “Poland is facing a serious crisis that we take seriously, and it should enjoy the solidarity and unity of the whole European Union”. On top of that, by calling it a “hybrid attack, not a migration crisis”, the EU dehumanises the refugees and takes away their agency. Just as Lukashenko was aiming for. What does this say about Human Rights enforcement in the EU? Not being able to take a stance against the Greek coast guard is one thing, but supporting Poland while they actively violate Human Rights is another. Von der Leyen said in her State of Union speech: “as long as we do not find common ground on how to manage migration, our opponents will continue to target that”. While the EU is showing more unity now than in the 2015 refugee crisis by forming a front against Belarus, the cost of this unity is paid by unlucky migrants diminished as mere political weapons. If wishing to remain the largest supporter of Human Rights in the global sphere, the EU needs to align its actions with its own Charters. However, when public opinion in nation-states shifts towards a harsher approach towards migrants, we might see Human Rights ending up behind. 


Picture credit: Morten Risberg/Al Jazeera

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