A group of refugees, said to be mainly from Afghanistan, has been stuck in limbo at Usnarz Górny on the Poland-Belarus border for days. Warsaw is refusing to process any of the asylum seekers, while Minsk refuses to readmit them.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has long sought to portray itself as tough on migration.
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For much of its conservative voter base, keeping non-Christian migrants out of Europe is a priority, and PiS has rarely failed to miss an opportunity to confirm its anti-migrant credentials. The country has for years accepted few refugees, in breach of European Union and international law.
Indeed, in March 2020 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Poland – along with Hungary and Czechia – had breached its obligations under EU law by refusing to take in refugees.
Nevertheless, until recently the PiS narrative that Muslim refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were a threat to Christian Poland (and wider Europe) was largely theoretical: Europe’s refugee crisis of 2015 for example broadly passed Poland by.
Now, however, the country faces a genuine refugee crisis, with thousands stuck at its eastern border, mainly Afghan nationals fleeing the Taliban who have reportedly received assistance from the Belarusian authorities to make their way to the Polish border.
Earlier this year, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko was accused of similarly facilitating the movement of Iraqis to its border with Lithuania.
“What we see from Lukashenko is an extreme act of aggression towards the European Union,” European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said on August 25. “He’s using human beings in an instrumentalised way. This is totally unacceptable.”
Lukashenko has made little effort to disguise his use of human lives as a weapon against his neighbours to the west, who have led the push for tougher EU sanctions against his regime.
“There is an increasing number of refugees from [Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria], no doubt ‘encouraged’ by the Belarusian authorities, trying to enter Poland and Lithuania,” Michał Buchowski, professor of Comparative Central European Studies at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt, tells Emerging Europe.
“It is too early, however, to say that it is a ‘wave’,” he adds.
Krzysztof Jaskułowski, a Polish sociologist and historian whose chief interests include contemporary migration, tells Emerging Europe says that EU policy does not help the situation.
“EU policy is to a large extent based on the naive assumption that buffer states will indefinitely contain migrants and refugees within their borders, keeping these people away from the EU,” he says.
“The Law and Justice party radicalises and brutalises this policy by presenting the situation on the border as a war against Poland and the refugees as a weapon of Lukashenka and [Vladimir] Putin,” Jaskułowski adds, suggesting that, at least to some extent, the severity of the situation is being overstated by the ruling party.
“The authorities are once again playing on anti-refugee sentiments, which can also be called anti-Muslim sentiment as this is how refugees are primarily referred to in Poland. The argument of national security, sealed borders against ‘enemies’ sent in a hybrid war by Lukashenko to Poland and the EU is the story that is being told to the public by the authorities,” adds Buchowski.
Such attitudes against people belonging to the Muslim faith seem to be widespread in the country.
“Law and Justice came to power largely by fuelling a moral panic against Muslim refugees and it is now trying to play that card again, with the support of a large part of society that sees refugees from Muslim countries as terrorists, benefit scroungers and rapists,” argues Jaskułowski.
“By 2017, almost three quarters of the population were against receiving refugees,” adds Buchowski.
However, Islamophobia has not always been as widespread in Poland as it is today.
“Islamophobia was absent in the first decade of this century when almost 80,000 Chechens sought asylum in Poland. Most of them have since them migrated away from Poland,” points out Buchowski.
For this reason, Witold Klaus of the Warsaw-based Association for Legal Intervention (SIP) argues that Lukashenko can use refugees as a weapon only as long as Poland’s ruling party continues to perceive them as a threat.
“There is not a significant number of asylum seekers at the Polish border. A few hundred people (more or less) seeking asylum is not a big number at all, nor are a few thousand,” he tells Emerging Europe.
“Poland has experience dealing with asylum seekers, as between 2012 and 2016 we accepted more that 11,000 annual asylum applicants, and in 2013 this number was close to 15,000. The current numbers are not particularly high for the Polish asylum system.”
However, instead of relying on the country’s already established and well-functioning asylum system, the ruling party has decided to invest in building yet another wall to reinforce ‘fortress Europe’.
Poland on August 23 announced that it would become the latest European country to start building an anti-refugee wall, with a new fence on its border with Belarus modelled on one built by Hungary on its border with Serbia in 2015.
Walls are inefficient
“What the Polish government is doing is very inefficient,” Konrad Pędziwiatr of the Center for Advanced Studies of Population and Religion at the Cracow University of Economics, tells Emerging Europe.
“Just looking at the map, anyone can see that the border between Poland and Belarus is quite long. It is not possible to build a wall this quickly and there are bound be leaks,” he further argues.
“As the Afghan refugee flow is likely to increase in the near future, Poland needs a different political solution,” Pędziwiatr concludes.
Poland’s largest opposition group, Civic Coalition, does not yet to have a unified approach to the refugee issue.
One of its best known figures, MEP and former foreign minister Radosław Sikorski has in part mimicked PiS by calling Lukashenko attempt to push refugees into Poland and Lithuania “an attack” on the European Union.
However, a Civic Coalition MP, Paweł Kowal, has used more muted language, saying that while Lukashenko – with tacit support from Moscow – was clearly behind the movement of refugees, “I am against calling it a war, because the scale of this phenomenon does not justify such big words and creates great social unrest.”
While Poland’s politicians fuss and argue, the plight of the refugees themselves is little short of tragic.
On August 25, the refugee support organisation, Salvation Foundation, said that one of the migrants on the olish border was “on the verge of death”.
“A fifty-two-year-old woman is about to die in front of her five children,” the NGO tweeted, “Rescue is needed NOW.”
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