Political opportunism is the motivation behind a Polish referendum on an EU migration deal that itself prioritises the domestic political interests of EU member states’ governments over the human rights of migrants.
On July 7, Polish legislators approved law amendments to hold a national referendum on a new European Union plan to reform migration rules on the same day as parliamentary elections in autumn.
The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party opposes the EU plan. “No to forced relocation of migrants, no to the violation of veto rights by individual states and no to the violation of the principle of sovereignty of decisions, no to imposed penalties from Brussels,” said Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
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At EU level, the migration deal was endorsed by a qualified majority—with Poland and Hungary opposed but unable to veto—during a meeting of home affairs ministers and still needs to be negotiated with the European Parliament before entering into force.
PiS faces a tight race in the autumn parliamentary election, and the opposition has accused the party of planning the referendum to coincide with these elections merely to boost their turnout from their base—which is largely anti-migrant.
The deal that PiS is opposing would restructure how the EU processes and relocates asylum seekers after a decade that has seen record numbers of refugees arrive on the bloc’s borders.
However, the deal, like the policies now used by the EU to prevent asylum seekers from making it to its shores, prioritises the political interests of European governments that fear the xenophobic backlash by voters to Middle Eastern and African refugees over the rights and even lives of asylum seekers.
The goal remains minimising the number of asylum seekers that can successfully claim asylum and thus legally settle in the EU.
The agreement—supported by 21 EU member states—creates a two-track asylum process. During pre-screening, officials determine whether they believe an asylum seeker is likely to receive asylum or not. Those who are deemed unlikely to receive asylum will be detained at the border for months as they go through a stricter procedure with a greater number of checks. This stricter protocol will only apply to up to 30,000 arrivées to the EU in its first year, but this quota will increase each year until reaching a maximum of 120,000. Asylum seekers who are deemed likely to receive asylum or who arrive after the quota for stricter has been reached will be given more permissive treatment.
Migrant rights advocates worry that increased checks under the stricter processing route will drag out the time asylum seekers are held in detention centres and thus require the construction of more. Many asylum seekers are already held for months on end, but the new deal aims to keep processing times to no more than 12 weeks per asylum seeker.
The agreement also aims to accelerate the departure of rejected asylum claimants and makes it easier to deport them to countries they have never lived in and which have ongoing human rights abuses. Despite Germany’s objections, the final version of the agreement allows each country to determine whether the outside countries to which it will deport rejected asylum claimants is actually in compliance with EU human rights standards, opening up the ability to deport migrants to countries currently deemed unsuitable at the EU level.
The deal would also relocated at least 30,000 migrants a year within the EU to ease the strain on state resources for countries that have had a disproportionate number of migrants settle there. However, countries that do not want to accept relocated migrants can instead pay 20,000 euros for each migrant they refuse in order to offset this strain.
The Libyan Coast Guard
What the deal does not change is the current policy of using the so-called ‘Libyan Coast Guard’ as a proxy to intercept migrant boats in the Mediterranean to decrease the number of asylum seekers that make it to EU borders in the first place.
Reconnaissance planes find rafts carrying migrants in the Mediterranean and transmit footage to the headquarters of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in Warsaw. EU countries then share this footage and the rafts’ locations with the Libyan Coast Guard which finds the migrants, oftentimes beats them, and takes them to abusive detention centres in Libya.
The United Nations has described these camps as state-sponsored crimes against humanity where torture, forced labour, rape, and murder are well-documented. Migrants were documented being auctioned at a slave market in Libya in 2017, the same year that the African Union estimated 400,000 to 700,000 migrants were being held in detention centres there.
The Libyan Coast Guard is run by militias and is known to shoot at migrant boats, sometimes sinking them. Some of its leaders are sanctioned by the UN for human trafficking, and it is widely believed many use the guise of the Coast Guard to out-compete rival traffickers. This has not stopped the EU from training the Libyan Coast Guard and equipping it with speedboats and other supplies. The EU—partially through Libya’s former coloniser, Italy— paid the Libyan Coast Guard and its political allies 455 million US dollars between 2015 and 2021.
As a concession to get Italy to agree to the new EU migration deal, the money paid by countries for the migrants they do not want to take can go into a collective pot that the EU can use to finance undefined “projects” abroad.
One of PiS’s objections to the new EU migration deal is that it does not reform Frontex to deal with people smuggling—indeed, a welcome objection. Its other objections and actions, however, raise doubts that its concerns are motivated by a sincere regard for the rights of asylum seekers from the Middle Eas and Africa.
Morawiecki said that, as one of the Schengen Area countries with an external border, Poland should receive more funds and that social benefits for migrants entering the EU should be further limited.
Asylum seekers have increasingly sought to enter the EU via Poland’s eastern border with Belarus. Human Rights Watch has accused both Poland and Belarus of “shared responsibility for abuse” of migrants, as Polish border guards have separated families and pushed migrants back over the border in severe winter weather. Several asylum seekers from Iraq froze to death on the border in late 2021 awaiting entry to Poland.
PiS also opposes having to take more asylum seekers under the relocation quota system and notes that it is already hosting a large number of Ukrainian refugees.
In 2015, roughly one million refugees arrived in Europe—mostly Syrians fleeing Russian-backed autocrat Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks, Islamic State terrorism, and Russian airstrikes—and PiS smeared them as disease-carrying security risks. Since Russia’s full-invasion of Ukraine last year, PiS has welcomed Ukrainian refugees and 1.3 million are estimated to have settled in the country—more that the number of Syrian refugees than arrived in the whole of the EU at the peak of the migrant crisis.
However, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson says Poland would benefit under the new deal because it is already hosting so many Ukrainian refugees.
“In accordance with the principles of the migration pact, member states that are under migratory pressure, such as Poland, will not have to participate in relocation,” said Johansson. “Furthermore, they can ask other countries to apply the solidarity measures described in the migration pact to them.”
“Poland, by hosting over one million refugees, has already shown great solidarity and therefore can benefit from the new solidarity measures included in the migration pact rather than feel obliged to fulfil the additional requirements contained therein.”
The PiS government, however, has voiced concern that the exemption from taking additional asylum seekers is not automatic, and it worries that Brussels will use its approval as leverage in its other clashes with Warsaw.
The opposition has accused PiS of misrepresenting and politicising the migration plan for its political gain. Three polls have shown between 67 and 76 per cent of Poles now oppose the deal.
Rallying Poles against Middle Eastern asylum seekers allowed PiS to secure victory in a previous election in 2015. By holding a referendum on a deal that PiS claims would bring more asylum seekers into Poland on the same day as parliamentary elections, the party might be about to pull off the same trick.
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