Poland’s Migrants Face Cold Winter as Crisis Escalates

Poland is tackling a refugee crisis at its borders. With crossing attempts now exceeding 500 a day, Polish authorities are resorting to ‘pushback’ measures that have been condemned by sections of the international community. The crisis is indicative of the impact of chronic geopolitical quagmires in the Middle East, as well as growing nationalism within the European Union.

According to Polish authorities, approximately 15,000 attempts to cross the Polish border have been made since the end of summer. The majority of asylum-seekers are from war-torn Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Poland has refused to grant asylum to these migrants, claiming that the majority of them are not seeking refuge in Poland but have aspirations to move further westward. This accusation could be seen to legitimate the refusal of asylee claims, as current European Union regulations stipulate that migrants should apply for asylum in the country they first enter. Nonetheless, the situation has become dire with migrants being turned away at the Polish-Belorussian border. Many are being forced into the woods with inadequate footwear and clothing as temperatures drop to around 0 degrees Celsius.

Reports from the charity group ‘Medics on the Border‘ reveal that cases of hypothermia, dehydration, and death are likely to be on an upward trajectory as winter approaches and political circumstances remain unchanged. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has accused Poland of breaching international law through its effort to coerce migrants back into Belarus to avoid offering them asylum. The European Union has charged Belarus with manufacturing the large influx at the EU border as an attempt to weaken the economic bloc that has placed harmful sanctions upon Minsk over domestic human rights concerns.

Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer with the Polish refugee advocacy organization Grupa Granica, had an interview with NPR in which she contextualized the claim made by the EU. In fact, following her many interviews with refugees near the border, she asserts that “from Minsk, where they [refugees] arrive, they’re being taken to the border on the Belarusian side and concentrated in temporary camps that were put by Belarusian authorities. In these camps, they’re being robbed. Very often they’re being beaten. Some families are being separated. And from there, they are being forced to cross the border with Poland.”

This totalitarian behavior is utterly reprehensible and exposes the fact that these refugees are being used as geo-strategic pawns between the European Union and the Belorussian regime of Lukashenko. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the UN Human Rights Council in September that the Lukashenko regime has been involved in orchestrating police raids against independent media and civil society organizations. Earlier this year in a high-profile news story, Belorussian blogger, Roman Protasevich, was arrested after his scheduled flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Belarus. Thus, Lukashenko’s treatment of refugees represents a cogent sequential step in the construction of an audaciously suppressive network of control and autocracy.

In conclusion, no one should have to die for seeking shelter from conflict, drought, or suffocating economic conditions. Especially since many of these conditions flow downstream from illegal international invasions and perpetual meddling from western powers. That being said, ensuring the integrity of Polish society is not an unworthy cause. However, when its integrity is being actualized within a framework of barbarism and disregard for humanity, then it is difficult to confer any morality upon the cause. Ultimately, these refugees are unlikely to settle in Poland, given that figures from 2014-2017 reveal that Germany, Italy, and France have taken on the lion’s share of asylum applications. Poland is not even featured in the top 10 destinations. Thus, it would be both humane and non-disruptive to Polish identity to permit the temporary accommodation of migrants on its border. Such a move may motivate Belarus to continue its xenophobic exploitation of refugees, but if they are housed and safe within the EU by the end of the process then it will have been worth it. This is a critical moment, and Poland has the opportunity to position itself on the world stage as a bulwark for human rights.

Emmet McGeown