Poland’s government has for the first time published data on so-called “pushbacks” of migrants and asylum seekers trying to irregularly cross the border from Belarus. They show that the practice took place over 6,000 times in the six months between July 2023 and January 2024.
In August 2021, Poland’s then Law and Justice (PiS) government responded to a surge in attempted crossings from Belarus – mostly by people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa – by authorising the border guard to send back those caught crossing illegally.
That policy has been criticised as both inhumane and unlawful by a number of human rights organisations, including the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. Polish court rulings have also found it to be in violation of the law.
A group of 101 NGOs and 550 public figures have called on new PM @donaldtusk to end the previous government’s practice of sending back migrants who irregularly cross the border from Belarus.
They call such “pushbacks” a “gross violation of human rights” https://t.co/haaiBb5o1m
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 11, 2024
The scale of the practice was long difficult to gauge, however, because between August 2021 and July 2023 the border guard did not keep records of the number of times its had sent back migrants who had irregularly crossed the border from Belarus.
Such cases were included in the more general category of “prevented border crossings”. According to government data, Polish border guards prevented 33,781 border crossings in 2021 and 12,157 in 2022.
Pushbacks only began to be recorded as a separate category only on 5 July 2023. Now, in response to a request from the left-wing Razem (Together) party, the interior ministry has revealed there were 6,070 such pushbacks between that date and 16 January 2024.
Granica polsko-białoruska. MSWiA oficjalnie o pushbackachhttps://t.co/ArsfsmIvS8
— Interia (@Int_Wydarzenia) February 6, 2024
Deputy interior minister Maciej Duszczyk – part of a new government that replaced PiS in office in mid-December 2023 – noted, however, that the number of pushbacks has fallen under the new administration.
Between 13 December 2023 and 3 January 2024, there were 81% fewer people subject to decisions requiring them to leave the territory of Poland than in the same period a year earlier, wrote Duszczyk.
The deputy minister added that the new government was working on a more comprehensive border and migration policy that would treat the protection of human rights as a “priority” while also “ensuring state security”.
Poland is seeing a significant decline in attempted illegal crossings from Belarus, with none recorded by the Polish border guard since 27 January.
Only 88 have been recorded this year, compared to around 1,500 in January 2023 and 1,000 in January 2022 https://t.co/RUsyWPXycn
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 5, 2024
Last month, in response to an inquiry from Poland’s commissioner for human rights, Duszczyk likewise said the government was formulating new procedures to “enable effective border protection operations but at the same time allow assessment of the individual situation of each migrant who finds themself in Poland”.
He also revealed that the ministry was planning to order the border guard to establish special search and rescue groups “aimed at preventing humanitarian crises” for those who cross the border.
However, one of the Together MPs who requested the data, Daria Gosek-Popiolek, says they remained frustrated that the new government has not taken more comprehensive action. Her party is part of The Left (Lewica) – one of the groups in Poland’s new ruling coalition – but has decided not to directly join the government itself.
MSWiA planuje zobowiązać Straż Graniczną do powołania w oddziałach znajdujących się przy granicy z Białorusią specjalnych grup poszukiwawczo-ratowniczych. | @Defence24pl @MSWiA_GOV_PL @MKierwinski @MaciekDuszczyk @BiuroRPO @Straz_Graniczna https://t.co/q3R65U63yE
— InfoSecurity24.pl (@InfoSecurity_24) February 1, 2024
“When we want to restore the rule of law and [take] actions towards various discriminated groups, we cannot overlook the pushbacks of refugees introduced by PiS,” she said. “We do not understand why the government is failing to take adequate action in the face of conduct that the courts have described as illegal.”
“The idea of humanitarian pushbacks is a fiction because no one can be humanely pushed back to Belarus,” Gosek-Popiolek told the Interia news website.
In January a group of 101 NGOs and 550 activists, artists and academics have called on Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, to end the practice of pushbacks, practised regularly under PiS.
The speaker of parliament has faced criticism after posing for a photo at a Christmas event he hosted with people who entered Poland over the border with Belarus.
„This is an invitation to illegally cross the Polish border,” said an opposition politician https://t.co/W2sl1SDaxD
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 23, 2023
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Main image credit: MSWiA (under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL)
Alicja Ptak is senior editor at Notes from Poland and a multimedia journalist. She previously worked for Reuters.