Poland sets up search-and-rescue teams to help migrants crossing Belarus border

Poland has established special search-and-rescue teams to help migrants who have crossed into the country from Belarus. The move is part of a more humanitarian approach to the migration crisis promised by the new government.

Since mid-2021, tens of thousands of people – mainly from the Middle East, Asia and Africa – have tried to cross into Poland from Belarus, in a crisis engineered by the Belarusian authorities. Human rights groups believe that dozens have died on the Polish side of the border, especially during tough winter conditions.

A young Sudanese man who drowned in a river on Poland’s border while trying to cross from Belarus has been buried in a funeral organised by the local Muslim community.

He is one of at least 20 to have died at the border since last year https://t.co/TDWdwp8DHa

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 6, 2022

On Friday, the Polish border guard announced that it has created special “intervention teams…whose main task will be to conduct search and rescue operations for migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border” in order to “prevent humanitarian crises”.

“The teams include several dozen officers who have appropriate qualifications to provide first aid, know the area very well, and are equipped with specialised equipment,” added the statement, which said that the teams would work “in cooperation with NGOs”.

“Their task is to provide assistance in the border area to migrants with an irregular legal status who have reached the Polish side, have lost their orientation in forests, wetlands or difficult-to-access areas, and whose life and health may be at risk,” continued the border guard.

❗️🔊W Straży Granicznej powołane zostały zespoły interwencyjne, których głównym zadaniem będzie prowadzenie działań o charakterze poszukiwawczo-ratowniczym wobec migrantów przy polsko-białoruskiej granicy 🇵🇱🇧🇾.
Szczegóły👉https://t.co/zVgg1yTwQM pic.twitter.com/rlN76vP8Wp

— Straż Graniczna (@Straz_Graniczna) March 8, 2024

The establishment of the search-and-rescue teams had been promised by the new, more liberal government led by Donald Tusk that took office in December. It replaced the previous national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) administration, which had taken a tough line against irregular migration.

The new government has pledged to maintain strong protections of the border – which is also the EU and NATO’s eastern frontier – and to prevent irregular migration. But it has also said that it will take a more humanitarian approach towards those who do cross into Poland.

“Our task is to combine state security with humanitarianism,” deputy interior minister Maciej Duszczyk, who is charged with overseeing the government’s new migration policies, told newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza last month. He said that their aim is for “zero deaths at the border”.

‼️Zrobiliśmy razem z @MaciasCzarnecki wywiad z wiceministrem SWiA @MaciekDuszczyk o granicy polsko-białoruskiej i migracji

Mówi: Nie będzie więcej śmierci przy granicy z Białorusią. Naszym zadaniem jest połączyć bezpieczeństwo państwa z humanitaryzmem.https://t.co/seWWYhUtPr

— Bartosz T. Wieliński 🇵🇱🇪🇺🇺🇦 (@Bart_Wielinski) February 14, 2024

The new government has, however, rejected a call signed by hundreds of NGOs and public figures calling to end the practice of so-called “pushbacks”, which involve sending irregular migrants back across the border.

Duszczyk told Gazeta Wyborcza that the term “pushback” has no clear definition and he argued that, contrary to the claims of some groups, sending migrants back over the border does not violate international law if it is “done with respect for human rights”.

Meanwhile, Tusk himself has taken a tough rhetorical stance on the issue, declaring last month that the “survival of Western civilisation” depends upon preventing “uncontrolled migration”.

The “brutal truth” is that the “survival of Western civilisation” depends on preventing “uncontrolled migration”, says Polish Prime Minister @donaldtusk.

„We [must] wake up and understand that we have to protect our borders…[or] our world will collapse” https://t.co/mPwGIMCoU9

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 12, 2024

Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.

Main image credit: Straż Graniczna (under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL)

Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign PolicyPOLITICO EuropeEUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

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