Polish speaker faces criticism for posing with Belarus border crossers in parliament

The speaker of the Sejm, Szymon Hołownia, yesterday hosted the first-ever Christmas event in parliament for homeless people, migrants and others in need.

While Szymon Hołownia has won praise in some quarters for the initiative, he also received criticism – including from members of the recently ousted Law and Justice (PiS) government – for posing for a photograph at the event with people who had entered Poland over the border with Belarus.

Since 2021, tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have tried to cross there with the help of the Belarusian authorities in what Polish and European authorities have labelled a “hybrid attack” on the EU.

„I came to Poland today to express the EU’s solidarity as it faces a brutal hybrid attack” from Belarus, said @eucopresident.

This „may look like a migration crisis” but it is in fact „state terrorism” aimed at „destabilising the EU”, said @MorawieckiM https://t.co/suGJmmaFl1

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 10, 2021

The photograph was shared on social media by Fundacja Ocalenie, a Polish NGO that helps migrants who have crossed the Belarus border.

It accompanied the image with a quote by someone called Lysette – presumably one of the women in the photo – who the organisation suggested had been the subject of “three pushbacks”, the name given to the process by which Polish authorities send migrants back over the border into Belarus.

“I would never have thought, while I was in the forest on the Belarusian-Polish border, that one day I would be invited to the Polish Sejm,” said Lysette. “That I would be among the specially invited people. Such a thought would not have even crossed my mind then.”

The use of pushbacks has been found to be unlawful by Polish courts. Hołownia himself last month called them “illegal and inhumane” and called for them to stop, though he emphasised that the “border must be tight and secure”.

Lysette, 3 pushbacki: „W życiu bym nie pomyślała, będąc w lesie na granicy białorusko-polskiej, że któregoś dnia zostanę zaproszona do polskiego Sejmu. Że znajdę się w gronie osób specjalnie zaproszonych. Taka myśl, nie przeszłaby mi nawet wtedy przez głowę”. pic.twitter.com/kablsjdCQq

— Fundacja Ocalenie (@FundOcalenie) December 22, 2023

The foundation’s post prompted thousands of comments – largely negative – on social media, including from many politicians, journalists and other commentators.

“This type of action by the speaker of the Sejm is an invitation to illegally cross the Polish border,” wrote Sebastian Kaleta, who served as deputy justice minister in the PiS government until it lost power this month.

“Russia is already taking advantage of the change of government in Poland,” he added, referring to a report that a new surge of attempted crossings from Belarus into Poland may be imminent.

Another former minister and party colleague of Kaleta, Michał Woś, suggested that the photograph with Hołownia was evidence that – as the PiS government argued before the elections – the new ruling coalition will seek to dismantle the anti-migrant fence built last year on the Belarus border.

Tego typu akcja Marszalka Sejmu jest zaproszeniem do nielegalnego przekraczania polskiej granicy.

Rosja już wykorzystuje zmianę rządu w Polsce. Okazuje się, jak informuje @sumlenny, że Rosja wzmacnia przemyt migrantów z kierunku białoruskiego… https://t.co/az3UTCnW5g pic.twitter.com/mgZU4Qm8rk

— Sebastian Kaleta (@sjkaleta) December 22, 2023

Even many commentators unconnected to PiS were critical of Hołownia’s actions. “Szymon Hołownia’s human reflex is also a political mistake. A huge one,” tweeted Jacek Gądek, a journalist from the liberal Gazeta.pl.

“This photo is political suicide,” wrote Kamila Baranowska, a journalist from the Interia news website.

Fundacje Ocalenia responded to the criticism by publishing a further statement in which it sought to “answer any doubts”.

“All people with refugee experience who visited the Sejm yesterday are staying in Poland legally,” they wrote. “To enter the premises of the Sejm, you need a pass, which you get after providing all your personal information.”

Słyszałyśmy, że są jakieś wątpliwości, więc odpowiadamy: wszystkie osoby z doświadczeniem uchodźczym, które odwiedziły wczoraj Sejm, przebywają w Polsce legalnie. Żeby wejść na teren Sejmu, trzeba dostać przepustkę, a tę z kolei dostaje się po podaniu wszelkich danych osobowych.

— Fundacja Ocalenie (@FundOcalenie) December 23, 2023

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: FundOcalenia/X

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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