Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat makes an update to the previous Cross-Border Talks segment on migrant crisis on EU’s northeastern borders: why the Polish government doesn’t provide aid to migrants, what is the EU’s position and how the human toll of this crisis will increase
This is the transcript to an update interview on the migrant crisis at the Polish-Belarussian border. The interview was recorded on 25 October 2021. The first interview on that issue was made on 18 September 2021. Its transcript can be found here. Further read on the recent development can be Claudia Ciobanu’s article at the Balkan Insight.
Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to an addition to the previous segment on the migrant crisis on the EU borders with Belarus. A month has passed since we did our recording on this issue and a number of developments have taken place. So, Malgorzata, what happened in the last month over all these conflicts and contradictions?
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Hello and welcome to everybody who is listening to us. And sadly I don’t have good news from the Polish-Belarussian border. In our previous recording on the topic, I said every day, when scrolling news, I hope not to find information that somebody died on the border and right now, sadly, we know about ten victims. The last one was found two days ago.
Everybody who has been to the border is sure that those ten people are only those who were found and many more people actually died in the forests. Right now in the Polish-Belorussian border land, in the morning hours there are frostbites, temperatures go below zero, so the conditions become extremely harsh. If somebody is not professionally prepared to survive in these conditions, this is not really a good place to be, particularly for families with young children.
Most people also do appear in the forests of Poland, because the legislation in Poland was changed last week. The President Andrzej Duda, signed a new law that basically allows pushbacks in violation of international law and international Conventions on migrants and refugee rights. Poland now allows border guards to push back anybody who crossed the border, outside the legal border crossings. These border crossers have to be sent back to the borderline, to the country where they came from, without the state accepting any application for international protection or without even listening to their story. Where did the person come from? Why does he or she come to Poland, et cetera? No one’s asking. And this law has been signed last week and it is already being put into practice, as the activists on the border are alarming.
Activists on the border is not really a precise formulation, because people are not allowed to access the border. Nobody, apart from the population living there permanently, can access the area at the border between Belarus and Poland. The state of emergency is still in practice there, and those who came to the border to help migrants are only able to reach the areas that are a few kilometers away from the border zone. So they basically help the migrants, who have already passed some distance into the Polish territory.
The Polish government has been saying that it cannot admit anybody into Poland, that is anybody who illegally passed the border, because it will only encourage new immigrants to come. That was the justification for not offering any humanitarian help to a group of 30 Afghans who had been camping in the zone of the Polish border for nearly two months. The Polish government said we can’t help these people because if we do, then there will be hundreds and thousands of new people coming to Poland even though Poland sealed off the borders. These thousands of people did come because the conditions in Iraq, the conditions in Syria, the conditions in a number of African countries or in Yemen are so dire that people still take the risk of coming to Belarus and trying to get into the European Union, even though they know that they will not be welcome.
Last week also the German Minister of Interior Seehofer discussed with the Polish Minister of Interior a proposal to organize the national border patrols, because some of the refugees, some of the migrants, have actually managed to come to Germany, to cross the whole Poland despite emergency measures, and to come to Mecklenburg and Brandenburg, the borderline regions, and to apply for national protection there. Different German journalists who had the chance to talk to these people are now reporting that what migrants remembered from Poland is really really horrible: how they were pushed back a few times from the border and then how the Belarussian border guards pushed them again to Poland, saying that their only choice is either to die in the forest or to find their way somehow.
So we are now facing a humanitarian crisis of really huge dimensions. We are facing a situation where nobody in Poland is willing to help these people. I mean nobody in the political circles, because people in the borderland, people who are not supporting these measures, are organizing themselves. There are volunteer groups patrolling the forests as close to the border as they can come. They are people who look for migrants, who offer them food, who offer them shelter for a moment, who try to protect people from freezing in the forest because they are dying from exhaustion. But in the political circles, the Polish government is still keeping this position that Poland must still border, that we must protect the European Union and that we can’t help refugees in any way. The state of emergency is due to last until the beginning of December and we don’t know what will happen next. Should the government find another way to block the order from journalists, from activists to come, should proclaim some other emergency measures? We don’t know.
But we know one thing: that the policy of stopping immigrants on the border did not work in this way. People are still so desperate to try anyway and that they can’t really count on any humanitarian support in Poland on the part of the Border Guards or the government.
And what is the significance of the EU in this particular crisis?
The Polish government, I can say, was actually endorsed by the European Union in this.
In this crisis we had a visit of Frontex representatives in the eastern border who said that they were impressed by the work of Polish border guards and who offered help, that is, they offered that Frontex also could join Polish border guards in their work on the border. Well, the Polish government did not accept the offer, as far as I know, because they want to play the strong men in view of their own voters. They want to show that they are strong enough to support, seal the border without the help of the European Union.
Other measures of the Polish government that I mentioned were also not condemned by the European Union. So we could say that Brussels agreed by keeping silent about what the Polish government is doing. When the law that permits pushbacks was signed last week, there was no reaction from the European Union. Nobody said anything. Nobody from politicians said that this regulation is actually not only against international conventions but also against European law on migration. So we can say that the European Union, which is condemning Poland for violating the rule of law, is keeping silent on the question of migration. It basically allows Poland to do what Poland wants to do.
And finally, what is your prognosis for the development of this crisis in the near future?
Well, the first thing I must say is that it may sound cruel, but I must say this: if nothing changes, there will be hundreds of people dying on this border between Poland and Belarus. The Belarussian side talks a lot about brutality of Polish border guards and Polish politics, but I must say that what the Belarusian state does is perhaps even worse, because the Belarussians keep bringing this desperate people from the Middle East to Europe.They keep promising them at their passage to Poland and then to Germany would be swift and easy, and Belarus did not stop its actions, refusing any responsibility for those people, and we also hear that from the migrants who managed to pass to Germany. We also know that many of them were beaten up in Belarus when they wanted to give up efforts to cross the border. They were not allowed to get back to their home country when some of them realized that they could die in the forest, and they were also beaten up by the Belarussian border guards as well.
So my prognosis for the future then, must be very, must be very bad. Now we are at the end of October. In a few weeks the winter in the East of Poland will be very severe and there will be even more victims of this politics. If nothing changes and as I said, there are no signs that would allow me to say that something is going to change and will probably report even more and discuss even more on the developments.
Photo: Polish border guards block the entry of migrants at the border with Belarus (photo: YouTube)