Poland Contends with Waves of Refugees and Migrants, Worsening Regional Tensions and Prompting a Harsh Crackdown on Migration

Poland, once considered far-removed from the migrant crisis faced by its Southern and Western European neighbors, has recently found itself contending with a new wave of migration, this time on its Eastern border. Since August, over 7,000 migrants largely from Middle Eastern nations, as well as Asia, have arrived at Poland’s border with Belarus. Such an unexpected increase in migration has prompted Poland to act harshly and swiftly.

The origins of this migration crisis have proven to be more convoluted than that which has plagued Southern Europe. In Italy and Greece, the migrant crisis has been brought on by a wave of refugees travelling independently to escape violent conflict without support from any governmental institutions. In Poland (and, to a lesser extent, the Baltic states at large), however, the refugees and migrants are believed to be aided by foreign powers. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has specifically blamed Russia and Belarus for the transport of migrants to the border of the European Union. Morawiecki described how “tens of thousands” of refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants are being used by Russia to put external pressures on the E.U..

Belarus has faced a politically tumultuous past couple years, ranging from accusations of election fraud, a harsh crackdown on internal dissent, to its political isolation on the world stage. However, sanctions applied by the E.U. on Belarus as a result of the nation’s arrest of a dissenting journalist, which provoked an international response, proved to be a boiling point. As a result, Belarus effectively removed itself from an agreement with the E.U. regarding migration controls. Many have accused Belarus of using migrants from war-torn nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria as a means to create instability from within the E.U. as retaliation for the sanctions. The Belarusian foreign minister, however, denied these accusations, saying that Belarus was in no position to initiate a “hybrid war” against the E.U.. President Alexander Lukashenko acknowledged, however, that Belarus would no longer regulate the movement of migrants across Belarus, suggesting a certain amount of complicity in the events unfolding on the E.U. border. 

Poland’s populist, right-wing government took immediate steps to take control of its Eastern border. In early September, the President Andrzej Duda declared a state of emergency in regions along the Belarusian border. This declaration allowed the Polish government to put strict regulations on the movement of all people within the border zone, journalists, migrants, and even citizens. While a rather extreme response, the Polish government claimed that it was a necessary move to preserve the security of both its borders and that of the E.U. as a whole. Poland later doubled the amount of troops stationed along the Belarusian border, with assistance from other European nations such as Germany. This rapid militarization of the border has led to a number of conflicts between troops on the opposing sides, which prompted Lukashenko to claim that Poland was actively seeking to bring about a “border conflict.” Poland has also taken steps to erect a more physical border in the form of a 248-mile-long border fence. 

“Migrants are hostage to this situation, it must end,” said Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an exiled Belarusian political leader and opponent of Lukashenko. Indeed, the treatment of migrants has been lackluster on both sides of the border. Unprepared for the cold climate and harsh terrain of the heavily forested and marshy Eastern Europe, migrants have found themselves in a situation of pure survival. Many migrants accused Belarus of taking large sums of their money in exchange for passage to the border, only putting a further strain on these impoverished refugees. A number have already perished, and many more are in need of urgent medical attention. 

However, these refugees remain in a state of limbo, unable to stay on either side of the border. Due to the state of emergency, many aid groups and international observers have been prevented from reaching the crisis zone, a number of which have accused Poland of circumventing international and E.U. law. They furthermore accuse Poland of forcefully pushing asylum seekers back into Belarus and denying many migrants access to healthcare and other essential services. Local groups have said that Polish officials often refuse entry to those seeking asylum in Germany, rather than Poland. Pushing migrants out without “individual assessment of their protection” is a crime. Further, the Polish government has allowed for the random rejection of asylum requests. Many others criticize Alexander Lukashenko and his government for their lack of initiative with regards to ensuring border control, with Tikhanovskaya calling it “irresponsible and inhuman.” 

The issue of nationalism and reactionary populism, which have plagued Poland for the past decade, are likely to be worsened by the large amounts of migration. Additionally, tensions between the Russian sphere and E.U. are only poised to worsen, as the conflict continues on without any hope of a resolution in the near future. However, the migrants themselves, often overlooked, find themselves stuck in limbo. With winter approaching and many migrants unable to find shelter, the humanitarian crisis is only likely to worsen. All this begs the question: does national security and international competition justify the inhumane treatment of innocent refugees? Unfortunately, for Belarus and Poland, as well as neighbouring countries who have chosen to remain complicit in their silence, the answer seems to be yes.