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21st Apr 2019

Polish border guards push back potential asylum seekers

  • Polish border guards on the platform at Terespol railway station. The station is the entry point for foreigners arriving in Poland from Belarus. (Photo: UNHCR/R. Kostrzynski)

Polish border guards are turning back rising numbers of potential asylum seekers.

Some 42,300 people - many of whom having legitimate reasons to seek international protection - were sent back in the first half of 2016, which is more than twice the number of 2015.

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The Association for Legal Intervention (SIP), a Polish non profit providing legal advice to vulnerable people, monitored the situation at three border crossings from January to April this year.

”The monitoring confirmed what foreigners have been signalling to NGOs for years. The border patrol obstructs on a massive scale access to the refugee procedure,” SIP wrote in a report published on Wednesday (10 August).

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights asked the Warsaw based fundamental rights officer of EU border agency Frontex, the EU ombudsman, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) and UNHCR to intervene.

Refugees from Russia and Tajikistan

The breaches were found to be concentrated to a border crossing with Belarus, which has seen a spike in crossings over the last year.

Border guards at Warsaw airport and the Medyka border crossing with Ukraine, which the non profit also monitored, were found to generally follow the law.

The number of people trying to reach Poland through Belarus has soared in the last year.

The train linking Brest and Terespol, the border towns located at each side of river Bug, has seen the number of carriages double from four to eight.

Also the number of people that requested asylum in Terespol has more than doubled year-over-year, from 2,000 requests in the first half of 2015 to 4,000 for the same period this year.

Of those trying to cross the border, 17,000 could be considered refugees. They are mainly Chechens, fed up with violence and lawlessness in their country. But there has also been a notable increase in the number of Tajiks, according to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFRF).

”Dozens of people are camping in Belarus as they aren’t allowed into Poland, despite clear claims that they are facing persecution in Tajikistan,” the foundation’s Marta Szczepanik told this website.

The situation in Tajikistan deteriorated in 2015, as the main opposition party was outlawed. HFHR says opposition activists and their families are threatened and even imprisoned and tortured.

”These people aren't safe in Belarus either,” Szczepanik continued. ”There have been cases when Belarusian authorities were pressured to return Tajiks. The border guards have no authority to evaluate whether these people have asylum grounds or not - they should let them in and let the appropriate agency in Poland decide. Instead, we hear from foreigners that Polish border guards are throwing their passports in their face and tell them to ask Lukashenka for asylum, because they won’t be let into Poland.”

HFRF and SIP claim that even people with clearly formulated requests, invoking the experience of persecution in the country of origin, are refused the right to lodge an application and enter Poland. Some have tried to cross the border up 40 to 50 times, citing asylum reasons.

The fact that a person goes without a passport or entry visa doesn’t mean he or she lacks the right to have their claims examined. This is a breach of both international and Polish law.

”The vast majority of refusals were based on the lack of a valid visa or residence permit. NGO workers notice that the situation over the last year has gradually got worse - more and more people, more and more often, are refused to apply for international protection,” SIP wrote in its report.

According to the Polish border patrol, 4,300 Tajiks have been returned so far this year - up from 668 last year. The total number of foreigners refused entry amounts to 42,300 - up from 17,700 last year.

Duly trained officers

When asked to comment on NGO allegations, the Polish border guard said that its officers have received due training in human rights.

"Guards are instructed to take an individual approach to foreigners and to minimise the risk of infringement of the principle of non-refoulement," border guard spokesperson Agnieszka Golias told EUobserver in a written statement.

Non-refoulement is an international principle accepted by most countries, including all EU members. It is stating that people shouldn't be forced to return to countries where their life, physical integrity or liberty would be threatened. The principle also says countries cannot refuse entry to such people at their borders.

Golias added that the border guards are working in accordance to the Schengen borders code.

"Thus, if a foreigner does not meet certain conditions in the law of entry and the nature of his entry has a different purpose than seeking protection, the consequence is to refuse entry to the territory of Poland," she continued.

Poland 'changing for the worse' for Muslims and refugees

Chechen refugees have been coming to Poland for decades. Tatar Muslims have lived there for centuries. But with the new government trying to whip up fear of foreigners, "things are changing for the worse”.

Analysis

Bell tolls for EU asylum reforms

The cornerstone the EU's asylum reforms referred to by the shorthand as 'Dublin' could end up in the scrapheap following the European elections in May.

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