Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

EU calls for 'firm' Belarus border control by Poland

Listen to article

A dead body in a freezing river, spinal injuries after falling off a wall, a pregnant woman given a punishment beating after being forced back — this is what's happening on the EU's eastern border, as the EU Commission calls for a "firm" approach by Poland.

The body of Siddig Musa Hamid Eisa, a Sudanese man, was found in the River Świsłacz in Poland on 25 October, bringing to 27 the number of documented fatalities on the Belarusian migration route in the past 14 months.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

But there could be many more, given that 186 people who tried to cross have so far gone missing without trace, according to Polish rescue activists, Grupa Granica.

Poland built a €320m, 5.5m-high, 180km-long fence to stop migrants after Belarus flew in tens of thousands of people last year and forced them into neighbouring EU states to stir trouble. The EU threatened sanctions against airlines involved.

But people are still coming, in increasing numbers, despite the risk of accidents, hypothermia, or violence.

They are now coming first to Russia, before crossing into Belarus and moving on, two Arabic-language Telegram groups used by migrant-smugglers and seen by EUobserver indicated.

One Telegram group offered people a tourist visa to Russia for €1,000, transit to Belarus for €500, and onward help in getting to Germany for €5,950.

A second group offered long-stay Russian student or medical treatment visas for $2,000.

Grupa Granica is currently getting some 160 calls for help from migrants each week, compared to 50 or so a week in September, one of its activists, Aleksandra Łoboda, said.

"People are going around the wall. They dig under it, or climb on it, cutting themselves on razor wire, and suffering serious falls," she said.

"There's still a humanitarian crisis and it's going to get worse as winter temperatures drop," she said.

Another Sudanese man injured his spine in a fall on 23 October trying to climb the fence, she noted.

But he and his group refused to call an ambulance, fearing Polish authorities would force them back.

"He was scared to do it, because [injured] people are often sent back to Belarus [by Polish guards] straight from hospital, or they don't even make it to a hospital," Łoboda said.

Pushbacks — expelling people without giving them a chance to claim asylum — are illegal under EU and international law, but Grupa Granica is hearing upward of 70 stories of such incidents each week, Łoboda said.

"The Polish services use euphemisms. They say they 'send people back to the Belarusian border', but in reality they often use force, putting people's lives at risk, for instance by making them cross rivers with strong currents," she added.

And once back on the other side, some are beaten by Belarusian guards in punishment for their failure.

A pregnant Ethiopian woman said she was "beaten with fists" by Belarusian officers after being sent back three times by Polish guards, Łoboda told EUobserver.

For its part, the Polish Border Guard confirmed that numbers of irregular crossings were on the rise.

But it said the spike was likely temporary, as migrants were trying to get across before a new electronic detection system around Poland's wall is switched on.

A Border Guard spokeswoman, Anna Michalska, contradicted Grupa Granica, saying anyone who wants to claim asylum in Poland is being allowed to do so.

But she did say people trying to get to other EU states via Poland were being turned back.

"Sorry, but we're not a taxi service to Germany. We're here to protect the Polish border and the Schengen zone," Michalska said, referring to Europe's passport-free travel area.

Asked what happens when people are taken back to the border, Michalska said they return to Belarus by themselves because they have no choice. "We stand in their way, so they can't come back," she said.

Meanwhile, there is little love lost between activists and Polish authorities.

When asked about the pushback allegations, one Polish diplomat said: "Evidence please: Where exactly? Which unit of the Border Guard? Photos. Videos and [names of] people involved".

"If they [Grupa Granica] have evidence, they should inform the proper institutions," he added.

Polish officers were in fact rescuing migrants, such as a group of 10 people stuck in a swamp last week, instead of pushing them back, he added, and any claims of Polish human-rights abuses were Russian disinformation, he said.

'Orderly and firm'

The EU Commission also played down the gravity of the situation.

"The number of irregular border crossings remains limited," it told EUobserver.

The Commission's line is that all allegations of pushbacks must be "fully and credibly" investigated by EU countries.

But it voiced more sympathy with Poland's security concerns than it did it for vulnerable individuals in the border forests.

"The European Union firmly rejects attempts to instrumentalise people for political purposes and is working closely with Polish authorities to support them in this complex task," it said.

"Orderly, firm border management in full respect of European asylum law and migrants' fundamental rights is the only effective and humane way to manage this situation," it added.

Grupa Granica said it has "plentiful visual documentation" and other materials to substantiate its allegations.

Łoboda also noted that Poland has welcomed over 1 million refugees from Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.

"This could be a beautiful example for how Polish society can welcome migrants, but the Polish government hasn't changed its strategy when it comes to the Belarus border," she said.

Most people coming via Belarus were "not authentic refugees", like the Ukrainians fleeing war, the Border Guard's Michalska said. "They are economic migrants," she added.

EU 'foot dragging' on Poland border wall with Belarus

NGOs and academics say Poland's wall with Belarus violates EU environmental laws. The EU commission says "public safety" exemptions exist — in a possible endorsement of the 186km-long wall.

Local Poles near Belarus risk trouble for helping refugees

Three locals near the Polish exclusion zone with Belarus say they cannot leave refugees and migrants to die or freeze in their woods. But by leaving bags of food in the woods, they risk possible fines or worse.

Opinion

For Ukraine's sake, pass the EU due diligence directive

The EU Commission's 2022 CSDDD proposal did not include provisions incorporating "conflict due diligence", they were added, after the Russian invasion, by the European Parliament and Council into the final directive text — for Ukraine's sake, vote for it.

Latest News

  1. Von der Leyen appeals for 'new EU defence mindset'
  2. EU supply chain law fails, with 14 states failing to back it
  3. Joined-up EU defence procurement on the horizon?
  4. Macron on Western boots in Ukraine: What he really meant
  5. Amazon lobbyists banned from EU Parliament
  6. MEPs adopt new transparency rules for political ads
  7. EU nature restoration law approved after massive backlash
  8. Memo from Munich — EU needs to reinvent democracy support

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us