Concerns grow over Poland’s treatment of migrants stuck at Belarus border

Concerns over Poland’s treatment of migrants stranded on its border with Belarus are mounting after Warsaw this week ignored domestic and international criticism to extend a state of emergency and sought to portray them as dangerous deviants.

The European commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, met the Polish interior minister, Mariusz Kamiński, in Warsaw on Thursday night but won no concessions on the bloc’s request for monitors from the EU’s Frontex border force to be allowed into the zone, despite growing fears for the migrants’ safety after the deaths of at least five people.

Poland has sent thousands of troops to the border, built a razor-wire fence along part of its length, and on Thursday extended its state of emergency, which bars journalists and aid workers from accessing the 3km-deep strip, by a further 60 days.

Aid groups have accused the national-conservative government of illegally turning back migrants and failing to provide medical support or adequate food and shelter. Amnesty International says an analysis of satellite imagery and other photos and videos showed evidence of at least one such pushback in August.

The human rights body said on Thursday the 32 people were in Polish territory on 18 August but back on the Belarus side of the border the next day, possibly “constituting evidence of an unlawful pushback, because it appears to have occurred as armed Polish border guards surrounded the refugees’ camp”.

Forcing people “who are trying to claim asylum [back across the border] without an individual assessment of their protection needs is against European and international law”, said Eve Geddie, Amnesty’s EU director.

There was no immediate reaction from the nationalist Polish government, which has repeatedly said the migrants are not refugees but part of a “hybrid warfare” campaign being orchestrated by Belarus in retaliation for EU sanctions, insisting it is defending not only its border but the bloc’s.

Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have reported sharp increases in migrants, mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq, crossing from Belarus since the sanctions were imposed on the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The three EU states accuse Minsk of encouraging migrants to fly to Belarus on tourist visas and then travel onward – often aided by smugglers – to the border. Poland says 11,500 people have tried to cross the border illegally so far this year, including 6,000 in September, compared with about 100 for the whole of last year.

Stanisław Żaryn, a spokesperson for Poland’s special services, said: “Poland is of the opinion that only by thoroughly securing our border with Belarus are we able to stop this migration route, which is a route artificially created by Lukashenko with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s support.”

The government has also sought to portray the migrants as potentially dangerous radicals and criminals. Kamiński and Poland’s defence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, this week showed journalists extreme pornographic images that they said had been recovered from migrants’ mobile phones.

The images were later found to be old and available on the internet, sparking outrage from normally pro-government media and accusations of “lies and manipulation” from opposition politicians. The Rzeczpospolita newspaper said in an editorial the press conference was “a scandalous spectacle”.

The photos, which included images of bestiality and naked children, were “supposed to humiliate the migrants, dehumanise them, and to kill citizens’ belief that they were creatures that should be treated humanely”, the paper said.

“They were supposed to sow fear, hatred, and appeal to racist stereotypes … In a civilised society, even political cynicism should have its limits. The ministers have damaged not only their own credibility, but also that of the Polish state.”

Up to six people had died of hypothermia and exhaustion in the border zone in the past two months, officials said.

The Ocalenie foundation, a Polish migrant aid NGO, asked Johansson before her meeting with Kamiński to use “the voice and authority of the EU” to ensure Poland “respects international law and upholds democratic values”.

Lukashenko was “playing a cynical game”, the foundation said, “but we refuse to accept that Poland – a member state of the European Union for 17 years – is using equally inhumane tactics” in a “humanitarian crisis on the bloc’s eastern border”.

Kamiński tweeted after the meeting that the two sides had agreed that Belarus’s actions must meet with a firm response from the EU member states, adding that Poland had been “actively cooperating with Frontex since the beginning of the crisis”.

The EU commissioner said the talks were open and frank and that the “Lukashenko regime’s aggression deserves a firm and united response from the EU”, but Poland “can show that the capacity to protect the border can be matched with the ability to respect EU fundamental rights and obligations”.

A delegation from her home affairs and migration department would visit Poland next Wednesday for more discussions, Johansson said.

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