Hundreds forced to camp in freezing woods at Polish-Belarusian border

EU and Polish courts condemn illegal migrant pushbacks

Border guards patrol the border wall at the Polish-Belarusian border in north-eastern Poland.  AFP
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Hundreds of refugees have been forced to camp in freezing temperatures in makeshift tents at Poland's border with Belarus, aid charities have said.

Reports from NGOs and rights groups about migrants' treatment come as EU and Polish domestic courts have condemned the practice of illegal pushbacks of refugees.

In almost 100 cases the European Court of Human Rights has found that Poland was wrong to push people back to Belarus on the grounds that it might violate the prohibition of torture and inhuman treatment.

More than 20 cases are still pending, including a complaint by a family who said they spent several weeks in the woods — in winter, with their disabled children — because Polish border guards kept refusing to accept their asylum application.

Another complaint concerns a group of 32 Afghans who said they were kept at the Polish-Belarusian border for more than two months in man-made tents, when temperatures were around freezing, with no access to proper shelter or washing facilities.

Between September and November 1,104 people asked NGO Grupa Granica for help and it has provided aid to 629 people.

Aleksandra Loboda from Grupa Granica said the group had documented 200 illegal pushbacks during the same period and said more than 20 people have been reported missing.

“People crossing from Belarus to Poland are forcibly returned in a collective manner without genuine assessment of their individual situation, such as their family status, medical condition, or the fact of being an unaccompanied child. Their asylum claims are often ignored, their personal story is disregarded and the threat to their life and safety in Belarus is not considered”, said Marta Gorczynska, from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

“As this is an obvious violation of domestic and international laws and standards, lawyers keep challenging this practice before the courts. So far, successfully. In almost 100 cases the European Court of Human Rights obliged Polish authorities not to push people back to Belarus, finding that this might violate the prohibition of torture and inhuman treatment. There are numerous cases pending before the Court in Strasbourg.

“In 10 domestic judgements so far, Polish courts found pushbacks and the border guards’ way of conduct at the border illegal. As a result, border guard officers have started to worry that they might be held accountable for violations at the border. And their fear is justified.

“The authorities keep violating the law by conducting illegal pushbacks, clearly condemned by the domestic courts. For those reasons, lawyers will keep challenging the practice before the national and international courts.”

Charity Minority Rights Europe and Grupa Granica said between October and November they received testimonies from 117 people who said they had been subjected to violent and inhumane treatment in Belarus.

“Migrants who reported violence said they were, among others, beaten and threatened with dogs sent at them. Some of them had guns pointed at them, and their property taken away from them. We hear about rape cases,” Minority Rights Europe said.

Minister of the Interior Mariusz Kaminski, centre, and Deputy Minister Maciej Wasik, left, at the Polish-Belarusian border to announce the completion of works on the first section of an electronic barrier. EPA

Relations between Warsaw and Minsk deteriorated in 2021 when Poland accused its eastern neighbour of orchestrating a migrant crisis on its border.

Last year a surge in migration from the Middle East and Africa via Belarus created a humanitarian crisis that Poland and the EU said was deliberately created by Minsk in a bid to destabilise the bloc. Belarus has repeatedly denied flying in people and pushing them across the border.

With security concerns rising due to the war in Ukraine, Warsaw says it has noted increased migrant activity on the Belarus border.

It has led Poland to create a steel wall along its border with Russian ally Belarus to try to deter illegal crossings into the EU.

The 186km barrier came in response to tens of thousands of migrants and refugees, mostly from the Middle East, trying to enter from Belarus.

The move has shifted the focus of smugglers to the Balkan route in south-eastern Europe, which has seen a sharp increase in arrivals and is now the main migratory route to the EU.

The wall has been criticised by humanitarian groups that point to Poland’s open-door policy for Ukrainian refugees.

Poland has also started building a razor-wire fence on its border with Kaliningrad.

The number of daily attempted illegal crossings from Belarus reported by Poland's Border Guard has regularly exceeded 100 in recent weeks.

Updated: December 13, 2022, 1:35 PM