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Migrants in limbo at Poland-Belarus border as Polish legalise pushbacks

Usnarz Gorny near Bialystok, northeastern Poland, located close to the border with Belarus
Usnarz Gorny near Bialystok, northeastern Poland, located close to the border with Belarus Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Magdalena Chodownik
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"Such a change will, in the opinion of the Ombudsman, be absolutely contrary to the Geneva Convention on refugees," says Marcin Sosniak of the Ombudsman's office. "It is also contrary to European Union regulations."


Poland has recorded more than four thousand illegal crossings this year and has become a new EU destination for asylum-seekers.

This month has seen the biggest influx as more than two thousand people tried to enter the country illegally.

In response, Poland has started to build a barbed-wire fence, deployed soldiers at the border, and has temporarily legalised pushbacks. The government is also planning on changing the legislation.

Most of the migrants come from Iraq and Syria as well as Afghanistan and all are stuck at the Polish-Belarusian border which is guarded on both sides by the armed forces.

Migrants, claiming to be Afghan nationals, are demanding international protection in Poland. Despite the right to do so, requests of those trapped at the border for over two weeks, are turned down by Polish authorities.

"I want to request that we are protected by all organisations including the United Nations and European nations, to protect us." said a man waiting at the border to enter Poland.

Contrary to Geneva Convention?

Ocalenie Foundation, an NGO providing support to those stranded, is trying to help asylum-seekers to be represented by lawyers. Tahmina Rajabova, a translator and an activist within the NGO, said: "The refugees are told to return back by the border guards. They (asylum-seekers) entered all their details so that we could somehow help them from a legal point of view," she said.

According to Marcin Sosniak from the Ombudsman's office, not allowing asylum-seekers to claim international protection in Poland is against the law.

He is also worried about the announced but not yet introduced legal changes that could criminalise illegal border crossings and make it harder for those who cross illegally to apply for asylum:

"Such a change will, in the opinion of the Ombudsman, be absolutely contrary to the Geneva Convention on refugees," he says. "It is also contrary to European Union regulations, which say that every foreigner is to have effective access to the refugee procedure, and even the Polish constitution, which allows foreigners the opportunity to apply for international protection in Poland."

"We are obliged to protect external borders of the EU"

Meanwhile, Bartosz Grodecki, Undersecretary of State for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration in Poland, confirms that work on changes to the legislation is planned. He also emphasises the importance of border protection in a European context:

"We are planning to improve certain procedures that will speed up the processing of refugee applications and this is absolutely a response to what is happening at the moment at the border. As a member state, we are obliged to fulfill our community obligations, i.e. to protect the state border of both Poland and the external border of the community. Our Lithuanian neighbours are doing the same, as well as the Latvians."

The situation on the Polish-Belarusian border shows no sign of slowing down. Pushbacks are already in practice and there are plans for a bigger fence. As a result, the number of migrants stranded at the border with limited access to aid is expected to rise.

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