WARSAW, Poland – On Europe’s eastern frontier, the Polish border guard has been turning away an increasing number of asylum seekers, many from the repressive Russian republic of Chechnya, with little protest from European leaders.
For years, the Terespol border has been a main entry point for Chechens, Tajiks and others from the post-Soviet region to cross from Belarus into Poland and reach E.U. territory.
Chechens make up the largest number of asylum seekers at the border, and their numbers increased significantly last year, reportedly because of heightened repression ahead of last September’s Chechen election.
Yet no matter how many try to cross the border, the Polish border guards allow an average of two refugee families to enter Poland at Terespol per day, human rights groups estimate.
According to Terespol border-guard data, they rejected 85,000 attempts to enter Poland last year, compared to 25,000 in 2015. The number of asylum applications at Terespol stayed consistent both years, at around 2,900.
Some Chechens have tried to enter Poland as many as 30 or 40 times, according to NGO reports. Some failed 20 times before succeeding on the 21st attempt, encouraging people to try as long as they can afford it.
“Even at the border, I say the problem lies in my child’s illness, I don’t even mention my husband’s persecution,” Fatima, one of the Chechen women waiting to enter Poland at the Brest train station in Belarus told Dosh magazine in February.
She feared that spies for Chechnya’s dictatorial leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, were listening in to the public asylum interview. She said she had already been threatened and told to return home while in Brest.
Most Chechens trying to cross the Polish border from Belarus refuse to speak to the media. Some wear surgical masks to hide their identity.
Under Polish and international law, asylum seekers must be allowed to enter the country to apply for protection.
Yet since early last summer, the Polish Ombudsman and rights groups including the Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Watch have documented Polish border guards arbitrarily refusing entry to asylum seekers, after interviews that last just a couple of minutes, lack privacy and in which interviewers ask leading questions to portray them as economic migrants.
“The application for protection on the territory of Poland is accepted from any foreigner who clearly states the will to submit such a request,” a Polish Border Guard spokeswoman said in response to Refugees Deeply’s question about the Ombudsman’s report. “But this statement cannot just be reduced to simply using the word ‘asylum’ or ‘refugee’, but the pursuing of asylum must be proven by the entire response of the foreigner” during the border interview.
In January, the Polish Ministry of Interior announced amendments to the asylum law that, when implemented, will allow for the automatic detention of several categories of people crossing the border without a visa. In late March, the ministry proposed a draft regulation that would allow detaining migrants in guarded containers.
Despite media coverage and warnings by Polish human rights groups since last summer, the E.U. has not taken any steps to reprimand or sanction Poland over the pushbacks.
In response to Refugees Deeply’s question on what steps the European Commission (EC) had taken since the reports emerged one year ago, a spokesman replied that the E.U. executive was “closely following the situation” in Poland.
After questioning from several members of the European parliament (MEPs), in mid-March EC vice president Frans Timmermans promised to look into the situation.
Barbara Spinelli, one of the MEPs, called the situation at the border “de facto refoulement” – the illegal return of asylum seekers to a place where they may be at risk.
“These asylum seekers, mostly from the Russian Republic of Chechnya but also from Tajikistan and Georgia, are collectively returned to Belarus where they cannot receive effective protection and risk being returned to Russia or Tajikistan,” she said.
Another MEP, Ska Keller, said European leaders may be reluctant to admit something is wrong at the Poland-Belarus border and deal with a “completely new problem.”
Europe is already saturated with disputes about the violation of refugee rights – from Bulgaria rejecting asylum seekers at the border with Turkey, to Hungary’s legalization of pushbacks and mandatory detention of refugees. Keller says that, nevertheless, “the E.U. has to do something about the border situation because it is a clear violation of E.U. law.”
The situation does present a dilemma in Brussels. The E.U. is obliged to condemn breaches of European law, while countries like Germany need other countries in the bloc to respect refugees’ rights in order to be able to return asylum seekers there under the Dublin Regulation.
Yet, closing the eastern border simply means less refugees coming into countries struggling with the political aftermath of the wave of refugee arrivals in 2015. That is particularly the case in Germany, which took in by far the most asylum seekers that year and has been the main destination for Chechens entering the E.U. via Poland.
There is hardly any public discussion in Germany about the situation at the Poland-Belarus border, says Raphael Bossong from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, though this does not exclude the possibility that there may be “admonishments behind the scenes.”
Bossong says Germany is caught between a rock and a hard place. “On the one hand, Merkel wants a movement towards convergence of reception standards in all E.U. countries, because if standards are too low in some countries, refugees just run away, to Germany for example,” he said.
“On the other hand, she is still hoping for a political agreement on relocation by the summer, which means she cannot antagonize anyone too much, ” he said, referring to the beleaguered E.U. relocation scheme to distribute asylum seekers around the bloc.
“The E.U.’s reluctance to act on the Polish-Belarus border shows the flawed compromise the E.U. is willing to accept in order to keep the migration crisis away from the heart of Europe,” said Dam from Human Rights Watch.
Back in Belarus
Those rejected at Poland’s border face grim prospects in Belarus, a country tightly controlled by strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
The E.U. is currently negotiating a ‘mobility partnership’ with Belarus, offering expedited visas for Belarus citizens, as well as a ‘readmission agreement’ to allow European nations to send rejected asylum seekers who came via Belarus back to the country, echoing similar readmission deals with Russia, Ukraine and Georgia.
Last year, the E.U. committed 7 million euros ($7.6 million) to help reform Belarus’s migration management system, including the construction of detention centers for migrants.
“The E.U. may be framing mobility partnerships as facilitators of regular migration, but in reality they are just another tool of restrictive migration management,” said Oleg Korneev, a University of Paris-13 researcher.
Chechens trying to get asylum in Poland could get caught up in this deal. “If the Chechens or other migrants cross the border without documents or they are refused entry, there is a chance they will end up in detention centers in Belarus,” Korneev said.
This version corrects that 2,900 is the annual number of asylum applications at the Terespol border, not in Poland overall.
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