The UN’s human rights office has urged Poland and Belarus to resolve the crisis on their border, where it says that migrants and refugees are stuck in an “appalling situation”.
“In an atmosphere dominated by a focus on security and fuelled by anti-migrant narratives, practices and policy choices are being made on both sides that violate the human rights of refugees and migrants,” said Liz Throssell, spokesman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
“We urge Belarus and Poland to ensure that refugees’ and migrants’ human rights are at the centre of their actions,” she added.
Practices and policy choices are being made by both #Belarus & #Poland that violate refugees’ & migrants’ rights, incl. pushing people up to, or across, the border. We urge the two countries to address the appalling situation and #StandUp4Migrants‘ rights: https://t.co/EbGpyB9sOD pic.twitter.com/7DI8upACOb
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) December 21, 2021
The OHCHR notes that, when it visited Poland, it was denied access to the border. Since early September the area has been inaccessible to non-residents without permission from the authorities – first under a state of emergency, which was effectively extended by a new law.
The OHCHR’s team was also denied entry to Belarus completely. Instead, they had to rely on interviews with people who had reached Poland from Belarus.
Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees – mainly from the Middle East – have been seeking to do so this year, assisted by the Belarusian authorities.
“Interviewees described dire conditions on both sides of the border, with limited access to food, clean water and shelter, amid freezing temperatures,” reports the OHCHR.
A majority said that they had been beaten or threatened in Belarus by the security services, who had forced them across the border into Poland and prevented them from returning to Minsk. Belarusian forces had demanded “extortionate sums for food and water”, said Throssell.
The UN team also heard numerous reports of people who had reached Poland being “immediately and automatically” sent back to Belarus. This included children and people who had reportedly requested international protection.
The OHCHR urged Poland to reconsider recently introduced legislation allowing such “pushbacks” and called on it to instead properly “determine protection needs in line with international law”.
Noting that Poland also “systematically detains” border crossers who are not returned to Belarus, the UN team called on the Polish authorities to only do so as a last resort. It also pointed out that many detainees said they lacked proper healthcare and contact with the outside world during detention.
Last month, Human Rights Watch, an NGO, made a similar appeal. It accused Poland and Belarus of “shared responsibility for abuse” of migrants at their border, saying both had “cynically instrumentalised the migration issue”.
Poland’s government, however, notes that the crisis has been engineered by Belarus, and says that it has a responsibility to prevent illegal crossings and protect the EU’s eastern frontier. It says that it provides all necessary medical, humanitarian and legal aid to those crossing the border.
Warsaw has received backing in its approach from its allies. Last month, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, visited Poland to “express solidarity as we face a hybrid attack” by Belarus. The German government has praised Poland’s response to the crisis.
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, EUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.