How Poland Exposes its Own Hypocrisy on Migration Amid Crisis with Belarus6 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Editorial, Politics
Belarusians looking to escape the wrath of President Alexander Lukashenko have found a safe haven in neighbouring Poland. Willingly adopting the role of patron to Belarusians seeking a democratic future without Lukashenko, Warsaw has made their cause its own. Poland’s goodwill, however, has been absent for the largely Middle Eastern migrants who are now along its border with Belarus, despite running from their own desperate situations back home. 

The migration crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus has been a humanitarian nightmare for the thousands of refugees turned into pawns in a geopolitical game they never wanted to be a part of. Huddled together in makeshift camps after being encouraged to take this perilous journey by Belarusian authorities, thousands remain stranded with an uncertain future still ahead of them. 

Poland has asserted that it is at the forefront of an “invasion” orchestrated from Minsk by Lukashenko with at least the tacit support of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Echoing this rhetoric, Polish officials have declared a state of emergency that has drawn hundreds of security personnel to the border and has limited the presence of journalists and aid groups to the region, giving it the character of a warzone. 

Poland’s government is right to claim it is being subjected to a manufactured dilemma on its border, but a certain double standard hides in the background of the crisis. In actions and rhetoric, Warsaw has demonstrated a noticeable inconsistency in how it treats the largely Middle Eastern migrants trapped along the border and those from Belarus itself.

Roots of the present conflict between Poland and Belarus lie in the aftermath of the August 2020 presidential election. After Lukashenko, who has ruled his country since 1994 as Europe’s “last dictator”, was declared the winner, the Belarusian opposition cried foul and it was joined in its rejection of the results by the EU and the United States. Soon after, Lukashenko launched a heavy-handed crackdown on protests against him and moved close to Putin’s Russia. 

With authorities bearing down on them, many Belarusians fled westward, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the recognised leader of the opposition. Many found refuge in Poland, which opposed Lukashenko’s re-election alongside other Western states. In September 2020, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki proudly proclaimed to Tikhanovskaya that Poland would be an open home to Belarusians in need. Since then, independent journalists, business professionals and high profile exiles like former Belarusian Minister of Culture Pavel Latushko and Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya have settled in the country. 

Poland’s “moral duty” in today’s crisis

In contrast to the hard-line it has taken against migrants from beyond Europe, Poland has welcomed Belarusians with generous entry programmes and has provided asylum to many fleeing Lukashenko’s regime. After years of maintaining that Poland could not accept economic migrants, these initiatives are aimed squarely at encouraging skilled labour to come to Poland from not just Belarus, but also other predominantly Christian countries in Eastern Europe like Armenia, Russia and Moldova. But these programmes were also framed in humanitarian terms as well with Poland’s former deputy prime minister Jadwiga Emilewicz describing one entry programme for business professionals as part of a “moral duty” on behalf of her country. 

If Poland understood its obligation to assist Belarusians fleeing a vindictive autocrat as a moral duty, these sentiments do not appear to extend to the migrants on the border today. In 2019 and 2020, Poland had one of the highest rejection rates for all asylum applications submitted to the European Union at a time when the bulk of submissions came from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the refugees trapped between Poland and Belarus are from these three states, and their options for seeking asylum are strictly limited.

PiS finds a shield against its rivals

This posture is not at all surprising given the rhetoric of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party across the years. At the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, PiS’ leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski railed against those from the Middle East in starkly xenophobic terms, accusing them of “carrying diseases long absent from Europe”. Two years later while in a legal duel with Brussels over an EU-wide resettlement policy, Kaczynski asserted that Poland has “a full moral right to say ‘no’” to accepting migrants under the scheme.

Unlike Belarusians arrivals, Muslim migrants are portrayed in an entirely securitised manner and this has its uses for PiS. Amid the ongoing standoff, PiS has turned any criticism of its handling of the crisis on its domestic opposition by accusing them of serving the interests of Poland’s enemies and encouraging illegal migration across its borders. While the main opposition Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk and other opposition politicians have been critical of PiS’ border policies, they have tread carefully in their statements. Tusk chastised Morawiecki for treating migrants as “political gold,” but he too held that Poland’s borders needed defending, bowing to the fact that the Polish public still is in favour of PiS’ approach.  

The situation has also won Poland the backing of the EU. For months, they have gone back and forth in their recriminations but the migration crisis has drawn them onto the same side.   

Portraying itself as the vanguard of the EU’s borders, Poland has passed legislation that legalised pushbacks, the forceful expulsion of migrants back towards Belarus, earning a muted rebuke from Brussels despite the practice being outlawed under EU and international law. On December 1, the EU went so far as to debate new measures that would relax protections afforded to asylum seekers trying to enter from Belarus, a shocking move that shows the extent Warsaw has won over the bloc in its forceful response.  This will not likely mean an end to Poland’s problems with the EU, but at the very least it has bought time and some level of breathing space from these issues. 

Will the EU let Poland’s double standard slide?

To be certain, Poland is the victim of a humanitarian disaster that was forced upon it by Lukashenko. By all accounts, Belarus is responsible for engineering a scenario where the plight of desperate migrants has been weaponized into a tool to settle geopolitical scores and force concessions out of the EU. Because of this, Poland is not wrong to seek the support of its European partners in holding Lukashenko to account and in preventing a greater catastrophe from unfolding at their frontier. 

Hybrid warfare or not, none of this should be interpreted as granting Poland carte blanche immunity for any mistreatment of migrants or denial of their rights to asylum. By taking this approach, Poland risks playing right into its adversaries’ hands by creating fodder that Lukashenko can use to justify his autocratic regime and which is already being used by Putin to sully the reputation of the EU.

They may be in the right to consider itself under indirect assault by Minsk, but neither Warsaw or Brussels should use this to excuse abuses that take place in the name of preserving national security. Poland has shown that it does care about the plight of those fleeing persecution or desperation through its embrace of Belarusians critical of Lukashenko. But any claim to a moral high ground will continue to be challenged if it does not at the very least extend some of this decency towards migrants from beyond Europe who seek the same safety and prospects of a better life as their counterparts from Belarus have found.

Featured image: Closed borders / Amanda Sonesson
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