Ain’t No Wall High Enough – as security trumps humanity on the Polish-Belarusian border, what is the fate of EU migration policy?9 min read
As Poland has been one of the primary victims of the crisis on the EU’s eastern border, one would hope that this experience would make it reconsider its hitherto staunch opposition towards a robust, solidarity-based EU migration policy. Instead, the go-it-alone approach of the Polish government and its reliance on physical barriers and pushbacks have undermined Poland’s human rights record, and demonstrated a missed opportunity to show the full potential of inter-EU cooperation. The fact that the Union itself has done little to change Poland’s approach, and has failed to bring migration policy into the picture, poses serious moral questions and risks future vulnerability to migration weaponisation.
Increasing migrant crossings from Belarus into the EU were first observed in Lithuania in early summer. Minsk had just hijacked a plane carrying Belarusian journalist and dissident Roman Protasevich, which resulted in new sanctions against Belarus and the closure of EU airspace to all Belarusian carriers. By 1 July, 672 people, mostly of Iraqi origin, had illegally crossed the Lithuanian border. By late August, the number rose to over 4000 – 55 times higher than in all of 2020. Lithuanian authorities suspected early on that the phenomenon was part of an organised scheme. As more evidence emerged, it became clear that the migrants were paying thousands of dollars for organised “trips” to Belarus, which included a promise of passage into the EU. In many cases, Belarusian state-run companies acted as facilitators.
During the summer, Poland also started recording an increasing number of crossings through its border with Belarus. By 7 June, 112 people had been detained, the figure reaching to 871 by 9 August. Poland did not wait for the numbers to go into thousands – by the end of August, Polish troops started erecting a fence made of barbed wire along the border. On 2 September, the authorities introduced a state of emergency within 3 kilometres from the border, imposing a ban on assemblies and mass events, and restricting entry into the area to people covered by specific exemptions. Photographing or filming any parts of the border infrastructure was prohibited, and access to public information about the activities carried out within the zone concerned was limited.
Between a rock and a hard place
Since then, the migrants have been stuck between Polish border guards not letting them cross the fence, and Belarusian security forces pushing them (sometimes literally) to get to the other side. The number of both Polish forces and migrants has continued to grow, reaching around 15,000 and an estimated 2000-4000 respectively in early November. In the meantime, thousands of people have managed to cross the border, supposedly unnoticed, and have since reached Germany. Scarce but troubling material has been revealing the conditions in which the migrants, including many women and children, have been trying to survive on the Belarusian side – sleeping in tents in the forest, in subzero temperatures. At least ten people are reported to have died.
In mid-November, mass attempts at breaking through the border took place. Soon after, largely thanks to EU diplomatic efforts, several main channels through which the migrants were being transported to Belarus were blocked. Moreover, Poland threatened to halt train traffic across the border, which would strongly hit Belarusian trade. Belarusian authorities then started moving the migrants into a temporary shelter, while Iraq began organising repatriation flights. Although the situation has been de-escalating ever since, attempts at crossing into Poland continue, and new smuggling routes might soon be found. Long-term planning and preparation are essential, yet Poland’s current approach could make it more rather than less vulnerable in the future.
“Everything is under control”
While Poland’s situation is by no means straightforward, and the Polish forces have kept their calm when it mattered most, avoiding potentially much more dramatic scenarios, several elements of the country’s crisis management are problematic.
First, the main tactic used since the physical barrier was erected along the border has been to push anyone who manages to get through back to the other side. These so-called pushbacks prevent migrants from lodging applications for asylum, which is their right under EU and international law. According to the Polish Border Guard, those who manage to pass unnoticed and are found on Polish territory are provided with medical assistance and placed in special facilities “for foreigners”. As of mid-November, 1857 people were living in such facilities, 1060 of whom had lodged applications for asylum.
Second, the Polish authorities are securitising migration, i.e. presenting it to the public as a threat to Poland’s security, which requires the state to use extraordinary measures. Continued use of wording such as “illegal migrants”, “attacks on the Polish border/sovereignty”, “columns of migrants”, “storming of the Polish border”, accompanied by pictures showing big groups of unidentifiable people, create an image of imminent danger.
In this context, the authorities seem to take a great deal of pride in declaring that Polish forces are “defending” the border, which, as they readily underline, is also the EU’s and NATO’s border. The fact that public discourse focuses solely on the security aspect of the crisis, with the humanitarian aspect ignored, denied even, is deeply worrying. Even more worrying is that, as will be elaborated on later, this attitude finds tacit support within the EU.
Third, a lack of transparency about the events on the border precludes independent assessment of Poland’s actions, including the extent to which migrants’ rights are respected. The restrictions imposed through the state of emergency banned both media and non-governmental organisations from accessing the border area. Consequently, the only public information about the developments on the ground has been coming from the Polish authorities themselves, and, as of recently, from journalists reporting from the Belarusian side. Starting from 1 December, Polish media outlets are allowed to enter the restricted zone, subject, however, to the approval of the authorities, who will be determining all aspects (date, time, area accessed) of such journalistic “visits”.
Finally, Poland has demonstrated an overall go-it-alone approach and a reluctance to cooperate closely with its partners. While Polish authorities seem to have been in regular contact with the EU and NATO, they have continued to refuse offers of support from the EU’s European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and the European Asylum Support Office, whose presence on the ground would allow the EU to make an independent assessment of the situation.
When asked about this reluctance at the Polish Parliament, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki claimed that Frontex’s forces were too small to constitute substantial help, and that the agency was rather a tool to exchange best practices. He did not, however, explain how that justified not having them present on the border – surely there are some best practices to be exchanged in these extraordinary circumstances? Morawiecki also stated that Poland was using its own asylum procedures, and it would not agree to use the procedures of countries which had “different” attitudes towards migration.
By not cooperating with Frontex, Poland has shown distrust towards the EU, and potentially slowed down the Union’s foreign policy actions aimed at blocking the smuggling channels. Its attitude also suggests that Poland, instead of using the support of its partners to deal with crises more swiftly and more effectively, thus also sending a discouraging signal to hostile actors, prefers to rely on its own means and wait with asking for help until it might be too late.
Silence of the EU
While Poland’s approach is perhaps not so surprising, it is troubling that the EU also focuses mostly on the security aspect of the current crisis, thereby neglecting its humanitarian side. Rare criticisms aside, the pushbacks and violations of asylum laws, practised not only in Poland but also in Latvia and Lithuania, are largely disregarded. Instead, the EU’s emphasis is on condemning Lukashenko for using migrants as a weapon against the Union. While it is undoubtedly important to note the distinction between the present circumstances and a spontaneous refugee wave caused by a conflict or natural disaster, the fact that the origin of the phenomenon is different does not change anything about the suffering of those stuck on the border. Assuming so would be a dangerous moral shortcut for an organisation that prides itself in being the champion of fundamental rights.
Following the 2015 migration crisis, the most affected EU countries pushed for reforms in EU migration policy, to reflect the need for solidarity and burden-sharing among all EU members. In September 2020, the European Commission proposed the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. It included, inter alia, provisions for a new pre-entry screening of migrants, which would create uniform rules on identification, and accelerate the choice of procedures applicable in each case. The Pact also aimed at modifying border procedures to allow for a faster division of applicants based on their chances of getting asylum.
Furthermore, following staunch opposition of some Member States, including Poland, to earlier EU-wide mandatory migrant relocation quota, the New Pact proposed a different solidarity mechanism (which the usual suspects were also unhappy with). EU members were to be allowed to choose the form of their assistance to the countries affected – be it by relocating the asylum seekers, sponsoring returns, or contributing in terms of capacity building, operational support, and technical and operational expertise.
The proposal has been in a deadlock ever since, and the chances of it being adopted are slim at best. Despite criticisms of its provisions—unavoidable seeing the breadth of views which the Commission was trying to reconcile—the Pact would provide for a better framework than the current collage of Member States’ individual approaches and legal interpretations. It would also, ironically enough, provide Poland with the support it would need if it were to allow the migrants on its border to enter its territory and submit their asylum applications, as is their right.
Ain’t no wall high enough
Some will say that applying proper migration procedures in cases of weaponised migration would only encourage more people to come, thus playing into the hands of Lukashenko and the likes of him. Yet one could also say that uniform and consistently applied rules, combined with clear communication on who has a chance of getting asylum, would act as a dissuading factor for those who would know that they would make the trip for nothing. In the absence of a clear approach, many hope that they can find a way in – indeed, many succeed. Furthermore, in an ideal scenario, the response to migration weaponisation would also encompass foreign policy tools, aiming at swiftly blocking the channels through which migrants are being transported.
What is clear is that disregarding migration policy, and building fences and walls instead, is not going to protect EU countries. Neither from weaponised migration, nor from migration induced by conflicts or climate change. Poland has still not learned this lesson; firstly, it currently only faces migration flows on its land border – good luck building a wall along the Baltic Sea coast. Secondly, the migrants’ numbers have been so far low enough for Polish forces to manage. What if, though, instead of several thousand people, Polish border guards would have to deal with tens or hundreds of thousands? Someone would probably suggest building an even higher wall. Yet no wall has ever stopped people from yearning for a better life, Poland should know this better than most.