According to Eurostat, more than 4 million people fleeing Ukraine have received temporary protection in Europe, with Germany and Poland as the main hosts. Lithuania increased security at the border with Belarus ahead of NATO summit, partly in reference to an alleged risk of “illegal” migration. At least 48 bodies have been recovered at Poland’s border with Belarus over the last two years and hundreds of people on the move remain at risk. Anti-migration rhetoric has been adopted by the Polish opposition as the topic gains salience in ahead of elections.

Eurostat published figures on Ukrainians granted temporary protection in Europe revealing that “At the end of May 2023, more than 4 million non-EU citizens who fled Ukraine as a consequence of Russia’s invasion, were under temporary protection in the EU. Germany (28% of the total), Poland (25%) and Czechia (8%) were the main hosts of beneficiaries of temporary protection”. In the run up to the NATO summit on 11-12 June in Vilnius, Lithuania, notorious for de facto legalising pushbacks, has beefed up the deployment of border guards at the border with Belarus, partly in response to the alleged threat of “waves” of migrants. While the commander of Lithuania’s State Border Guard Service, Rustamas Liubajevas, stated that the situation was calm the week before the summit, he also referred to an increase in “illegal migration” activity on the Belarusian border with Poland and Latvia. He stated: “We could also see migrants diverted, which is, again, one of the possibilities, in order to cause, let’s say, tensions, and irregular migrants might be grouped and pushed into our territory”.

Over the last two years, at least 48 bodies have been recovered and an unknown number of people have died at Poland’s border with Belarus where hundreds of people on the move are fighting for survival in the Bialowieza Forest hoping to cross into Europe. “You can’t really be prepared to survive here,” says Anna Alboth, an activist from the NGO Grupa Granica, adding: “Eastern Poland is very harsh. There are swamps and huge forests. In summer, it’s very hot and there’s nothing to drink. In winter, it can be as cold as minus 20 degrees. Adding to the dangers facing people on the move are Polish authorities, according to Alboth: “They are beaten by Polish border guards, bitten by dogs, their money taken away, their phones destroyed so they can no longer communicate. All this is done to discourage them from coming”. While reports of severe abuse have  been mounting for years, Polish border guards deny the use of violence. “There are no complaints against the Polish officers. I don’t understand where these allegations are coming from. If anyone thinks that a Polish border guard has used violence, they should take their complaint to court,” spokeswoman, Anna Michalska stated. In 2021 the Polish parliament passed legislation allowing border guards to immediately expel migrants who cross the border irregularly and refuse applications for international asylum, without examination – de facto ‘legalising’ pushbacks. Poland constructed a 186 km steel wall to prevent migrants from crossing the 416 km long border in 2022, but according to Alboth it has not stopped attempts: “In two years, nothing has changed, people are still trying to cross the border. Last week, we helped 250 people – children, pregnant women. With a broken leg or arm, crossing the forest is more complicated”.

The ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party as well as the opposition led by former President of the European Council, Donald Tusk are using anti-migration rhetoric as part of their respective campaigns ahead of the parliamentary election in the fall. Balkan Insight reports: “The Polish opposition took up the challenge thrown by the PiS government”, which started scaremongering about migration a few weeks back. This week, Donald Tusk, leader of the main opposition party, published a video saying that “Poles must take control over their country and borders” and accusing the government of hypocrisy. Why is the government “spitting” on migrants, Tusk wondered, while at the same time it is passing legislation that would ease access to visas for citizens of specific countries including Muslim-majority ones?”. The remarks by Tusk – that have sparked accusations of racism and Islamophobia from NGOs – came in the context of relaxation of visa requirements for citizens from Muslim-predominant countries to address shortages in the labour market. The main opposition parties refused an invitation from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to discuss the government’s strong negative stance on the European Pact on Migration and Asylum agreed by member states on 8 June. Poland opposes the so-called solidarity mechanism introducing a quota-based system for hosting refugees, with financial penalties for member states refusing and has attempted to build a blocking coalition in the European Parliament to halt the approval of the pact. At a recent meeting in Warsaw Italy’s far-right PM, Georgia Meloni expressed support to Hungary and Poland’s (both voting against the pact) approach stating: “I believe our position is substantially the same. We want to stop illegal immigration”. The Polish government has announced plans of a national referendum on the country’s participation in the relocation scheme under the pact to take place alongside upcoming parliamentary elections. “I can confirm we plan the parliamentary elections and a referendum on migrant relocations to be held at the same time, also to reduce the costs,” Morawiecki said, according to RMF FM.

Meanwhile, Poland is facing headwind from the European Parliament with MEPs agreeing on a resolution demanding a ‘full-scale observation mission’ in upcoming Polish election. According to European Interest: “MEPs have concluded that the amendments to the Polish Electoral Code adopted ahead of the country’s forthcoming parliamentary elections in autumn 2023, and with the June 2024 European elections on the horizon, are deeply concerning. The changes may discriminate against those voting from abroad, MEPs point out. They also recall that the Chamber of the Polish Supreme Court tasked with electoral disputes “cannot be considered an independent and impartial tribunal”. Green MEP, Tineke Strik stated: “The Polish government is on an all out war against democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights at the cost of the Polish people. The EU needs to respond accordingly: step up infringement procedures on unlawful acts, and keep the Polish EU funds frozen”.

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