At least four bodies have been found at the Polish border with Belarus, reportedly one of them was a young woman who was left unassisted despite alerts to Polish authorities. Meanwhile, reports of pushbacks, arbitrary detention and “repression against humanitarian activities” continue. Council of Europe raises concerns over pushbacks and criminalization of solidarity by authorities in Latvia.

More tragic deaths have been reported at the Polish border with Belarus, long the scene of pushbacks and deaths of people on the move. On 12 February the body of a young Ethiopian woman was recovered by humanitarian activists in a forest on the Polish side of the border with Belarus. Reportedly, activists had searched for the woman for a week, and reported when they recovered her body: “She was lying on the ground, huddled up. Next to her is a Christian prayer book with pictures of saints. She was wearing the same sweater and hat as in the picture, only she didn’t have a jacket. We have no doubt that it is her”. According to Grupa Granica: “The woman crossed the Poland-Belarus border on 3.02. with a group of 6 people through a river. Three of them were immediately pushed back to Belarus. The remaining four stayed in Poland. At night, the woman felt very bad and began to lose consciousness. Her companions started looking for help”. The organisation further reports: “According to the late woman’s companions, Polish border guard and the police declared they would provide help. However, they never reached her, but they pushed the migrants who asked for help back to Belarus”. Katarzyna Czarnota from ECRE member, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR), stated: “Unfortunately, contact with uniformed officers ended with pushback, and not providing help to a person in need. The search was resumed by activists”. Grupa Granica, demands an: “investigation of circumstances of the death, as well as holding responsible the authorities, who according to the group’s relation, not only did not undertake rescue activities, but also pushed back to Belarus people who were seeking help for their companion”. On 16 February, the organisation reported of three more bodies found at the border, stating: “Three more victims of the deadly policy of push-backs. Three more deaths that could have been avoided”. According to Grupa Granica at least 37 deaths have been confirmed in the border area and almost 300 people reported missing since the crisis at the border began.

Meanwhile, reports of pushbacks along the border continue to mount. ECRE member, Association for Legal Intervention (SIP), is one of the organisations that contributed to an EU Asylum Agency  (EUAA) report on Poland. SIP states: “In 2022, pushbacks at the Polish-Belarusian border continued. Pushbacks were reported irrespective of a nationality or vulnerability of persons concerned, including families with children, pregnant women, elderly, disabled and ill persons. Persons crossing the Polish-Belarusian border in an irregular manner often asked for international protection, but their asylum claims were ignored by the Polish authorities. They were pushed back despite their pleadings for international protection” SIP further cites a report by PRAB (the Protecting Rights at Borders Initiative including SIP): “In 2022, the Border Guard (…) issued 2,549 decisions ordering an immediate removal from Poland of persons intercepted near the border (based on Article 303b of the Act on Foreigners). Moreover, the Border Guard registered 12,144 ‘preventions of irregular crossings of the border’. This number includes both persons who managed to avoid interception at the border (e.g. they run away from Polish officers to Belarus) and persons who were returned to Belarus in accordance with the Regulation in force since August 2021 (entitling to return a person identified away from the official border crossings without any decision being issued)”. The SIP input further notes that data shows that since August 2021, the Border Guard has removed 50.668 persons from Polish territory immediately upon their arrival from Belarus.

On 1 February, the BalkanInsight released a report entitled ‘Held Without Rhyme or Reason: Poland’s Detention System for Migrants Labeled a Farce’. It describes how: “Inhumane and traumatising, Polish detention camps don’t even pretend to control irregular migration. After spending months in these high-security facilities, thousands simply continue their journey on to Western Europe”. According to the report: “It’s impossible to say exactly how many of the migrants apprehended by the authorities simply disappear after their period in detention – migration lawyers unofficially speak of 90 per cent. Some idea can be drawn from the statistics of the Polish Border Guard and Office for Foreigners: in the second half of 2021, a total of 3,570 migrants were detained and placed in detention centres. By February, the number had fallen by half and currently it doesn’t exceed 600. Over the last 18 months, more than 4,700 asylum application procedures have been halted: the reason, according to the Office of Foreigners, is that the person had simply disappeared”.

In January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) communicated the case V.M. and Others v. Poland regarding the detention by Poland of a mother and her children, who complain that the treatment violates Articles 5 and 8, and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In February, the European court found that Poland had violated Article 5 ECHR, in the case R.M. and Others v. Poland, concerning the detention of a family awaiting deportation following return from Germany under the Dublin Regulation, a case in which ECRE member, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, intervened as a third party.

Civil society actions at the border to combat violations have provoked a backlash. On 31 January, HFHR published a report on “forms of repression against humanitarian activities on the Polish-Belarusian border in 2021 and 2022”. According to the report, the tools used by Polish authorities include: “detention in the forest for hours in an atmosphere of intimidation and lack of information, verbal aggression, and physical violence”. The report further notes: “Since the beginning of 2022, there has also been an increased tendency to charge humanitarian activists with more serious charges from the criminal code. Growing aggression and abuse of direct coercion by Polish uniformed officers has also been observed. The authors of the report also point out that it is possible that activists will face a wave of further repression”. 

In relation to the border between Belarus and Latvia, in a letter addressed to the Minister for the Interior of Latvia, Māris Kučinskis, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatović raises concern: “ about the reported continuation of pushbacks at the Latvian-Belarusian border which has led to severe injuries suffered by men, women and children and the death of one man”. The Commissioner further express alarm over: “the fact that a criminal investigation was initiated against two members of the organisation ‘I want to help refugees’ who went to the border area on 12 January 2022 out of concern for the lives of seven Syrians”.  As recently reported by ECRE, the head of the State Border Guard, Guntis Pujāts, has alleged that the activities of the activists may constitute a violation of Criminal Law. Pujātas’s opinion was echoed by the chairman of the National Security Commission, Jānis Dombrava. In this context, on 17 January, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced: “We closed our operations in Lithuania and Latvia on 31 December 2022. Violent pushbacks and restricted access to those most in need of assistance prevented our teams from providing care to migrants/asylum seekers with full confidentiality and in accordance with our principles”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.