In Poland complicity of the far-right ruling party in visa-for-cash scandal damages its ambitions in governance ahead of planned national elections. An investigation by Info Migrants reveals that border officers or government officials in Bulgaria ask for money from migrants for border crossings and resettlement amid EU’s ambition to admit the country to the zone.

The latest data published by the European border agency Frontex shows that the total number of detected crossings via Eastern borders between January and August this year is 3478, marking 17 per cent decline compared to the same period last year. In August alone, 241 crossings were detected.

Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party, which was hoping to make migration a key campaign theme ahead of the country’s national elections planned for 15 October, has been shaken by the escalating cash-for-visas scandal after accusation of its complicity in facilitating and covering up the scheme. The government has been deflecting public attention from the corruption scandal through emphasising news about the increased arrivals in Lampedusa in Italy while saying that the opposition is exaggerating the extent of the issue claiming some of the problems date back to the opposition’s time in power. The speaker of Poland’s upper house of parliament, Tomasz Grodzki said “This case is ruining our country’s reputation as a responsible member of the democratic community of the free world and jeopardizes our security, therefore it must be explained in detail”. Reportedly, details about the corruption case are to be revealed before the elections, leaving a small room for the Law and Justice party to control the damage. Reportedly, the country’s foreign ministry said on 15 September that it had fired the head of its legal service and cancelled all its contracts for outsourcing visa applications after seven people were charged over the alleged irregularities in granting work visas. On 31 August, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki dismissed Piotr Wawrzyk from the position of deputy minister of foreign affairs, preventing him from running in the upcoming elections. While the official statement said that his dismissal was due to a “lack of satisfactory cooperation”, media outlets said that the cancellation was related to his involvement in the visa scandal. On the night of 14-15 September, Wawrzyk was hospitalized in a life-threatening condition in what was reported as an “apparent suicide attempt”. According to media, Wawrzyk left a letter behind reading that “he did nothing wrong, he wanted to help people regardless of their political affiliation and paid the highest price for it” and that “he is not a briber”. Meanwhile, ECRE member Are You Serious (AYS) reported the detention of a Polish activist Ewa M., who has been helping migrants at the Belarussian-Polish border for the past two years, over allegations of helping people in detention, asking for money in exchange for passage to Germany.

In an interview with Tomasz Musiuk, deputy director of the hospital in Hajnówka that deals with victims of violations on Polish-Belarussian border, say that doctors had to learn how to cooperate with border guards who often didn’t listen to instructions of the medical team or entered the hospital with weapons. Musiuk admits that helping refugees involved “emotionally difficult” situations. Some refugees asked the medical team to leave them longer in the hospital, he said, adding that they feared being pushed back by Polish border guards or because they were mentally vulnerable to get back to life. The doctor also underlined that many of the migrant patients shouldn’t have been hospitalized but the violence they faced at the border harmed their health. Musiuk also mentioned how the health complaints received differed throughout the years. In 2021, majority of migrant patients suffered from hypothermia, severe exhaustion caused by staying in difficult weather conditions, malnutrition and dehydration, he explained. However, since the construction of the wall, migrant patients come with orthopedic traumas due to falls from the wall as well as psychological traumas. Human rights lawyer and PhD candidate, Marta Górczyńska points to the hypocrisy of Polish authorities defending the “good” name of the border guards while ordering them to commit crimes and take the responsibility for them. Górczyńska states: “any liability will be borne not by the Minister, but by individual officers whose actions endanger the lives and health of foreigners. The officers know this and are afraid of it”, she states referencing a letter by border guards to media in 2022 complaining concrete pushback decisions and liability is pushed to the lower levels of the chain of command. Meanwhile, the Polish government spokesperson Piotr Müller said authorities will likely not extend the support for the roughly 1 million Ukrainian refugees it is hosting to the same extent for the following year. “These regulations will simply expire next year,” Müller said. “I think the regulations will not be extended to a large extent,” he noted, adding that the international community should become more involved in the support.

An investigation by Info Migrants refers to an “endemic” of corruption in migrant smuggling, border crossings and refugee settlement in Bulgaria. “Paying out bribe money to border police to continue a journey to western Europe – or paying government workers to secure a faster asylum settlement – is nothing new in the Balkan country”, the investigation reports. Diana Dimova heading the Bulgarian human rights organization Mission Wings says that corruption is rooted at “all levels of society”, adding that her organisation has thousands of “horror” stories. “We have recently heard the shocking information that even in morgues, information about the deceased is being traded [for cash],” she said. A woman from Afghanistan, who had been searching for her missing brother for 11 months, shared with Mission Wings that she had been coerced into giving nearly €2,000 ($2,150) to various officials responsible for identifying and storing the bodies. “For showing one photo of a deceased person – between €30 and €40 [$32-$43] – for opening one folder or file of a deceased person – €100 [$106],” she said. Dimova also said that several investigations were launched to look into the involvement of border police officers in migrant smuggling and trafficking. “Paying bribes to Bulgarian police is commonplace, but even more typical is paying out third parties”, the investigation reads. “They could be anybody…corruption at border crossings is a very big problem in Bulgaria,” said Krassimir Kanev, chair of ECRE member organisations the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, adding that “It’s usually not just one police officer – It’s a chain of police officers who get proportional amounts of these amounts [bribes]”. A Bulgarian investigation journalist Maria Chereshev says that “Bulgaria has seen multiple cases of border guards arrested for participating in smuggling schemes over the years, and increasingly high-level officials have also been arrested”, adding that the problem is that smuggling is not “heavily punished” because of the “’too much of a profit” it brings.

Meanwhile, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on 13 September that Bulgaria should be admitted to the EU’s free-movement zone “without any further delay” as it “has proved” its capability to be member of the Schengen area. The Commission president also praised Bulgaria’s approach to asylum amid reports of an increase in violence and pushbacks at the Bulgarian-Turkish border perpetuated by “a culture of impunity within Bulgaria’s police force and the country’s ambitions to join Schengen by the end of 2023” as well as increased crack down on migrants by Greek authorities. Chair of Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Kanev, says that pushbacks are a “very serious problem” in the country, adding that “There have been many cases of physical ill treatment, sometimes resulting in death…and use of firearms”. In 2022, the organisation said that an estimated 5,270 pushbacks affecting 87,650 people occurred at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, underlining the numbers “are believed to be much higher”. Meanwhile, hotline Alarm Phone reported of a minor stranded in the forest near Vizitsa in Bulgaria. “The relatives of the minor told us that he is sick and cannot continue his journey. We informed Bulgarian authorities that he needs urgent medical care”, the organization said. Alarm Phone later confirmed the youth had been found and taken to hospital.

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