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Poland: Asylum Seekers
Blocked At Border

Ensure Procedure Access; Halt Summary Returns

(Budapest, March 1, 2017) – Polish authorities routinely deny asylum seekers at the Belarus-Poland border the right to apply for asylum and instead summarily return them to Belarus, Human Rights Watch said today. Since 2016, large numbers of asylum seekers, mostly from the Russian Republic of Chechnya, but also from Tajikistan and Georgia, have tried to apply for asylum in Poland at the border with Belarus.

The numbers peaked during spring and summer 2016, with up to 200 to 300 asylum seekers each day, down to 40 to 80 a day during the winter. When they arrive at the border station by train from the Belarus city of Brest, Polish border guard officials briefly interview passengers seeking asylum. Usually all but a handful are denied entry into Poland and the ability to apply for asylum. The written decisions handed to asylum seekers usually refer to whether the person has a visa or entry residency permit, without comment on or acknowledgement of the person’s protection claim. Those denied access are sent back by train to Belarus the same day.

“Poland is putting people in danger by denying them access to its asylum process and returning them to Belarus, where they can’t get protection,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Trapping families and others at the Belarus border and refusing to hear their asylum claims is no way for an EU state to behave.”

Local human rights groups in Poland and Belarus say that the summary returns have been going on for years but that the numbers increased significantly in 2016. An August 2016 inspection of the Terespol border station by Poland’s human rights commissioner, whose report was published in September, found that border officials’ cursory interviews failed to adequately identify asylum seekers. A November 2016 report by the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights also found that Poland was summarily rejecting asylum seekers at the Terespol border station and returning them to Belarus. Both groups confirmed in February 2017 that the summary refusals and returns are ongoing.

Under Polish law, the Office of Foreigners, Poland’s asylum authority, not the Border Guard Services, is responsible for deciding on asylum applications. But in practice, asylum seekers at the Poland-Belarus border said, border guards carried out superficial interviews for two to 10 minutes, and then refuse the vast majority access to the asylum procedure.

Human Rights Watch researchers boarded the daily train from Brest to Terespol on December 7, and observed the arrival and departure of migrants from the Terespol border station. In early December 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 asylum seekers who had unsuccessfully tried to enter Poland from Belarus, 25 of them from Chechnya. Twenty-one were female or male heads of households, most accompanied by children and eight were single men.

All those interviewed said that they tried to explain to Polish officials their intention to seek protection during the interviews at the Terespol border station. Two said they had tried over 40 times and one said he had tried 50 times, but were turned back every time.

A Chechen journalist who had experienced death threats for his reporting said that he and his family had been repeatedly turned down. “You know, I had a good job and a good life,” he said. “Why would I want to leave all that behind for nothing.”

The September 2016 human rights commissioner’s report says that Polish border officials in Terespol speak and/or understand Russian. Some of those interviewed said they spoke or wrote the words for “asylum” and “refugee” during interviews, but were still turned down. Thirteen of those interviewed said the border officials mocked or humiliated them.

Belarus has provisions in law for an asylum system, but in practice it does not offer meaningful protection. Tajiks, many of whom have experienced abuse in Tajikistan and fear deportation or harassment from Tajik security forces in Russia, cannot get effective protection in Belarus, which views Russia as a safe third country. Chechens also risk being sent back to Russia in spite of their fear of abuse there from the authorities of Russia’s Chechen republic.

The Polish border guards’ practice of routinely denying people access to the asylum procedure at the border violates the right to asylum under the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and creates a risk of chain refoulement – that is one country returning an asylum seeker to an allegedly “safe” third country which then returns the person to an unsafe country – contrary to international refugee law, Human Rights Watch said. Asylum seekers from the Russian republics in the North Caucasus and from Tajikistan are exposed to a risk of being returned by Belarusian authorities to persecution in Russia or in Tajikistan as a result of being denied access to the asylum procedure in Poland.

Belarus also has a responsibility under international law to treat all migrants humanely and to provide access to asylum procedures for those seeking protection, Human Rights Watch said.

The Polish Ministry of Interior, in a January 11 response to a letter expressing Human Rights Watch’s concerns, stated that foreigners can seek asylum at the border station and their asylum applications will be received by the border officials. The response also said that Polish border officials determine through screening interviews that the majority of third country nationals approaching the Polish border station at Terespol are “economic migrants,” and that improvements had been made at Terespol border station by increasing privacy during interviews with foreigners.

Asylum seekers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that fear of arrest and torture by the authorities back home, and failure of their home countries to protect them from blood feuds were among their reasons for leaving. None cited an economic motivation.

In August 2016, Mariusz Błaszczak, Polish minister of internal affairs, stated in a media interview that the country would not accept refugees from the Russian republic of Chechnya, saying they were a threat to national security. In 2016, Poland’s recognition rate for asylum seekers from Russia (including Chechens) was 5.6 percent and for those from Tajikistan, 10.5 percent. This compares with average across the EU 28 member states of 19 percent for asylum seekers from Russia and 27.5 percent for those from Tajikistan. In February, Poland’s Ministry of Interior published draft amendments to the country’s asylum law that would facilitate accelerated asylum procedures and summary removals of those who applied for asylum at the border.

The European Commission has failed to speak publicly about Poland’s denial of access to asylum procedures at its border with Belarus. The EU is seeking to step up migration cooperation with Belarus. An October 2016 EU-Belarus “mobility partnership” agreement includes “enhance[d] operational cooperation on return” of third country nationals and combating irregular migration as priorities. The commission plans to provide Belarus €7 million in financial support to build open and closed reception facilities for irregular migrants as part of a wider deal on migration cooperation including a future readmission agreement. Poland has no bilateral readmission agreement with Belarus.

“The Commission’s failure to call out Poland’s denial of access to asylum at its border with Belarus makes the prospect of EU migration cooperation with Belarus deeply worrying,” Gall said. “The Commission should press Warsaw to halt summary returns to Belarus and ensure that all asylum seekers approaching Poland’s border can lodge their claims and have them decided in a fair way. And it should make sure that its migration cooperation with Belarus does not lead to asylum seekers being denied access to protection.”

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Poland, please visit:
https://www.hrw.org/europe/central-asia/poland

Human Rights Organization press release