Looking through the windows at Terespol train station on Poland’s border with Belarus, I see a familiar sight. About 60 asylum seekers are waiting to be back on a return train ride to Brest, Belarus, 20 minutes away. Most appear to be family groups, many with small children, and I later learned, are from the northern Caucasus, largely from Chechnya and Tajikistan. Polish border guards have just denied them the right to seek asylum in Poland.
Most of the group will probably make the journey from Brest again and again in the hope of being allowed into Poland to claim asylum. But the majority will never make it to Poland and will be stranded in Belarus, where they risk being found by those persecuting them back home.
I talked to one of the families when they returned to Brest. Yusuf, 38, (not his real name) from Chechnya, is travelling with his wife and four children. He said that all he wants is for his family to be safe: “If I didn’t have a big problem back at home [Chechnya] I wouldn’t go to Europe…My son was forcibly disappeared two months ago and now authorities are harassing us… I fear for my family.”
In March, Human Rights Watch published a report on how Polish border guards systematically deny asylum seekers the chance to lodge an asylum request at Terespol and send them back to Belarus, a breach of Poland’s obligations under EU, human rights, and refugee law. The Polish Ombudsman and Polish and Belarusian human rights organizations have raised similar concerns.
The Polish government claims those it rejects are all economic migrants. But people we interviewed told a different story, saying they are fleeing torture, enforced disappearances, blood feuds and political persecution at home.
Belarus is not safe for asylum seekers. Its asylum system does not function. And Chechens and Tajiks there risk harassment and worse by security forces from Chechnya and Tajikistan. The Chechen leadership brutally pursues perceived critics and their families, even abroad. In Tajikistan, hundreds of supporters of the now-banned main opposition groups have been detained since 2015, their leaders chased abroad and families of those who dare to speak up in exile persecuted.
After another two days in Brest in late April, it was clear that nothing has improved at the border. People are still turned away after a cursory screening interview by border guards. Each day a very few families are allowed to apply for asylum.
During a meeting in late April, Polish officials said that merely saying “asylum” to a border guard doesn’t grant access to the asylum procedure since it might simply be a “code word” to get into Poland.
The border guards alone make the decision about who can lodge a protection claim, though Polish authorities were unable to cite the criteria they use. Our research suggests that many asylum seekers never see officials from the Office of Foreigners, the authority under Polish law that considers asylum claims.
We know of several cases involving high profile activists, journalists and relatives of persecuted critics who have repeatedly been pushed back to Belarus, part of the evidence that the system is not working.
The disturbing border practice is in blatant violation of EU and international law, yet the European Commission, has said almost nothing publicly about it. The EU, busy with asylum seekers in Greece, has ignored abusive practices on Europe’s eastern border.
Warsaw denies any wrongdoing. Yet it denies lawyers, non-governmental organizations and even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees access to the area where border guards interview asylum seekers. Border guards are free to take arbitrary decisions completely out of sight.
Polish authorities did promise to try to improve privacy during interviews, since asylum seekers can easily overhear each other. While such improvements would be helpful, the bottom line is that anyone who expresses an intent to seek asylum should be admitted to Poland and have their claims decided by the competent asylum authority.
Arguments that some asylum seekers may use Poland as a transit country to get to Germany once they enter the border-free Schengen area is no justification for having border guards arbitrarily decide who can lodge an asylum claim. Brussels should make it clear that failure to comply with EU regulations for the right to seek asylum will have consequences for Poland. Yusuf, his family and all those stuck in Brest with good reasons for fleeing repressive regimes in North Caucasus deserve at least a reasonable chance to make their case.