The effort by Belarus to confront the EU at the Polish border with migrants and asylum seekers as the victims persists, Human Rights Watch said today. Poland unlawfully, and sometimes violently, summarily pushes migrants and asylum seekers back to Belarus, where they face serious abuses, including beatings and rape by border guards and other security forces. At least one person drowned and another disappeared in March 2022 in the course of being pushed back.
“It’s unacceptable that an EU country is forcing people, many fleeing war and oppression, back into what can only be described as hellish conditions in Belarus,” said Lydia Gall, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The unlawful pushbacks of migrants to Belarus and subsequent abuse they face there stands in stark contrast to Poland’s open door policy to people fleeing the war in Ukraine.”
The humanitarian crisis on the Poland-Belarus border began in 2021, with severe ill-treatment of migrants and asylum seekers by border forces on both sides. Hundreds of people from countries including Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Cuba attempting to seek asylum in the EU end up trapped in the inhospitable border area between the two countries.
Between March and May, Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with nine migrants, including families with children and single men, a human rights lawyer, and activists. Human Rights Watch also interviewed representatives of two border guard stations and two detention centers for foreigners in Poland.
People interviewed said that Polish border guards had pushed them back to Belarus in March and April, sometimes violently, and without due process, despite their pleas for asylum. On the Belarusian side, people reported violence, inhuman and degrading treatment and other forms of coercion by Belarusian border guards. Vulnerable groups, including families with children, older people, and people with health issues were among those summarily pushed back to Belarus.
Human Rights Watch documented similar abuses, including violence and use of force by Polish and Belarusian border officials, in a November 2021 report.
Commanders at two border guard stations in Poland in May confirmed they summarily push people back, citing an October 2021 Polish law that permits the removal of foreigners from Polish territory to Belarus. The commanders said that as there is no formal readmission agreement with Belarus, guards simply take migrants and asylum seekers to the razor wire fence at the border and order them to go back. One commander said that when people are caught close to the fence, border guards “invite” them to go back.
People interviewed said they had been trapped in the area between the two border fences, as well as inside Polish territory, being stranded in forests, wandering through swamps and rivers in freezing temperatures for days and weeks without food or water, and drinking swamp water to survive. When Polish border guards caught them, interviewees said, the guards ignored their pleas for asylum, took them back to the border without due process, and forced them to cross back to Belarus.
“When the border guards came, we asked for asylum and showed them papers where we had written ‘asylum’ in Polish and English,” a 23-year-old Kurdish man from Iraq said. “They [border guards] told us ‘You don’t need those papers’ and threw them away.”
On two occasions, people said, Polish border guards beat them with batons, and kicked and pushed them before forcing them back to Belarus. Other people said, though, that Polish border guards provided them water, food, clothes and diapers.
People gave harrowing accounts of violence, death, rape, extortion, theft, and restrictions on freedom of movement by Belarusian border guards. Following a Polish pushback on March 9, a 30-year-old man from Yemen said, that Belarusian border guards forced him and three others from Yemen and Iraq to stand in knee-high water in a river for an hour in freezing temperatures, ridiculing them, then forcing them at gunpoint to swim across the river to Lithuania. One man drowned while another was swept away by the river and never found.
Three migrants and a Polish human rights lawyer, described grave violations in a makeshift warehouse that was used for Belarus’ Bruzgi camp, including a gang rape, beatings, and inhuman living conditions.
In contrast, at another section of the Polish border, over three million people fleeing the war in Ukraine have arrived in the country since February 24, often aided by Polish border guards and volunteers.
While Polish volunteers at the Poland-Ukrainian border have been heralded as heroes, at least five activists have been prosecuted for providing humanitarian assistance to stranded migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East, Asia and Africa at Poland’s border with Belarus. The activists are facing bogus charges for organizing illegal immigration, a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison. Polish authorities in September effectively banned access to the border area for humanitarian aid workers, journalists, and human rights observers.
Polish authorities have an obligation to prevent further deaths and suffering, and should ensure access to the asylum procedure and allow humanitarian aid workers and independent observers access to the currently restricted border area, Human Rights Watch said. Poland and Belarus should immediately halt ping-pong pushbacks and investigate abuses, and hold those responsible to account.
Poland’s summary collective expulsions, or pushbacks, violate the right to asylum and EU law, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and create a risk of chain refoulement – return to possible abuse in their countries of origin, contrary to international refugee law.
The European Commission has failed to speak publicly about Poland’s responsibility for the abuses at its border, or to clearly call on Poland to stop banning media and humanitarian groups from areas where abuses are taking place, and prosecuting volunteers.
Belarus’ abuse of people at its border amounts at least to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and may in some cases constitute torture, in violation of Belarus’ international legal obligations. The authorities should immediately halt the abusive practices and hold those responsible to account.
“To prevent further deaths, abuse and suffering, Polish authorities should immediately stop pushbacks to Belarus,” Gall said. “Access to the asylum system in Poland shouldn’t depend on a person’s skin color, nationality, or religion.”
For detailed accounts, please see below:
Human Rights Watch conducted remote interviews with seven migrants and asylum seekers in Belarus, and two in Western Europe, between March and May 2022. The interviewees were all male and from Yemen, Iraq, and Iran. They were traveling in groups totalling at least 60 people. Pseudonyms have been used for all interviewees to protect their identities.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed two Polish activists, one Polish human rights lawyer and representatives of two border patrol stations and two detention centers for foreigners in Poland. The Polish and Belarusian governments had not responded to an April 26 letter requesting comment on the Human Rights Watch findings.
The continued pushbacks from Poland to Belarus are linked to a scheme orchestrated by the Belarusian government in May 2021, when President Aleksander Lukashenko stated that he would open Belarus’ border to migrants by facilitating visas. In October 2021, Poland amended its Act of Foreigners to effectively give legal cover for pushbacks.
The amendment requires the authorities to issue illegal entry orders when they apprehend someone immediately after they cross the external EU border in an irregular manner and allows the authorities to expel them, even if they wish to apply for international protection.
In November, Belarusian authorities placed some 4,000 people in a makeshift warehouse facility in Bruzgi, close to the Polish border. The camp was dismantled in mid-March, and people remaining were told by Belarusian authorities to make their way to Poland or go home. While thousands have been sent back to their home countries, Polish activists and human rights defenders estimate that hundreds of people are left in Belarus and reports of new arrivals are increasing.
People who were held in Bruzgi described appalling conditions and abuse in the camp. “Ramzah,” a 23-year-old Kurdish man from Iraq, said that people there slept on wooden pallets, that there was no heat or electricity, and that the authorities provided only one meal a day consisting of biscuits for free. People held there, and a lawyer, also reported that the border guards and police had raped and sexually harassed women and girls.
Pushbacks from Poland to Belarus
Between March and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed nine migrants and asylum seekers, all of whom had been pushed back, sometimes violently, by Polish border guards to Belarus in March and April, despite explicitly expressing that they wanted asylum and international protection. The incidents they described involved at least 60 people.
“Malid,” a 43-year old gay Iranian man traveling with 11 other people, including a single woman, described a violent pushback from Poland to Belarus on April 4:
We had walked in freezing cold and snow for seven to eight hours when Belarusian guards caught us and we were wet, tired, and without energy. After forcing us to pay money, they [Belarusians] took us to the Polish border and made us go through. We walked about two or three kilometers in Poland before we got arrested. They [Polish border guards] destroyed our phones and they took my bank card… I asked them to show us respect and because I did, I was kicked, punched, tasered, and pepper sprayed… They [Polish border guards] asked us if we want asylum in Poland. I told them that if they allow me to apply for asylum in Poland I will and asked to call a lawyer in Warsaw. I told them I was an LGBT asylum seeker… But they refused to accept my claim. They didn’t care.
Malid said he and his group were taken to a border station, where they were photographed, fingerprinted, and told to sign a document enabling removal from Polish territory and a 3-year re-entry ban to all countries in the free movement “Schengen zone.” “I refused to sign, so they [border guards] kicked me. Then they drove us back to the border and made us cross under the fence. We were tired, still wet, and no energy, and had no choice but to touch the Belarusian wire fence to trigger the sensors to be picked up by Belarusian guards…”
“Hamid,” 33, from Yemen, said he and the four others from his group, also from Yemen, received aid from Polish volunteers on March 29, while stranded in a swamp, but were then arrested by Polish border guards and pushed back despite his pleas for asylum:
When the volunteers came to us earlier that morning they asked us if we want asylum and we said yes. They gave us powers of attorneys to show border guards. I also had a paper from the European Court of Human Rights. I said I want protection in Poland and that I have a legal representative. They [border guards] refused and said “we will talk about it in the office.” But instead, they [border guards] handcuffed us, and drove us to the wire [border]. When I asked for my passport back, one border guard hit me across my back with a black baton…They [border guards] made us go across and threw our passports at us.
Ramzah, part of a group of 16 people, including women and children, said that he and the others had brought handwritten notes saying “I want asylum”:
We had been stuck in the swamp, drinking swamp water, and called the Polish volunteers for help, but as we were in a dangerous area, volunteers couldn’t come so they called firefighters to rescue us. When the border guards came, we asked for asylum and showed them papers where we had written “asylum” in Polish and English. They [border guards] told us “You don’t need those papers” and threw them away. We were taken to a station and questioned for two hours, until approximately 4 a.m.. Then they took us to the border, opened the fence, gave us back our passports and mobile phones and told us to go to Belarus. I didn’t protest because I knew they would push us back.
“Azwer,” a 22-year-old Kurdish man from Iraq, travelled with his 50-year-old mother with a broken leg and two younger brothers, 19 and 20. He said they were stranded for six days without food or water in the border area between Belarus and Poland, before being able to cross into Poland on April 15 with at least 13 others, including five other women and three children. He described what happened when they were caught by Polish border guards:
We had walked about four or five kilometers inside of Poland when Polish guards arrested us. We asked them for asylum and protection but they [border guards] refused. They put us in a military vehicle and drove us for about five hours back to the border. One border guard told us that we should go back home and pay for a visa to get to Poland legally.
In interviews with Human Rights Watch in May, two Polish border guard commanders, in Białowieza and Mielnik, said people apprehended inside Poland are held in border guard stations or on site, told to sign expulsion orders, and then taken to the border and ordered to cross back to Belarus. The commander in Białowieza said that when people are apprehended close to the border, guards will simply “invite” them to go back to Belarus, without issuing any orders.
When asked whether border guards are aware of the treatment of migrants on the Belarusian side, the Białowieza commander said: “We know, but we have to follow orders.” He confirmed what several people had told Human Rights Watch: Polish border guards would provide them water, food, clothes, and even diapers, either during the process of a pushback, or across the fence. Human Rights Watch researchers observed bags of clothes, shoes, and disinfectant, diapers, chocolate, and bottles of juice and water in the Białowieza border guard station basement area, where people are detained.
In one case that Human Rights Watch is aware of, a border guard chose not to follow orders. According to a local volunteer, in early March, an unidentified border guard called the volunteer helpline to inform them about a particularly vulnerable family who had been stranded for days in the forest, having failed in several attempts to cross into Poland. The border guard instructed the volunteers to arrive at a certain GPS location, on a certain date and time, and said that he would ensure that the family could cross without being caught. The family managed to enter and to lodge an asylum claim in Poland.
Despite operating under legal cover, Poland’s pushbacks without due process violate EU law, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights, guaranteeing the right to asylum under which any expression of intent to seek asylum should be forwarded to competent authorities to assess.
Summary pushbacks constitue ill-treatment, prohibited under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and article 4 of the Charter, as does violence against migrants used during the pushbacks.
The ECHR and Charter also prohibit expelling anyone to a place where they face a serious risk of torture or other prohibited ill-treatment. Polish pushback practices also violate article 19 of the Charter and Protocol 4 of the ECHR, which prohibit collective or mass expulsions of aliens. Pushbacks of children are inconsistent with the best interests of the child and violate Poland’s obligations to protect children from all forms of violence.
Abuses in Belarus
The consequences of Poland’s pushbacks to Belarus have serious consequences for those affected, including the one reently documented case that ended in death. Three people described violence, rape, extortion, abuse, and attacks by police dogs in the border area and the makeshift warehouse camp in Bruzgi.
Following a Polish pushback on March 9 or 10, Abdullah, traveling with three other men, said Belarusian border guards, who he thought were drunk, took the group to a river at the Lithuanian border.
They [Belarusian border guards] forced us to stand in knee-high water for approximately 40 to 60 minutes while they ridiculed us. It was freezing cold, snow everywhere. Then they told us to cross the river. We had no option. They told us, “Go or we shoot you!” My friend drowned in the river as he couldn’t swim. Another was swept down the river and disappeared and two of us made it across but were later pushed back by Lithuanian border guards to Belarus.
Four people, two from Iraq, one from Yemen, and one from Iran, said that Belarusian border guards would instruct dogs to attack them, resulting in bite injuries. “Rekan,” 24, a Kurd from Iraq, said that border guard dogs in Belarus bit him on two occasions.
One time we were surrounded by border guards, and I sat down screaming and the dog bit me. The guards were just laughing. I couldn’t run. Another time, I woke up in my sleeping bag feeling pain in my foot and saw how the dog was biting my toes. I screamed and pleaded with the guards to remove the dog.
Azwer said that Belarusian border guards took his family and two other families in trucks to the Polish border and told to cross and never come back.
Four people interviewed, three from Iraq and one from Iran, said that Belarusian border guards extorted them for money in exchange for allowing them to leave the border area and travel back to Minsk.
The Bruzgi camp
Three out of the nine people interviewed were held in the Bruzgi camp for periods ranging from a few weeks to four months. The three men from Iraq and a Polish human rights lawyer described atrocious conditions and treatment in Bruzgi camp, including rape, and beatings, lack of food and medicine, and inhuman living conditions with no electricity or heat. The camp was in a makeshift warehouse facility and accommodated up to 4,000 people. The Belarusian authorities closed it in March.
“They treated us like shit,” Ramzah said. “We received one meal a day which was some biscuits. All other food had to be bought at triple the market price and we had to pay $20 to charge our phones and $40 to charge our power banks. If you had no money, you couldn’t survive there.”
Ramzah said that people slept on wooden pallets, the facility was unheated and very cold, and showers were only allowed once a week, Saturday for women, Sunday for men, in a large makeshift tent outside the warehouse. Ramzah stayed in Bruzgi between November 18, 2021, and March 18, 2022.
Azwer, who with his family spent four months in Bruzgi, described the weekly showering:
There was no privacy, you had to shower in front of others. They divided us into groups of 40 men and everyone had 10 minutes to finish and if you didn’t the police would beat you.
Ola Chrzanowska, a Polish human rights lawyer with the Association for Legal Intervention and Grupa Granica, described a case of sexual violence in Bruzgi against one of her clients who subsequently made it to Poland. She said that a 35-year-old woman from Iraq and her 16-year-old daughter were taken by Belarusian border guards to a basement facility close to Bruzgi where two guards started to touch her daughter. The mother managed to persuade the guards to take her instead of continuing to assault her daughter.
Chrzanowska said that at least two Belarusian border guards vaginally and anally raped the woman in front of her daughter. Chrzanowska said that the mother told her that many more people were held in the basement rooms at the facility and that more people were brought in as she and her daughter were taken back to Bruzgi. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify for what purpose the other people were held there. Reports of rape and sexual assault in Bruzgi and the Belarusian border area have also been reported in the media.
Ramzah also referred to an incident he witnessed of sexual harassment at a shower tent in Bruzgi. “When it was the women’s turn to shower, the [male] border guards and police went inside to watch them. I saw that once, but I don’t know if anything else inside the tent happened to the women and girls,” Ramzah said. He also recalled the case of a woman who was pleading with one of the border guards for a jacket as she had wrapped her own around her child and that the guard told her that he could hug her to keep her warm.
The gravity of abuses by Belarusian border guards constitutes cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment and may constitute torture, in violation of Belarus’ international treaty obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (UNCAT), and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).