News | Europe - Western Europe - Eastern Europe - Southeastern Europe A Catastrophic Situation

Cornelia Ernst on her observations in the Polish-Belarusian border area


The situation at the Polish-Belarusian border has disappeared from the headlines, but the humanitarian crisis continues. There are still many people in transit, trying to get across the border into the Schengen Area. For fear of pushbacks and the treatment refugees have received at the hands of Polish authorities, many try to remain undetected even after crossing the border so that they can continue west, including towards Germany.

The #noborderdelegation, made up of Die Linke representatives to the European Parliament, the Bundestag, and German state parliaments, was in Poland from 14 to 16 January to observe the situation at the border and to talk to activists and politicians. We discussed that trip with Dr. Cornelia Ernst, MEP, who was part of the delegation and whose focus in the European Parliament includes migration and refugee policy.

Dr. Cornelia Ernst has been a Member of the European parliament since 2009. Her focus there includes migration and refugee policy. This interview was conducted by Fabian Wisotzky, Advisor for Central and Eastern Europe for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Translated by Joseph Keady and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Doctors without Borders says that at least 21 people died on the Polish-Belarusian border in 2021. Despite this humanitarian catastrophe, the issue has disappeared from the headlines. What prompted your delegation to travel to Poland at this particular moment?

This trip to the border was planned for a long time, but earlier dates had to be postponed because of the coronavirus. It has been clear since last fall that the situation at the border was catastrophic and needs international observation. That’s why it was imperative that the trip happen during the winter, so we could ascertain the full extent of the disastrous situation for the refugees – the cold and the winter weather in the forest. The current trip was organized by Jule Nagel, representative to the state parliament in Saxony. Apart from me, there were also representatives from the Bundestag and several state parliaments who participated. That’s an indication that we are addressing the situation at all levels, and that the party and its representatives in the various parliaments have a shared outlook.

You were in Sokółka and Hajnówka, two cities that are just a few kilometres from the border, and while you were there you met with activists from Grupa Granica, among others. How did they describe the humanitarian situation at the border?

Catastrophic. The temperature is mostly below freezing in the border area. The area is actually a natural preserve where European bison, moose, and lynxes live, but now it has become the scene of a humanitarian catastrophe. An estimated 200 people are still in transit there, but no one can really confirm that figure because there is a law that prohibitsjournalists and aid organizations from entering a 3 km exclusion zone along the border – which also applies to us, to Members of the European Parliament as well as Polish representatives. Only security agencies and residents have access to that zone. The police are also ubiquitous in the exclusion zone.

As a result, only local residents are on site to help the refugees. But they are at risk of draconian penalties if they help refugees and don’t immediately report them to the border officials, at which point the migrants are at risk of being immediately pushed back to Belarus. Doctors who are in the border area and help refugees there – due to the tribulations of the border crossing, almost all of the migrants are in poor health and need medical care – risk losing their medical licence if they don’t report the refugees. So their Hippocratic oath is compromised. In short, the local populace is faced with the choice of letting the migrants perish, or helping them and risking draconian punishment.

After Doctors without Borders pulled out in early January, the situation got even more precarious. It also remains to be seen how things will play out in the early spring. There are still a lot of migrants in Belarus and they could start moving again.

Unlike Greece or even, for example, Croatia, there are still relatively small, new NGOs supporting the refugees in Poland and observing the situation on site. I have a great deal of respect for them and I’m humbled by their efforts. They work almost underground because they’re not only going against the prevailing local politics, but also against the societal mainstream. It makes their work all the more commendable.

Pushbacks are governmental measures through which refugees and migrants are sent back across national borders — usually immediately after crossing them. When that happens, they are not given the opportunity to apply for asylum or to have their legitimacy legally reviewed. Among other things, pushbacks violate the prohibition on collective expulsion that was established in the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Pushback” has been named the 2021 Unwort des Jahres [“Un-word of the Year,” a designation of the most egregiously discriminatory or misleading term used by the German press in a given year]. Amnesty International and other organizations have also reported on pushbacks at the Polish-Belarusian border. What kind of experiences with pushbacks did local activists tell you about? And did they say anything about the situation on the Belarusian side of the border?

Pushbacks are a daily practice at the border. The Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, even passed a law legalizing it, which clearly violates both EU and international law. But Poland has decided on the primacy of Polish law over EU law.

In other places along the EU’s external borders, like in Greece or Croatia, Members of Parliament at least have access to the border, so we can at least prevent pushbacks here and there through our presence. In theory, all Members of the European Parliament could set up a rotation system to be present at the border at all times and prevent pushbacks by means of parliamentary observation. But even that is impossible in Poland. The border is sealed off, no one has access, and the result is that most of what happens there is out of public view. At the same time, we have been told that the refugees on the Belarusian side have been driven to the border and pushed to cross it.

Your itinerary also included a facility where refugees are housed after they submit their asylum application, namely the Guarded Centre for Foreigners in Krosno Odrzańskie, not far from the Polish-German border. How are the conditions in that facility, and were you able to talk to refugees on site?

We were denied entry to the camp. The same thing happened to our Polish counterparts. My Polish colleague from the European Parliament, Janina Ochojska, had applied for access and it was denied. In Greece and Croatia, for example, we can enter all the camps. We couldn’t speak with refugees either.

In Greece, they are present everywhere; you can make contact with them and talk about their experiences and their demands. It’s not like that in Poland. There they’re isolated from society. No official figures are published in Poland. You can’t make contact with migrants inside institutions. We get our information from conversations with the NGOs that are on site.

You also met with representatives of the Polish Left. What were their demands in the current situation?

We met with representatives from Razem, Nowa Lewica, and the Greens. Their main demand is to be allowed into the facilities and the exclusion zone so they can observe the situation, because they have also been denied access. On top of that, they demanded normal asylum procedures in Poland. Refugee registration there has been deferred for up to four weeks because of a special regulation. After those four weeks, only a very few refugees are still there. The rest have already been pushed back to Belarus. Lastly, they are demanding that the EU finally find a way to handle refugees within the EU. The situation is clearly not an exclusively Polish issue, but rather a European one.

Among other things, the Polish left had called for Frontex to be deployed to the border. What do you think of that demand?

The Polish Left, civil society, and we are united by our main demand: access! We have to have access to the camps and the border region so that we can observe the situation on site. Frontex would offer a means to achieve that, because then we couldn’t be denied access. We have to include Poland in the Frontex scrutiny group. We have a lot of criticism of Frontex, of course, but that would be a step forward from the current situation.

What has the European Union’s response to the Polish government’s border policy been like so far?

From the outset, the Polish government placed its bets on militarizing the situation, you could already see that in the language of “hybrid warfare”, which the European Commission has now also adopted. Margaritis Schinas, the Vice President of the European Commission, recently said in committee that it is a security crisis and that the EU is at war, but the steps the EU has taken – the emergency measures – have been justified by a “migration-induced emergency”.

The European Council developed those emergency measures together with the Commission, bypassing the EU Parliament. The EP is now attacking the legal basis of the emergency measures, given that there is no emergency. The numbers don’t show a “migration-induced emergency”, as conjured in the official EU style. That’s another reason why Poland has not officially reported the number of people who have applied for asylum there, which is also why observation from the EU side is impossible.

The emergency measures apply to Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, which are the three EU member states that border Belarus. Registration has been deferred for four weeks in those countries. During that time, the refugees have no legal protection and are threatened with pushbacks, while at the same time there are no measures against pushbacks. Moreover, fast track proceedings at the border and subsequent deportations are in effect whenever refugees have crossed through a so-called “safe third country” along the way.

These fast track proceedings make it so that asylum applications can’t be examined seriously. Asylum law has been de facto abolished in those three countries. Apart from curtailing refugees’ rights in those countries, this example also threatens to set a precedent in the EU. Expanding these regulations to the rest of the EU would mean abolishing asylum law in the European Union. That’s what makes these actions so scandalous and it’s why the emergency measures need to be revoked.

What are the demands that emerged from your trip?

We came up with five demands. They are:

  1. Pushbacks at the EU’s external border must come to an end; EU law and human rights must be upheld everywhere, including in Poland.
  2. Instead of extralegal zones at the borders, humanitarian corridors must be created. Hundreds of municipalities and cities in Germany are ready to act as safe havens for evacuating refugees from Poland and Belarus.
  3. Transfers to Poland under the Dublin Convention must cease, given that Poland is not a safe place for refugees and refugees are incarcerated on the spot.
  4. The European Commission must tend to its agreements and not let member states that violate human rights do as they please. That is specifically the point I will be spending my time on in the EP.
  5. The criminalization of refugees must come to an end – regardless whether they are in Poland’s exclusion zone or several national borders over toward Western Europe.

We will be campaigning with these points in mind in the German state parliaments, in the Bundestag, and in the European Parliament.