On 9 December, the European Civic Forum organised a policy debate, hosted by Anna Donath (MEP, Rapporteur of the European Parliament report on the shrinking space for civil society and Shadow rapporteur of the European Parliament report on the EU Commission’s 2021 Rule of Law report).
The title of the event was “Defending European civic space in the framework on the European Rule of Law mechanism” and it was designed as an opportunity for key civil society actors from across Europe to discuss with high level representatives of EU and international institutions about the main challenges they are facing today, and how to strengthen the European Rule of Law mechanism to counter them.
Many CSOs’ testimonies were presented during the policy debate. Here the one made by Aleksandra Chrzanowska, Member of the Board of the Association for Legal Intervention (Poland):
“I represent the Association for Legal Intervention and the Border Group (Grupa Granica) – an informal movement of several civil society organizations and independent activists, operating since August 2021 in the Polish-Belarusian border area, providing humanitarian and legal aid to migrants and documenting the violations of law and human rights by Polish authorities.
As you probably all know, since August several thousands of migrants (and among them asylum seekers) have been stranded between Belarus and Poland and those who manage to cross the border are brutally pushed-back by Polish border guards. Those migrants often feed only on leaves and drink water from dirty rivers. They sleep under the trees while there are even sub-zero temperatures at night. There are cases of families being separated in push-back operations, children wandering alone in the forests, women who have miscarried as a result of being pushed across the border, people in a critical state of health, and increasingly frequent cases of hypothermia. So far, the Polish authorities have disclosed more than ten deaths of migrants in Polish forests. However, we believe there may be many more.
While there is no doubt that the Belarusian authorities are instrumentally using migrants to exert political pressure on the EU, the response of the Polish authorities to the escalating crisis is breaching all standards arising from international obligations on the protection of human rights and rule of law. We are currently witnessing probably the biggest mass tragedy in Poland’s modern history.
Today, I’d like to draw your attention to 3 core issues with regards to civic space and rule of law we have been experiencing in the last 3 months on the Polish-Belarusian border, saving lives of people trapped in the woods.
1. Lack of access/ no civic space for humanitarian workers, medics, media and independent observers in the border area coupled with smear campaign and repressions against activists and local community engaged to help the migrants. On the 2nd of September the Polish authorities implemented a state of emergency in a 3 km belt along the whole border with Belarus. Restriction of movement to the border area has been introduced, which applies to the media, representatives of civil society, humanitarian and medical organizations and independent observers. On 1st December the emergency state was unlawfully extended which poses not only a mortal threat to migrants trapped in the forests but also dramatically restricts the rights of hundreds of thousands residents of the border area and poses a threat to social and economic life.
Let’s be clear: the only actors providing humanitarian help are the civil society activists and volunteers outside the emergency zone and the residents of the restricted area inside it. Until the end of November we received about 6000 of accounts from people trapped in the forests.
We bring basic humanitarian aid to the migrants (food, drink, warm clothes, sleeping bags, we work with independent medics and hospitals). We also support them with access to administrative procedures. But we have no chance of reaching many migrants who ask for our help because of the prohibition to enter the state of emergency zone.
It needs to be highlighted that none of us is a professional humanitarian organization prepared to do such work. In addition to that, both, the activists and local residents, have been often facing threats or even repression for their relief work, this includes brutal stop and search operations, smear and intimidation campaigns against activists speaking up in the media, among many more.
The authorities do their best to present the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the military and border protection context and use the narrative criminalizing the humanitarian help.
2. Lack of access to legal procedures and international protection guaranteed in the Polish Constitution and International human rights documents. Polish Border Guards, with the support of the army and police, catch migrants in the border area and, without initiating the legally prescribed procedures (e.g., asylum procedure if someone asks for it or return procedure), take them back to the “green” border line and force them to return to Belarus in unauthorized places. The Belarussian services, in their turn, force migrants to cross the Polish border illegally again and again.
Migrants report that violence from the Belarusian officers is escalating. In this context Belarus cannot be considered a safe country. In other words Poland pushing back migrants to Belarus is a violation of non-refoulment principle.
3. Legalizing the unlawfulness. The Polish government has already changed two legal acts in order to “legalize” the illegal practices of pushbacks and to gain the possibility not to consider the applications for international protection. Both Acts are incompatible with the Polish Constitution, the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and EU law, as they breach the principle of “non-refoulement” (such an opinion was issued, among others, by the OSCE ODIHR, the Ombudsman, UNHCR and a number of NGOs).
LAST BUT NOT LEAST: We are very worried about the proposal of amendments to migration and asylum regulations for Poland, Lithuania and Latvia presented by the European Commission on the 1st of December. In our opinion, this proposal offers solutions that would only enhance the state of lawlessness and human rights violations. This is because it legalises the evasive practices applied by the Polish government. The proposed solutions are unclear and give the governments an opportunity to adopt solutions that are against the law.
WHAT DO WE EXPECT FROM THE EU:
- To put pressure on the Polish authorities to immediately stop pushbacks and to de-escalate the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border as soon as possible, in accordance with Poland’s international obligations on the protection of human rights, including refugee rights, especially the principle of non-refoulement.
- To demand that the Polish authorities allow humanitarian organizations to enter the border zone to provide warm shelter in the face of increasingly low temperatures, food and necessary medical assistance to the migrants in the border zone.
- To demand that the Polish authorities allow independent observers and journalists to enter the state of emergency zone.
- We call upon the European Commission and the Council of Europe to abandon any further work on the Proposal for a Council Decision on provisional emergency measures for the benefit of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland;
- To put pressure on the Polish government to engage in dialogue with the EU and other EU institutions to develop long-term solutions based on respect for EU law and the idea of solidarity;
- To take up a dialogue with the Belarusian authorities to end the border crisis;
- To safely resettle some of the people who are waiting to travel to Belarus. The creation of legal migration routes will reduce the risk of a loss of life in the border forests.
Today Grupa Granica (Border Group) published a report about the situation on the Polish-Belarussian border, I would like to share it with you.
Also worth reading:
- Border Group’s open letter to Ursula von der Leyen concerning the Proposal for a Council Decision on provisional emergency measures for the benefit of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland;
- Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe statement;
- HRW report on the situation at the Polish-Belorussian border;