Amidst Russia’s brutal bombardment of Ukraine and the associated regional upheaval in eastern Europe, the recent arrival in Warsaw of new U.S. Ambassador to Poland Mark Brzezinski offers the Biden administration a moment to advance several goals at once.
First, the two countries’ shared desire to oppose Russian aggression means that the opportunities for cooperation are greater now than they have been for many years, with the United States keen to assert influence in eastern Europe, and Poland eager to show it enjoys real American protection.
Second, the United States can express genuine gratitude to the Polish people for how they have welcomed refugees from Ukraine. And third, the U.S. government can push its NATO ally to uphold refugee law on all its borders – whether people arrive via Ukraine, Belarus, or anywhere else – for anyone seeking protection, without discrimination as to race, religion, or nationality.
Brzezinski comes with a big reputation and is much admired in Poland. He has close family ties to the country and is an expert on Polish democracy and the author of a book on that country’s constitution. He has real influence, and he should use it to press Poland to end its appalling double standard on refugees.
Last weekend, while on a research trip in my capacity as senior advisor at Human Rights First, I again saw firsthand in Poland how refugees from Ukraine are treated. While leaving Ukraine still isn’t easy – one night I waited 10 hours on a bus with refugees at the crowded Krakovets border crossing for our passports to be processed – the welcome once inside Poland is genuine and helpful.
In small towns and big cities across the country, the warm hand of friendship is being offered to those fleeing Vladimir Putin’s assault. It was the second time in six weeks I left Ukraine on a bus full of women and children escaping the war, and along the way to Krakow, they received free hot food, advice from volunteers, and help with accommodation. The same welcome occurs in Poland’s main train stations, including advice that Ukrainians should aim for the country’s smaller cities, where the cost of living is cheaper and accommodation and jobs are easier to find, because “big cities in Poland are already overcrowded.”
Ukrainians are allowed to stay for 18 months and to work in Poland, and local NGOs estimate about one in ten people now in Poland is from Ukraine. Almost the whole country has been mobilized for this massive humanitarian effort. It’s a remarkable response, a commendable source of Polish national pride.
A Different Kind of ‘Greeting’
But the greeting Poland extends to refugees fleeing other countries is very different. Since last August, tens of thousands of people have tried to cross the border from Belarus into Poland. Those refugees, fleeing wars or repressive regimes and many from the Middle East and Africa, some from Afghanistan or as far away as Cuba, have been met with hostility and violence in Poland. Pushing people back to Belarus violates Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that collective or mass expulsions of aliens are prohibited, and articles 18 and 19 of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, covering people’s right to an individual asylum hearing and not to be sent back to a State where they would be at risk.
A key Putin ally, Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko exploits refugees by encouraging them to transit through his country to the borders of Latvia, Lithuania, and, most often, Poland, and telling them to cross into the European Union. Lukashenko’s – and Putin’s – goal with this gambit appears to be to exacerbate public controversy in the EU over immigration, which has fueled the far right. Poland’s hostile reaction to the refugees inflames anti-immigrant anger, polarizes Polish public opinions, and plays into Lukashenko’s hands.
Poland pushes many who cross from Belarus back into the deep swamps and forests at the border of the two countries, where families become trapped. In the last nine months, at least 21 people froze to death in these forests.
Also troubling, Poland has set up a three-mile wide “No Go Zone” at its border with Belarus to make it harder to scrutinize the pushbacks. Last month, I visited areas near the eastern border with Belarus and met many local humanitarian volunteers. The Polish government is preventing them from providing aid to those stuck in the forests between the two sets of border guards and is preventing journalists from getting close to the border to report what’s happening.
Polish residents who try to bring food, medicine, and warm clothes to the refugees are targeted by Polish authorities. They told me of constant harassment by the Polish police, army, and border guards who threaten them with fines and arrest. Five human rights defenders have been charged in recent weeks in relation to their humanitarian work in helping people in the forest. If convicted, they face up to eight years in prison. One Polish volunteer providing assistance to refugees at the border asked me, “We see people starving, sick from hypothermia in the forests. What are we supposed to do? Let them die?”
This discriminatory double standard in how Poland treats those fleeing the war in Ukraine, compared with those escaping wars in Yemen or Syria, stains Poland’s reputation. It undermines global refugee laws and other human rights standards. It also contributes to a sense that despite Poland’s commendable response to the refugees from Ukraine, the country’s government is prepared to erode the rule of law in a worrying retreat from democratic standards.
The U.S. Role
Washington can help to stop this. Of course, the United States should be leading by example by respecting refugee law at its own borders and not discriminating against those seeking protection. Like Poland, the United States must uphold asylum at its southwestern border for Ukrainians and refugees from all nations and of all races.
The United States should tell Poland that it cannot continue to turn away those fleeing wars in other parts of the world, and that it must stop targeting human rights defenders helping the refugees.
Last month, Brzezinski urged that organizations helping refugees arriving in Poland from Ukraine be given “injections of cash.”
Good idea. But he should also press for the lifting of the No Go Zone on the eastern border so that journalists and human rights monitors can report exactly what’s happening, and so that U.S.-based and other humanitarian and medical organizations can go into the forests at the border and save people’s lives.
He should visit the No Go Zone himself and report publicly on what he sees. An expert on the Polish constitution, he should say forthrightly how far Poland is meeting Article 68, which states that “[e]veryone shall have the right to his health protected.” The health of those in the forests, including children, is not being protected. Some die in the No Go Zone. He should tell Washington’s allies in Warsaw that the abuse of refugees and those who are trying to help them damages Poland’s democracy and reputation.
Members of Congress should visit the area too, and see for themselves how families, small children, those with disabilities, and others are suffering in the No Go Zone. The United States has a role to play in urging its allies to end the targeting of the vulnerable – no matter where they originate.