December 7, 2023


WARSAW — Poland has effusively greeted more than 2.5 million refugees who crossed the border from Ukraine. There’s a much frostier welcome for migrants trying to enter from Belarus.

While Poland sees Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion as refugees, it is much more skeptical of the claims of people coming in from Belarus — a frontier guarded by thousands of Border Guards, police, soldiers and a fence.

The Belarusian crisis was instigated by Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, who invited people, mainly from the Middle East, to fly to Minsk and then cross into the EU.

Poland, Lithuania and Latvia responded by blocking their borders, and Polish authorities came under fire for pushing the migrants back into Belarus without processing their asylum claims. The crisis has died down in recent months, with Lukashenko allowing people to fly home, although some still remain along the border.

It’s very different with Ukraine. Thousands of Poles have traveled to the border with aid and food, and vast numbers of Ukrainians have been given shelter in people’s homes. It’s turned into a huge PR bonus for Poland’s nationalist government, more used to getting criticized for backsliding on rule of law and democratic standards.

All the Ukrainian refugees are allowed to stay and work in Poland for 18 months, with the possibility of an extension. Refugees use public transport for free, have access to the health care system, and get child subsidy payments. It’s part of an EU-wide response. The bloc allows Ukrainian refugees temporary protection in the EU for up to three years.

The government explains the difference in treatment by pointing the finger at Lukashenko.

Stanisław Żaryn, spokesperson for Poland’s special services ministry, said what’s happening on the border with Belarus is “an artificial migratory movement created by Lukashenko’s regime and orchestrated by Belarusian services.” That’s “unlike the movement of those fleeing from war waged by Russia against Ukraine.”

But activists and opposition politicians have a more skeptical take.

Janina Ochojska, a member of the European Parliament with the center-right European People’s Party, called the government’s position “gross hypocrisy.”

“How can they be so cruel to some and not to others?” she said. According to her, the more favorable treatment is because Ukrainians are “white, Christian people who speak a similar language.” That’s in contrast to the Middle Eastern migrants on the border with Belarus.

The government argues that Ukrainians are fleeing war at home across the nearest border to safety — Poland — while those coming from Belarus had to fly there from Iraq, Turkey or other countries and so aren’t refugees.

It also rejects accusations that Poland forcibly pushes people into Belarus.

“If we find migrants we help them. There are no pushbacks. If someone wants to apply to stay in Poland, we will accept them. But most of these people just want to get to Germany. They want the benefits there. We are not a taxi service,” said Anna Michalska, spokesperson for Poland’s Border Guard.

That’s not what activists report.

“We saw three Syrians pushed back eight times by Polish border guards. I saw it with my own eyes,” said Ochojska of a September incident on the border. “They were asking in written Polish statements for asylum in Poland. We called the border guards and they came, pushed us to one side, took the people’s passports and took them away in a truck. A day later the Border Guard spokesperson denied they had had documents.”

The border is a dangerous place. Twenty-four people have died making the crossing, according to activists. The Border Guard said that last year it detained 2,744 illegal immigrants and prevented 33,776 attempts to cross the border.

While Polish volunteers helping Ukrainians are praised by the government, those venturing near the closed zone along the border with Belarus to help migrants get very different treatment.

Four Polish activists from the volunteer group Grupa Granica were arrested on March 23.

“The four who were arrested helped the migrants cross the border. That is illegal,” said Michalska.

The NGO said the activists were providing humanitarian aid to a family with seven children that had been stuck at the border for three months before finally making it into Poland.

They face up to eight years in prison.

Grupa Granica’s Monika Matus called the government’s actions “pure harassment,” and Ochojska said “activists are being criminalized for helping people.”

“The Polish government basks in its own glory over its handling of the Ukraine refugee crisis, but this horror show goes on further north,” Matus said. “Bad illegal immigrants here and good legal refugees further south.”


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