Poland opens one border to refugees, closes another

A fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees asks for donations in a central square in Warsaw, Poland February 19, 2023

A fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees asks for donations in a central square in Warsaw, Poland February 19, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sadiya Ansari

What’s the context?

Poland hosts more than a million fleeing the war in neighbouring Ukraine, but fences its Belarus frontier to stop other refugees

This story is part of a special series on the EU's response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis and the two-tier system it created: Europe's asylum paradox 

  • Poland hosts more Ukrainians than any other country
  • Warsaw fences off Belarus frontier to stop asylum seekers
  • Historic links help Ukrainians in Poland

Ghith arrived in Poland in November 2021, seeking asylum from Syria where he had been jailed for refusing to do military service that would have likely sent him to the front lines of a bitter civil war.

On his fifth attempt to cross into Poland from neighbouring Belarus, the 29-year-old, who asked for only his first name to be used, was detained with a group of other asylum seekers.

"We didn't expect to be treated like that — to be treated as criminals in Europe," said Ghith.

Three months later, millions crossed into Poland through its southeastern border with Ukraine after Russia invaded. Many moved on to other countries in Europe, but the Interior Ministry said more than 1.6 million Ukrainians sought temporary protection in Poland, more than in any other country.

The contrast between Poland's treatment of Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers from elsewhere is stark.

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In March last year, the EU invoked its Temporary Protection Directive for the first time since creating it in 2001, prompting EU countries, including Poland, to provide Ukrainians with rights to employment, housing, education and healthcare.

Meanwhile, people seeking asylum in Poland from other countries are increasingly pushed back from the EU's eastern frontier, but many of those who succeed in reaching Polish territory are put into detention.

A Polish border guards spokesperson said only those who crossed the border illegally, without identity documents were detained, though they were the majority of cases. "The main reason for that is they are lawbreakers, and we don't know who they really are," the spokesperson, Anna Michalska, said.

'Hybrid attack'

Poland opened detention centres in August 2021 in response to a surge in asylum seekers entering from neighbouring Belarus - Polish border guards reported more than 39,000 attempts at crossing that year.

The European Commission accused Minsk of enticing migrants to Belarus, promising them easy entry into the EU.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a "hybrid attack" on the EU by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in response to sanctions on his government. Belarus has denied any wrongdoing and blamed the EU.

One of the Polish detention centres was in Wędrzyn, near the German border, where Ghith was transferred after crossing from Belarus. Conditions were difficult - dirty, overcrowded quarters, being locked in a room from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., Ghith said.

This echoes findings from asylum lawyers, and Poland's official Commission for Human Rights, which described conditions in detention centres as "inhuman and degrading".

The Polish border guards spokesperson said the Wędrzyn centre had since been closed, but did not respond to the allegations of poor conditions.

'Automatic detention'

The Wędrzyn centre was on a military base, which meant he and others like him, fleeing war, were faced with the sight of tanks and the sound of explosions on site.

Nearly 2,400 people were put into detention in 2021, according to a report by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles network of non-governmental agencies.

Ghith was part of a group who briefly went on hunger strike against the conditions in April 2022.

After a visit from a member of parliament, he was then released into an open accommodation centre outside Warsaw, where he said guards said things like: "You shouldn't be here, you should be in Germany."

Tired of the mistreatment he said he had received in Poland, Ghith made the seven-hour journey by road to Germany.

Amnesty International and other rights groups have criticised the policy of "automatic detention" by border guards.

Ewa Ostaszewska-Żuk, an asylum lawyer with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said the policy appeared aimed at holding people until they could be deported.

But Syrians, Yemenis and Afghans are kept in detention centres, even though Poland does not deport people to these countries, she said.

Natan, who declined to give his real name, fled Ethiopia as government forces were conducting mass arrests of Tigrayans like himself during their conflict with regional authorities from his home region.

He managed to cross into Poland from Belarus on his eighth attempt in October 2021, but then spent six months in detention.

Transferred to Wędrzyn after the first month, Natan said he fell ill, spitting up blood and losing 25 kg in two months. The only treatment Natan said he received was painkillers. With the help of an NGO, Natan was diagnosed and treated for hepatitis B.

The Polish border guard spokesperson said migrants in detention centres were given healthcare "service adequate to their conditions."

While the legal limit to process asylum cases is six months, the government reports the average time in 2022 was four months.

But it took 18 months for Natan's application to be approved. He said being held at Wędrzyn felt like a government strategy to make asylum seekers give up and return home.

One country, two border policies

Last year, as Poland built a 5.5-metre-high barbed wire-topped fence along 186 km of its roughly 400-km border with Belarus, a steady flow of Ukrainian refugees crossed the border.

One reason asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees are treated differently is demographics, said Anna Alboth, an activist with Grupa Granica, which aids migrants on the Belarusian border.

Most Ukrainian men were banned from leaving the country after the Russian invasion. As a result, said Alboth, on one hand there are young men from outside Europe seeking asylum, and on the other mothers and children from a culturally similar, white country benefiting from temporary protection.

A similar language has also eased the transition for Ukrainian refugees, and a history of Ukrainian migration into Poland means newcomers often have support networks to rely on.

The Polish city of Rzeszów, 115 km from the Ukrainian border crossing, has been transformed since the war began. Its population of 200,000 rose by 100,000 at its peak. Now 40,000 refugees remain.

There were no long-term camps for Ukrainians, everyone was housed in private homes, either hosted by locals or in rented accommodation.

"It's something unbelievable and unusual in a refugee crisis," said Rzeszów Mayor Konrad Fijołek.

Kateryna Yuspina selects a book to read with her six-year-old daughter at a drop-in centre in Rzeszów, Poland February 24, 2023

Kateryna Yuspina selects a book to read with her six-year-old daughter at a drop-in centre in Rzeszów, Poland February 24, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sadiya Ansari

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Welcoming Ukrainian refugees

Lawyer Marta Luchko-Heysheva arrived in Rzeszów last February with her mother, seven-year-old son, and nine-year-old niece. She found a job as a coordinator at a local NGO supporting Ukrainian and Polish families.

Working outside their field is typical for many Ukrainians in Rzeszów, Fijołek said. While some have returned to Ukraine, Luchko-Heysheva is clear why she came to Poland.

"The priority was the safety of my child," she said. Her son is doing well at a Polish school, but since integration efforts are ad-hoc, others are not having as much luck.

Kateryna Yuspina enrolled her six-year-old daughter Sasha at a local kindergarten, but the language barrier was too big to overcome. After months of tears every morning, Yuspina gave up.

There were no other Ukrainians in Sasha's class and her school did not support integration so Yuspina opted for remote learning with a teacher from Kyiv, where her ex-husband lives.

As a single parent with no family or friends nearby, Yuspina is tired of being the "bad cop" who has to pull her daughter away from her father when they visit him, the one who has to explain why they cannot go home.

Many others have also put their children in remote learning, although there are no official statistics. An analysis by the Warsaw-based NGO Centre for Citizenship Education on Ukrainian children in schools found 350,000 school-aged children arrived from Ukraine during the last school year, but more than 60% of were not in the Polish education system.

Jędrzej Witkowski, head of the NGO, is concerned that the high proportion of children in remote learning were falling behind.

"Even if they explicitly declare their willingness and plan to go back, we know from other crises of this kind that this might last for years," he said.

This article was reported with the support of Journalismfund Europe.

(Reporting by Sadiya Ansari; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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Families fleeing the Russian attack on Ukraine arrive at a temporary refugee shelter in Hanau, Germany, March 2, 2023. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Part of:

Europe's asylum paradox

This story is a special series, supported by Journalismfund Europe, looking into the unprecedented use of the European Union's Temporary Protection Directive

Updated: May 22, 2023

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