The situation at the Belarusian-Polish border
For many years, refugees from countries of the former Soviet Union have transited through Belarus in order to seek international protection in Poland. The absence of formal land border controls between Belarus and Russia, the existence of a visa-free regime between Belarus and most CIS countries combined with a relatively affordable 15-minute train connection between the city of Brest and Poland make this route the most readily accessible for those seeking international protection from persecution in Russia and Central Asia. While the lion’s share of asylum seekers come from Russia’s North Caucasus republics, particularly Chechnya, there has also been a recent increase in the number of arrivals from Tajikistan as of the end of 2015.
Although the Polish Border Guard has been found to occasionally turn around asylum seekers at the border in the past, Poland has over the past several decades received more asylum claims from Chechnya than any other EU state. Between 2008 and 2016 alone, 30 percent of all Russian asylum applications in the EU were lodged in Poland, with the overwhelming majority of applicants declaring Chechen nationality. While Poland did briefly extend international protection to several thousand Chechens back in 2008-2009, refugee recognition rates for Chechens have remained extremely low since 2010. Given that prospects for obtaining international protection in Poland are low, those asylum seekers who have managed to cross the Polish border often continue onwards to Germany, Austria, France and Sweden where many have family ties and access to a broader network of co-nationals. As a result, almost 80 percent of all asylum applications lodged in Poland were discontinued due to the fact that the applicants had absconded to a neighbouring country. Out of the few who followed through with their applications in Poland, just 12 percent were granted some form of international protection in 2016. To put this in perspective, a total of 10 Russian and 6 Tajik citizens, for example, actually managed to obtain the coveted official refugee status in Poland.
Despite the ongoing efforts by Polish Border Guards to prevent migrants from applying for asylum at the Polish-Belarusian border, a few families are allowed to cross into Poland on any given day. Over the course of 2016, over 12,000 asylum seekers applied for international protection in Poland, with over 70 percent of applicants coming from the Russian Federation, comprised predominantly of Chechens and other ethnic minorities from the Northern Caucasus.
The fact that Poland has been the major country of transit and destination for Chechen asylum seekers is nothing new, but the situation on the ground has undergone a dramatic change since July 2016 when the Polish Border Guard began to systematically deny asylum seekers the right to lodge an application for international protection at the border. The absence of a valid travel document such as a Schengen visa or residence permit is the most common formal reason for these rejections.
Despite difficulties in obtaining access – only the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights has observed the process directly – several NGOs have documented numerous accounts of asylum seekers being pushed back at the border. As a rule, Polish border guards pre-interview foreigners in batches without allowing them any privacy. Many asylum seekers have reported being humiliated and mistreated by border guards during this process. Averaging just one to four minutes, according to inspectors from the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights, these interviews are extremely rushed and perfunctory with the aim of quickly dismissing any grounds for asylum. There have been several documented cases of foreigners not being allowed to lodge applications despite clearly stating their intent on seeking protection. After being stopped at the border, these individuals are sent back by train to Belarus the very same day with written documents stating that their entry into Poland has been refused due to lack of a valid visa. Every day just a few families are allowed to cross and have their application evaluated by Poland’s Office of Foreigners, often after undertaking anywhere between 30 and 50 crossing attempts.
These unlawful practices have been criticised by the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights and numerous NGOs as a breach of the Geneva Convention as well as EU and Polish law. In June 2017, the European Court of Human Rights intervened in the matter, issuing interim measures with regard to six applicants that instructed the Polish government to cease sending asylum seekers back to Belarus. At the time of writing, Poland had largely ignored the orders of the Court, allowing just two families to apply for asylum. In response to the ECtHR rulings, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that border guards are in their right to conduct pre-screening interviews because they are not conducted on Polish soil, but are technically on neutral territory in the border zone.
Moreover, the Polish Minister of Interior Mariusz Blaszczak has openly stated that Poland perceives Muslim immigrants as a threat and disqualified asylum seekers from Chechnya and Central Asia as economic migrants with false intentions. Mounting legal pressure from civil society and the ECtHR has not so far resulted in any changes in practices at the border as Polish guards continue to push back asylum seekers at the Terespol-Brest border crossing despite continuing arrivals. Most recently, a group of three Syrians have undertaken several unsuccessful attempts to lodge an application in Terespol. Interim measures issued by ECtHR with regard to their case have not helped either.
The situation with these pushbacks is problematic on several levels. Not only are they a blatant violation of national and international law, but they have created an untenable humanitarian situation in Brest, the nearest city on the Belarusian side of the border. As migrants run out of money, entire families are forced to sleep rough at the railway station, depriving children of access to schooling. Stuck in Belarus, these people are left to fend for themselves in a state of legal limbo. Those who do not apply for asylum in Belarus – and only a few do – do not fall under the mandate of UNHCR and are therefore left without access to assistance, relying on the support of local NGOs and volunteers. Since most of these stranded asylum seekers are Russian citizens, they could in theory live and work in Belarus with few restrictions, but are afraid to stay in the country due to security concerns. More worryingly still, the European Commission has recently earmarked funds for strengthening Belarus’ migration management capacities, which includes the construction of detention facilities designed for accommodating irregular migrants apprehended on Belarusian territory. With the first of these centres slated to open as early as 2018, asylum seekers stranded in Belarus could soon find themselves under the threat of internment and subsequent deportation.
Why asylum in Belarus is not an option
Citizens of 11 former Soviet states – all apart from Turkmenistan, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – can come to Belarus without a visa. Additionally, citizens of the Russian Federation can stay in Belarus for 90 days without registering with local authorities and have the possibility to obtain temporary residence if they manage to find permanent accommodation. As a result, most of those waiting to cross into Poland are legally present in the country. There have, however, been some cases of Belarusian authorities placing so-called deportation stamps in the passports of those stranded asylum seekers who surpassed their registration-free period of stay.
The absence of border controls between Belarus and Russia as part of the supranational Union State coupled with a long history of close cooperation among post-Soviet security services makes refugees afraid to remain in Belarus. Not only does Belarus not offer effective international protection, it has a known track record of extraditing political dissidents to law enforcement officials from Russia and other CIS countries. According to Human Rights Watch, Chechens and Tajiks risk being sent back to Russia where they could potentially face retribution at the hands of their respective security forces.
Between 2004 and 2016, 73 Russian citizens applied for asylum in Belarus. Not a single one of those applicants received any form of international protection. As for Tajik citizens, a mere 35 applied for protection in Belarus over the past 13 years – all to no avail.
Belarus’ asylum system has been described as dysfunctional by Human Rights Watch, although a few individuals nevertheless applied for asylum in Belarus in 2017 according to volunteers from the humanitarian mission of Human Constanta, a Belarusian NGO helping asylum seekers in Brest.
How safe is it for asylum seekers to wait in Belarus?
For almost a year now, those who have tried on countless occasions to have their asylum application accepted by Polish authorities have been largely tolerated by local Belarusian authorities. Local police officials and President Lukashenko have highlighted that they see no problem with the current situation as these foreign citizens largely abide the law and have not caused any trouble. Although most of them have the legal right to stay in Belarus for a relatively long period of time, there have been cases when Belarusian police forced foreign citizens to leave the country within a certain period of time. At the same time, Tajik and Chechen asylum seekers are afraid to stay longer in Belarus, fearing the security services of their countries of origin – and for good reason. There have been reports of undercover agents of Chechen security forces intimidating asylum seekers stranded in Brest as well as the presence of Tajik security officials at the interrogation of a Tajik political dissident in a Belarusian jail.
The Foreign Policy Centre has already published detailed pieces on the methods used by both Chechen and Tajik authorities to persecute their nationals abroad.
In 2014-2015 three Tajik opposition movements – Group 24, Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan and Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) – were outlawed and labelled extremist organisations, triggering a witch-hunt for their members as well as journalists, lawyers and critics of the Tajik authorities at home and abroad.
On 15 June 2015, Belarusian authorities detained Shabnam Khudoydodova, a former member of Group 24. She had previously lived in Russia, but fearing extradition to Tajikistan, she headed to Terespol to ask for asylum in Poland. Having been turned around at the border on the grounds of not having a visa, Shabnam was promptly detained by Belarusian authorities upon her return at the request of Tajik authorities. Shabnam then asked for asylum in Belarus, thereby suspending her extradition to Tajikistan. After a major outcry from the international community, including the US Department of State and OSCE, Shabnam was granted refugee status in February 2015 and released after having spent eight months in prison. She then successfully applied for asylum in Poland.
In September 2016, Human Constanta reported that it received information from several sources about the presence of Chechen security officials – referred to colloquially as kadyrovtsy – at the railway station in Brest where they questioned and visited Chechens stranded there. After a TV programme aired on Belarus’ ONT channel in which a Chechen woman was interviewed, the kadyrovtsy tried tracking her down in Brest. Thankfully, the woman in question managed to cross the border in time and did not face any repercussions according to eyewitnesses. In January 2017, a Humana Constanta volunteer reported to the police that he had been threatened for his work by an unknown Chechen man near the railway station.
A statement from Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov from September 2016 appears to confirm the presence of his agents in Brest: “[I] sent people there [to sort out the situation] but none of those who are trying to cross the border [to Poland] could explain clearly who they were, where they came from, [and] why they went there.”
More recently, on June 7th 2017, Belarusian border guards detained Murad Amriyev, a well-known Chechen mixed-martial-arts fighter living in Kiev. Having moved to Ukraine in 2013 after being allegedly tortured by Chechen police seeking information about his brother who lives in Germany, Amriev was arrested in Russia when trying to obtain new documents. After initially escaping detention and attempting to return to Ukraine via Belarus, Amriev was detained by Belarusian border guards who promptly handed him over to Russian law enforcement. Though released by Chechen authorities after signing a pledge to not abscond from justice, Amriev told journalists at a press conference in Grozny that he had attempted to ask for asylum in Belarus, but was prevented from doing so.
Getting by into the EU under the threat of return
While there were few to none Tajik asylum seekers prior to 2015, the crossing of large numbers of Chechen asylums seekers into Poland is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, Poland saw a record number of asylum applications from Russian nationals back in 2013 with over fifteen thousand requests for international protection. What has changed since then is the number of rejections of entry at the border. Whereas in the past, most asylum seekers managed to lodge their claims at the border, there has been a radical change in policy at Polish border crossings since 2016. This is particularly noticeable when you look at the number of rejections of entry to Poland at its external borders, which have more than doubled in 2016 in comparison to 2015 (118,060 to 53, 146), particularly at the Belarusian border where rejections have tripled from 28,237 to 88,268 in the span of a year.
Asylum seekers who decide to try their luck in another EU country face the daunting task of trying to get by in Western Europe with very limited possibilities for regularising their stay through the European asylum system. Under the Dublin regulation, these asylum seekers are liable to be transferred back to Poland where they initially entered the EU. There has already been an increase in the number of Dublin transfers with Germany deporting 884 individuals, mostly Russian nationals, back to Poland in 2016 where they are most likely to receive a negative asylum decision and receive an order to leave the country. Following a peak in 2013, returns from Poland to Russia are on the rise again with over one thousand Russian nationals leaving the country in 2016.
While the mechanics of asylum in the EU are complicated, bureaucratic and time-consuming, it is safe to assume that, given the high rejection rates across Europe, asylum seekers from Russia and Central Asia are faced with the choice of either living in the shadows or going through a painful and lengthy deportation procedure. In 2016, there was an increase in forced returns to Russia from countries such as Norway and France. According to the last openly available Russian statistics on return, Russian authorities gave the green light to 1,504 return requests from the EU out of a total 1,927 in 2015 under the EU-Russia readmission agreement.
Questions remain about what happens to those who are returned to Russia after failing to secure international protection in the EU. Based on Polish asylum statistics, many asylum seekers arrive as families, having sold all their belongings back home. There are, however, a number of worrying cases in Russia involving Chechen deportees. Three months after being deported from Sweden back to Chechnya after a rejected asylum claim, Kana Afanasyev was detained, tortured and subsequently killed by local Chechen law enforcement authorities in February 2015. Yet it is not only inside Chechnya that returnees run the risk of extra-legal persecution – Chechen security forces have been known to act with impunity across Russia. In July 2015, a 30-year-old Chechen man named Zaurbek Zhamaldaev, who had been recently deported from Poland after trying for three years to obtain international protection there, was kidnapped in broad daylight in Moscow and has never been heard from since. The total number of such cases involving Chechen returnees is difficult to estimate given that the families of victims are often either too afraid to speak up or try to bail out their loved ones using informal channels.
Gaining political asylum in Poland has long been a difficult task, but the current policy of pushing back asylum seekers at the border is unprecedented in its scale and blatant disregard of Polish and European law. New amendments to the Law on Asylum put forth by the Polish Ministry of Interior seek to de facto legalise ongoing unlawful practices at the border by introducing a so-called border procedure that would allow border guards to assess an applicant’s eligibility for international protection on the spot. Under these proposals Belarus and the Russian Federation could be identified as safe countries of origin and asylum seekers would be placed in detention for the duration of their asylum procedure. By expanding the grounds for detention and severely curtailing refugee rights, these draconian measures aim to discourage potential asylum seekers from attempting to enter Poland. Dwindling chances of obtaining any kind of international protection in the EU leave Russian and Central Asian asylum seekers with few options to find safety for themselves and their families. The extremely difficult situation at the Polish-Belarusian border has also turned into a test of the EU’s willingness to uphold its own human rights norms in the context of a proliferation of restrictive migration policies. Poland’s refusal to abide by ECHR rulings sets a worrying precedent for the rule of law in the EU, putting the lives of asylum seekers in danger. The current toxic mix of populist anti-migrant rhetoric, unilateral border closures by EU member states such as Poland and legal deadlock leaves these people with their backs against the wall – unable to return home but with no viable escape route.
With few legal paths available for asylum seekers from Central Asia and the North Caucasus, it is paramount that the Polish Border Guard ensures that those who express fear of persecution in their home country and, importantly, do not feel safe in the country of transit, are given immediate access to due procedure for the granting of international protection.
 Treaty on Friendship, Neighbourhood and Co-Operation Between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus was signed in 1995, providing for an open border between the two states (http://www.soyuz.by/about/docs/dogovor1/). In 1997, Russia and Belarus formed a Union State, equalising the rights of citizens of the two countries (http://www.soyuz.by/about/docs/dogovor5/). However, following the introduction of a unilateral 5-day visa-free regime between Belarus and 80 states, Russia partially re-introduced border controls in February 2017 (Polina Khimshiashvili, Ilya Rozhdestvenskiy, Georgiy Makarenko, Как Россия и Белоруссия дошли до восстановления границы, RBC.RU, February 2017, http://www.rbc.ru/politics/02/02/2017/589300f49a79471d0bc4add9).
 Aleksandra Chrzanowska, Patrycja Mickiewicz, Katarzyna Słubik, Joanna Subko and Anna Trylińska, At the border. Report on monitoring of access to the procedure for granting international protection at border crossings in Terespol, Medyka, and Warszawa-Okęcie Airport, Association of Legal Intervention, 2016, http://interwencjaprawna.pl/en/files/at-the-border.pdf
 The Office for Foreigners, Napływ cudzoziemców ubiegających się o objęcie ochroną międzynarodową do Polski w latach 2009-2015, https://udsc.gov.pl/statystyki/raporty-specjalne/ochrona-miedzynarodowa-trendy/
 The Office for Foreigners, Sprawozdanie z wykonywania ustawy o ochronie międzynarodowej w 2016 r., March 2016, https://udsc.gov.pl/statystyki/raporty-okresowe/raport-roczny-ochrona-miedzynarodowa/2016-2/
 Krisztián Stummer, Forgotten Refugees: Chechen asylum seekers in Poland, Political Critique, February 2016, http://politicalcritique.org/cee/poland/2016/forgotten-refugees-chechen-asylum-seekers-in-poland/
 Eurostat database 2016.
 Information by the Head of the Office for Foreigners on the application of the Act of 13 June 2003 on Granting Protection to Foreigners within the Territory of the Republic of Poland in 2016 (consolidated text Journal of Laws of 2016, item 1836) in terms of implementation of obligations of the Republic of Poland resulting from the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and the New York Protocol relating to the status of refugees.
 Commissioner for Human Rights, Inspection of the railway border crossing in Terespol, September 2016, https://www.rpo.gov.pl/en/content/inspection-railway-border-crossing-terespol
 Human Rights Watch, Poland: Asylum Seekers Blocked at Border, March 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/01/poland-asylum-seekers-blocked-border
 Commissioner for Human Rights, Inspection of the railway border crossing in Terespol, September 2016, https://www.rpo.gov.pl/en/content/inspection-railway-border-crossing-terespol. One of the conclusions of the Commissioner for Human Rights’ Inspectors were that ‘Provisions of the Act of 13 June 2003 on granting protection to foreigners on the territory of the Republic of Poland (Journal of Laws – Dz.U. of 2012, item 680, as amended) do not provide for the possibility of any preliminary verification of data provided by a foreigner performed by the Border Guard officer. The procedure used by the Border Guard for conducting such interviews should be carefully checked, especially in terms of its compliance with applicable legal provisions.’
 See Amnesty International, Poland: EU Should Tackle Unsafe Returns to Belarus, July 2017, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/07/poland-eu-should-tackle-unsafe-returns-to-belarus/ and also https://www.facebook.com/notes/human-constanta/европейский-суд-по-правам-человека-вмешался-в-ситуацию-с-беженцами-на-беларусско/1902205446705058/?fref=mentions
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 Maciej Orłowski, Mariusz Błaszczak w TVP Info straszy uchodźcami, myląc pojęcia i fakty, Gazeta Wyborcza, April 2017,
 European Council on Refugees and Exiles, Human rights organisations: Poland violates international law by blocking entry of asylum seekers from Belarus, July 2017, https://www.ecre.org/human-rights-organisations-poland-violates-international-law-by-blocking-entry-of-asylum-seekers-from-belarus/
 Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Straż Graniczna po raz kolejny ignoruje zarządzenia Europejskiego Trybunału Praw Człowieka, July 2017, http://www.hfhr.pl/straz-graniczna-po-raz-kolejny-ignoruje-zarzadzenia-europejskiego-trybunalu-praw-czlowieka/
 European Commission, Commission Implementing Decision of 20.7.2016 on the Annual Action Programme 2016 in favour of the Republic of Belarus to be financed from the general budget of the European Union, July 2017, https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/neighbourhood/pdf/key-documents/belarus/20161027-belarus_aap-2016.pdf
 Belta.by, Центры для незаконных мигрантов будут созданы в Витебске, Гомеле и Лиде не ранее 2018 года – Шуневич, February 2017, http://www.belta.by/regions/view/tsentry-dlja-nezakonnyh-migrantov-budut-sozdany-v-vitebske-gomele-i-lide-ne-ranee-2018-goda-shunevich-235184-2017/
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus, Безвизовое передвижение (общие сведения), http://mfa.gov.by/visa/freemove/e75b142c77b4df66.html
 Galina Petrovskaya, Чеченцы в Бресте: чужие среди своих и чужих, Deutsche Welle, February 2017, http://www.dw.com/ru/чеченцы-в-бресте-чужие-среди-своих-и-чужих/a-37359218
 Human Rights Watch, Poland: Asylum Seekers Blocked at Border, March 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/01/poland-asylum-seekers-blocked-border
 Lydia Gall, Poland Ignores European Court Over Return of Asylum Seeker, Human Rights Watch, June 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/15/poland-ignores-european-court-over-return-asylum-seeker
 See Civil Rights Defenders, Chechnya – Repression without borders, Foreign Policy Center and Edward Lemon, Tajikistan: The trans nationalisation of domestic struggles, in Adam Hug (ed.), No shelter: the harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union, November 2016, http://fpc.org.uk/publications/noshelter
 Human Rights Watch, Tajikistan: Severe Crackdown on Political Opposition, February 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/02/17/tajikistan-severe-crackdown-political-opposition
 Irina Khalip, Таджикская активистка освобождена из брестского СИЗО, February 2016, Novaya Gazeta, https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/02/29/67605-belarus-proyavila-sodruzhestvo
 Philippe Dam, EU’s Latest Bid to Curb Migration, Human Rights Watch, October 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/18/eus-latest-bid-curb-migration
 Human Constanta, Invisible refugees on Belarus-Poland border. Primary assessment of local migration crisis in Brest-Terespol sector, September 2016, http://programy.hfhr.pl/uchodzcy/files/2016/10/Invisible-Refugees-on-Belarus-Poland-border_Human-Constanta_16-09-2016_web.pdf
 Andrey Dubrovskiy, Бойца ММА Амриева отпустили под подписку о невыезде, Novaya Gazeta, June 2017, https://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/2017/06/10/132390-boytsa-mma-amrieva-otpustili-pod-podpisku-o-nevyezde
 Polish Border Guard, Statystyki SG, https://www.strazgraniczna.pl/pl/granica/statystyki-sg/2206,Statystyki-SG.html
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 Liz Fuller, New wave of detentions reported in Chechnya, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/new-wave-of-detentions-reported-in-chechnya/26888189.html
 Yuliya Orlova, В Москве исчез уроженец Чечни, депортированный из Польши, Civic Assistance Committee, June 2015, http://refugee.ru/news/v-moskve-ischez-urozhenets-chechni-deportirovannyj-iz-polshi/
 Jacek Białas, Poland: Draft amendment to the law on protection of foreigners – another step to seal Europe’s border, Op-ed by Polish Helsinki Committee, European Council on Refugees and Exiles, March 2017, https://www.ecre.org/poland-draft-amendment-to-the-law-on-protection-of-foreigners-another-step-to-seal-europes-border-op-ed-by-polish-helsinki-committee/