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Domestic Interests or International Law Obligations: The Battle Behind the Poland-Belarus Border

About the author: Sherry Shi (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2024) is a Contributor to Travaux. Her interests include securities law, international trade law, and international political economy. Sherry holds B.A. degrees in Government and Economics from The College of William & Mary. Before law school, she interned at The Asia Foundation and Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. She is a native speaker of Mandarin and conversational in Japanese.

Photo of refugees outside the razor-wire fence at the Poland-Belarus border by Kancelaria Premiera available here.

Stranded in the woods at the border of Poland and Belarus, thousands of migrants are suffering in freezing cold weather without food, water, shelter, or medical treatment. Most of them fled from the war and poverty of the Middle East and Africa and migrated all the way through Belarus to the eastern border of the European Union. Hoping for a better life, they are trying to enter Poland, Lituania, and Latvia to seek asylum in the EU, but have been trapped at the Belarus-Poland border because of a geopolitical standoff between the two countries. While political accusations go back and forth between EU-backed Poland and the authoritarian government of Belarus, a severe humanitarian crisis has been growing for months from the standoff. Border Group, a humanitarian organization that has been monitoring the crisis, said that at least 11 migrants have died since the spring. On November 11, tensions escalated as the Polish news media reported the death of a 14-year-old boy due to the cold weather on the Belarusian side along the border. According to the UN human rights chief, states involved in the migrant crisis could be violating the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, which requires nations to provide protections to asylum seekers while they are proceeding with their asylum applications.

On the surface, it seems that the Belarusian government is at fault for manufacturing the migration crisis by abetting migrants to cross their border with Poland. However, the deeper concern is the long-lasting conflict between the interests of political parties within the EU and the humanitarian needs of the Middle Eastern refugees. After Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, during which a huge influx of asylum seekers to the EU raised humanitarian and political concerns, Brussels and its member states have been determined to enforce border controls and reduce irregular arrivals. In October 2021, amid the continuing standoff with Belarus, Poland passed a law that allows border guards to reject asylum applications without examinations and expel migrants who illegally cross the border. This decision to push back on refugees is highly politicized rather than purely based on national security concerns. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), after losing its majority in the country’s Senate, has been toughening its approach on migration as a way to rally nationalist sentiment and strengthen support from the party’s core right-wing voters. The border emergency also diverted people’s attention away from the party’s controversial and disputed abortion ban, which caused the death of a young woman by delaying her abortion.

On November 11, Poland’s Independence Day, far-right groups marched in Warsaw to demand strong border protection approaches. The nationalist march has been marked by xenophobia since 2017, when far-right leaders chanted anti-Semitic and white supremacist slogans. The strong nationalist sentiment has been backed by PiS, which sees itself as the defender of Poland’s national identity and conservative values. The ruling party, by depicting the migrants as dangerous criminals, appeals to Polish voters who have long been disappointed by Brussels’s prior decisions to accept refugees, although EU and international law requires the country to do so. The fact that PiS is not held to account by weaker parties in the Polish Parliament also makes the situation tougher. While the government’s approach is popular among the Polish public, Polish opposition parties have yet to find a uniform solution to the migrant crisis. Some left-wing groups have demanded that the government admit the refugees and grant them asylum status, whereas others have been holding back on the issue with more caution. Although some groups have criticized the government’s blatant disregard of the migrants’ human rights, Poland’s state-controlled media has suppressed the opposition with inflammatory rhetoric, describing them as supporters of Alexander Lukashenko, the dictatorial president of Belarus. Warsaw has also banned human rights workers, lawyers, and journalists from accessing the Polish side of the border to cover the migrant situation.

The crisis at the Poland-Belarus border receives a high level of attention from the international community. However, global news coverage has mostly centered around the geopolitical dispute between Belarus and Poland, instead of the forces within Warsaw that have shut the door on migrants for the past decade. Although the UN called for states to abide by international refugee law, it has yet to point out specific duties of Poland and Belarus or specific steps that either country should take to enforce international law. The EU, on the other hand, has been dodging the responsibility of its member states and has instead highlighted the responsibility of Belarus. While the Belarusian government is culpable for encouraging, abetting, and weaponizing border crossers, the EU’s migrant crisis long predates this latest episode. Blaming the Belarusian government will not solve the issue of thousands of people fleeing their countries to seek asylum. The EU should directly tackle the migration issue from its core to avoid a future crisis, instead of relying on peripheral states like Poland for border control. Therefore, in addition to ensuring compliance with international refugee law, EU member states should also make long-term efforts to mitigate regional and internal conflicts in the Middle East, so that people do not have to flee and seek asylum in Europe.



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