Migration ‘Crises’, Poland and the EU: From Closed Borders to Solidarity?

NOVA Refugee Clinic/ May 31, 2022/

Gabriel Araújo[1]

Abstract: This blogpost puts forward some reflections on Polish migration policies. More specifically, it addresses the sharp contrast between Poland’s treatment of people fleeing the Russo-Ukrainian war and its approach to previous migration ‘crises’. The blogpost outlines the main contradictions and their relationship with EU policies, while emphasizing the role played by civil society actors, either as critical voices of immigration policies or as instruments of migration governance.

Keywords: Polish-Belarusian crisis, European Union, Russo-Ukrainian war

The Polish-Belarusian border, one of the EU’s external borders to the East, is a wide area of woods and fields where the temperatures are extremely low in the winter. In 2021, the region became the stage of a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of people from countries like Syria and Iraq have flown into Belarus expecting that the route to Europe would be available. However, the dream quickly turned into a nightmare when they ended up stranded at this border suffering from hypothermia, thirst and with no basic supplies.[2]

This blogpost outlines and assesses Poland’s policies of migration by examining its responses to migration ‘challenges’ in 2011 and 2015/2016, as well as its recent reception of those fleeing the Russo-Ukrainian war[3]. A comparison between previous ‘crisis’ responses and more recent policies based on the activation of the EU Temporary Protection Directive shows a different approach to protection. While the 2022 policies aimed at granting a temporary protection status to people fleeing the Russo-Ukrainian war, the 2011 and 2015/2016 immigration policies were more concerned about protecting citizens from foreign nationals arriving from the Middle East and Africa.

1. The Polish Approach to the 2011 and 2015 ‘Crises’: An Overview

The 2011 migration ‘challenges’ in the context of the Arab Spring coincided roughly with the Polish presidency in the Council of the European Union held from July 1 to December 31, 2011. According to the UNHCR, ca. 88,500 people fled from Northern Africa between February 20 and March 2, 2011, with as many as 85,000 originating in Tunisia.[4]

The response of the Polish presidency to the 2011 migration ‘crisis’ reflected the objectives of Polish foreign policy and manifested itself in a project of democratization in North African and Middle Eastern countries through the creation of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). This is a grant-making organization – whose establishment was approved by the Member States – that supports transitions in European Union (EU) neighboring countries, especially by funding NGO projects and social initiatives.[5] Civil society actors appear under this project as instruments of migration governance, the ultimate objective of EED being to stem the flow of migrants by allegedly addressing its root causes. The idea of fostering democracy by strengthening the role of civil society actors in the countries where the Arab Spring took place is premised on another controversial idea that migration from these countries towards Europe is problematic and must be stopped.

In addition to supporting the EED, the Polish presidency of the Council of the EU insisted on the need to preserve the Schengen regime opposing Member States’ efforts to amend it for reintroducing internal border controls in case of deficiencies at external borders. In this sense, with the support of Belgium and invoking the principle of free movement of persons,  Poland proposed to strengthen operational cooperation at the EU’s external borders to ensure the security and protection of public order within the Union. The two positions, that of reintroducing internal border controls and that of preserving the Schengen regime but with a consolidated external border control, associate migration with a security risk. Indeed, both put forward the need to strengthen border controls for security reasons, the first within the Schengen Area and the second at the external borders.

Internal border controls have been eventually reintroduced for prolonged periods of time in relation to the 2015/2016 migration ‘crisis’, coupled with a consolidation of external borders. Civil society actors and academics have been very critical of these developments.[6] Major concerns have been framed in terms of human rights, especially the right to life, the right to asylum, the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment, to name just a few. These have been related to the proliferation of detention practices in the proximity of borders, increasing pushbacks to Libya and Turkey, multiple obstacles for accessing asylum procedures and the rising number of deaths in the Mediterranean. An exhaustive list of such practices is beyond the scope of this blogpost. However, it is important to note that existing critiques of civil society actors help us see beyond the official narratives of institutional actors and policy documents, which oftentimes claim to respect fundamental rights.

Poland had its own contribution in the controversial developments related to the management of the 2015/2016 ‘crisis’. Indeed, it was one of the most reluctant Member States to receive migrants and to implement the emergency relocation scheme established by the Council. Not only did it support the action for annulment brought by Slovakia and Hungary against the 2015 Council decision,[7] but it was also subject to an infringement procedure before the CJEU – along Hungary and the Czech Republic – for failing to comply with the mandatory relocation quotas.[8] The Polish reluctance to receive refugees became official after the nationalist Law and Justice party was elected in October 2015. Prior to that, the official narrative was rather focused on the need to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants, with a commitment to receive only the former. [9]

2. The 2021 ‘Crisis’ at the Belarus-Poland border

Since June 2021, thousands of people – mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – have attempted to reach the EU by crossing from Belarus into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In response to this situation, Poland has adopted a restrictive approach. Around 1500 troops have been deployed at the border with Belarus and a state of emergency was declared. According to civil society actors assisting people stranded on the border, there have been numerous instances of Polish border guards forcibly returning migrants and refugees to Belarus, in disregard of their intentions to request international protection[10].

Although the number of people attempting to reach the EU has decreased since June 2021, mainly due to restrictive practices but also the harsh winter, there are still people who remain stranded on the border and who experience daily abuses from Belarusian guards.[11] Moreover, a Human Rights Watch report from November 2021 documents several cases of Polish border guards compelling people to go back to Belarus by forcing them into the marshlands, where they had to walk through freezing cold water to reach safety. [12] In this context, a legal action has been recently filed against Poland before the European Court of Human Rights by 32 Afghan nationals who have been forcibly pushed back to Belarus and stranded on the border in problematic sanitary and humanitarian conditions. [13] The applicants relied on articles 2 (right of life), 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights and article 4 of Protocol 4 (prohibition of collective expulsion).

The controversial developments at the Belarus-Poland border have been facilitated by the general political climate that led to the passing of a Polish legislation in October 2021, whose content has been criticized by international organizations for being in violation of national, international and EU legal frameworks.[14] Indeed, this legislation facilitated the return of irregular migrants intercepted at the border regardless of their protection needs and limited in considerable ways access to asylum.

3. A shift to solidarity?

As a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine, more than 6 million people have fled to this date to neighboring countries and, according to the UNHCR, Poland has received 3 million people so far. [15] Despite the unprecedented increase in the number of displaced persons, the EU and its Member States, especially Poland, have shown a generally welcoming attitude. The Temporary Protection Directive – previously thought to be obsolete – has been triggered for the first time.

Apart from the assistance that has been provided by informal, self-organized groups and NGOs, the State has also approved a set of measures aiming at creating a better reception for those arriving in Poland, including a special law tailored for this context and the easing of some of border control measures[16]. This stands in stark contrast with the Polish response to the 2011 and 2015/2016 migration ‘crises’. In March 2022, at a meeting of the Weimar Triangle, the Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said: “All refugees who come to the Polish-Ukrainian border will be accepted in Poland”[17]. The geographical and cultural proximity, as well as the preexisting Ukrainians living in Poland – around 1 million according to the International Migration Outlook from 2020 of OECD, might have played a role in these (undoubtedly desirable) attitudes. [18]

While the civil society and the government mobilized in considerable ways in the Russo-Ukrainian context, Poland has been criticized by human rights organizations for failing to create a comprehensive reception and support system for all the people that are in need of international protection. They emphasized that Polish authorities have maintained a hostile and violent attitude in relation to non-white and non-Christian people, as it still happens in the Belarusian border even as the war in Ukraine ramps.[19]

Poland’s reluctance to receive non-white and non-Christian displaced people also meant blocking civil society actors from accessing the forested border region. In January, this culminated in the decision of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to withdraw from the area.[20] Such border practices are not new: civil society actors’ acts of assistance have been even criminalized in the past by Member States’ authorities and still continue to be.

4. Conclusion

The EU and its Members States must take stock with the human rights violations at the borders, which have been repeatedly criticized by civil society actors, especially when it comes to people fleeing from Middle Eastern and African countries. They must also create structures for dissuading and condemning the proliferation of strategies aiming at creating greater distance between migrants and civil society actors. The double standards in the treatment of displaced people must be acknowledged and a welcoming attitude must be generalized instead of being confined to situations of ‘mass of influx’ of white and Christian displaced people.

The 2020 proposals under the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, however, do not seem promising, to say the least.  If anything, they facilitate the normalization of controversial border practices through a pre-entry screening procedure aimed at sorting migrants before entering the EU. It replicates mechanisms set up during the management of the 2015/2016 ‘crisis’ and does not address the double standards that became visible in 2022.


Araújo, Gabriel. “Migration ‘Crises’, Poland and the EU: From Closed Borders to Solidarity?”. NOVA Refugee Clinic Blog, May 2022, disponível em: https://novarefugeelegalclinic.novalaw.unl.pt/?blog_post=migration-crises-poland-and-the-eu-from-closed-borders-to-solidarity

[1] Final year Law student at NOVA School of Law, Research Assistant and NOVA Refugee Clinic (Migration & Civil Society).

[2] Cincurova, Sara. “Belarus Manufactures a Migrant Crisis” Interview by Sean Rameswaran. Today explained, The Daily, November 16, 2021.

[3] Łukasz Jasina, MFA Press Spokesman, “Meeting of Weimar Triangle heads of diplomacy”,Website of the Republic of Poland, March 01, 2022. https://www.gov.pl/web/diplomacy/meeting-of-weimar-triangle-heads-of-diplomacy.

[4] “Update No.1 on the humanitarian situation in Libya and the neighbouring countries”, March 2, 2011, https://www.unhcr.org/protection/operations/4d7788729/update-no1-humanitarian-situation-libya-neighbouring-countries.html.

[5] Anna Potyrala Poznań, “Poland towards the migration crisis of 2015 – 2016”, Adam Mickiewicz University, 2016.

[6] “Persona non grata, Consequences of security and migration policies at the France – Italy border – Observation report 2017-2018”, Anafé, January 2019, http://www.anafe.org/IMG/pdf/anafe_-_summary_-_persona_non_grata_-_en.pdf ; Giuseppe Campesi. “Crisis,  Migration and the Consolidation of the EU border control regime”, International Journal of Border and Migration Studies 196, 2018;  Elspeth Guild et al., “What is Happening to the Schengen Borders?”, CEPS Papers in Liberty and Security,  December 16,  2015; “Greece: Urgent Need to Move Asylum Seekers from Islands”, Human Rights Watch, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/21/greece-urgent-need-move-asylum-seekers-islands ; “Why the EU-Turkey Migration Deal is No Blueprint”, Human Rights Watch, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/print/296464.

[7] Joined Cases C-643/15 and C-647/15 Slovakia and Hungary v Council.

[8] Joined Cases C-715/17, C-718/17 and C-719/17 Commission v Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic

[9] Anna Potyrala Poznań, “Poland towards the migration crisis of 2015 – 2016”, Adam Mickiewicz University, 2016.  See also Wystąpienie Premier Ewy Kopacz, video from Kancelaria Premiera, September 09, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cI2MIFZTr3k.

[10] Arwa Ibrahim. “What next for the refugees stranded between Belarus and Poland?”, Aljazeera, November 24, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/24/as-belarus-eu-tussle-edges-toward-war-migrant-crisis-deepens.

[11] “MSF Leaves Polish Border After Being Blocked from Assisting People”, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), January 6, 2022, https://www.msf.org/msf-leaves-polish-border-after-being-blocked-assisting-migrants-and-refugees.

[12] “Die Here or Go to Poland; Belarus’ and Poland’s Shared Responsibility for Border Abuses”, Human Rights Watch, November 24, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/11/24/die-here-or-go-poland/belarus-and-polands-shared-responsibility-border-abuses.

[13] “Third Party Intervention Before European Court of Human Rights in R.A. And Others V. Poland” (no. 42120/21), Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, January 27, 2022, https://rm.coe.int/third-party-intervention-before-the-european-court-of-human-rights-in-/1680a5527a.

[14] “UNHCR observations on the draft law amending the Act on Foreigners and the Act on Granting Protection to Foreigners in the territory of the Republic of Poland” (UD265), UNHCR , September 16, 2021, https://www.refworld.org/docid/61434b484.html ; “Urgent Opinion on Draft Amendments”, OSCE, September 10, 2021, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/3/3/498252_0.pdf ; “Commissioner calls for immediate access of international and national human rights actors and media to Poland’s border with Belarus to end human suffering and violations of human rights”, CoE Commissioner for Human Rights (‘CoE CHR’), November 19, 2021, https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/commissioner-calls-for-immediate-access-of-international-and-national-human-rights-actors-and-media-to-poland-s-border-with-belarus-in-order-to-end-hu.   

[15] “Ukraine Refugee Situation”, UNHCR (Operational Data Portal), last updated May 25, 2022, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine/location?secret=unhcrrestricted.

[16] Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat, “In U-turn on migrant policy, Poland rolls out welcome mat for Ukrainians”, DW Europe, March 04, 2022. https://p.dw.com/p/481z7.

[17] Łukasz Jasina, MFA Press Spokesman, “Meeting of Weimar Triangle heads of diplomacy”,Website of the Republic of Poland, March 01, 2022. https://www.gov.pl/web/diplomacy/meeting-of-weimar-triangle-heads-of-diplomacy.

[18] “International Migration Outlook 2020”, OECD, October 19, 2020, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/3f3503b0-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/3f3503b0-en.

[19] “Belarus/EU: New Evidence of Brutal Violence from Belarusian Forces Against Asylum-Seekers and Migrants Facing Pushbacks from the EU”, Amnesty International, December 20, 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/12/belarus-eu-new-evidence-of-brutal-violence-from-belarusian-forces-against-asylum-seekers-and-migrants-facing-pushbacks-from-the-eu/.

[20] “MSF Leaves Polish Border After Being Blocked from Assisting People”, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), January 6, 2022, https://www.msf.org/msf-leaves-polish-border-after-being-blocked-assisting-migrants-and-refugees.


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