Guest post by Witold Klaus. Witold is a lawyer, criminologist, migration researcher and human right activist. He is a professor at the Institute of Law Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences (head of the Department of Criminology) and a fellow in the Centre of Migration Research at Warsaw University. Witold is one of the founders and currently the member of the Board of the Association for Legal Intervention (between 2005 and 2019 served as chairman of the organisation) – one of the leading Polish NGOs offering free-of-charge legal assistance to immigrants. This is the seventh installment of the Border Criminologies themed series on Crimmigrant Nations organised by Maartje van der Woude and Robert Koulish.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, Poland has been looking up to Western Europe in most aspects of economic and legal policies and in social development. To join the exclusive club of members of the NATO and the EU, Polish governments had accepted all provisions in all areas of the EU prerogatives including security, justice and migration. Poland had adapted democratic standards, rule of law principles and increased the protection of human rights and civil liberties. Even provisions that did not correspond to the Polish context were nevertheless implemented by the government. Migration policy is a case in point. Being a country of emigration with a very limited immigration influx for a long time, Poland did not need securitization measures in its migration legislation, but was pressed to implement them.

The year 2015 brought significant changes in migration policy across Europe. The same happened in Poland, but in an opposite way compared to other European countries. Despite the fact that Poland was in no way affected by the so-called refugee crisis, as none of the asylum seekers from Greece or Italy arrived to Poland voluntarily, using semi-legal routes, or forcibly under relocation scheme, which Poland refused to be a part of, the topic of (non-)accepting refugees on the Polish soil was fiercely debated during the parliamentary election. It unleashed xenophobic attitudes and created an anti-immigrant environment in the society which dramatically changed its opinion about refugees. While in May 2015 more than 70% of the population supported accepting refugees, in April 2016 two thirds of Poles expressed negative attitude towards that group and that trend has remain stable since. The shift also brought about a landmark victory of the far-right and openly nationalistic political party – Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) – which was followed by the implementation of a much stricter policy against unwanted immigrants.

Soon, Hungary and its migration policy were seen as the path forward for Poland. One similarity between those two countries is the policy against refugees and asylum seekers whose admission to Poland has since been blocked. Since 2015 the Border Guard (the Polish border agency) have been introducing new and illegal, yet government-endorsed measures aimed at refusing asylum applications at the border (officers just stopped hearing asylum claims) and returning asylum seekers back to Belarus.

The closure of the border for asylum seekers was facilitated by the fact that most applications had been submitted at one particular border-crossing in the city of Terespol. In addition, this segment of the Polish border is well set against illegalised border crossers. It is covered by digital surveillance and additionally fenced on the Belarusian side (the fence was built by the Soviet Union and is still in operation). The border is also  geographically more difficult to cross because of rivers and mountains on the Ukrainian side of the border.

Another feature of the anti-refugee policy was the refusal to participate in the relocation and resettlement schemes. At the end of 2015 the new Polish government started to express its reservations about this solution, based on the alleged threat to the national security, and in March 2016 officially declared to withdraw itself from this regulation (alongside Hungarian and Czech governments, a move which was found illegal by the CJEU in 2020).

Treating immigrants as a threat, an inherent attribute of the new authorities and their representatives, had led in 2016 to accepting the first piece of anti-terrorist legislation in Poland. The rationale behind it was built on three main assumptions: (1) all migrants (i.e. people of non-Polish origin) are suspicious and therefore should be surveilled; (2) all Muslims are a threat to the Polish nation because they are prone to radicalisation, which makes them terrorists; (3) no human rights standards should be applied to foreigners (judicial approval of imposing any form of surveillance wasn’t obligatory).

2015 was also the year when Poland started to attract a bigger number of immigrants. Due to the war with Russia and relatively liberal Polish legislation of work and stay, Ukrainians began arriving in Poland in big numbers but not as asylum seekers (those numbers were minimal); instead they came as migrant workers whose presence in Polish economy was desperately needed. So, in just a few years Poland became the EU leader when it comes to accepting new immigrants. They are tolerated by the authorities, who turn a blind eye to their presence as long as they are needed but don’t offer any help in integration or protection against exploitation.

This division between Ukrainian workers and asylum seekers has become even more apparent in the time of Covid-19. The border is completely sealed against asylum seekers. Since the beginning of the pandemic only one asylum family has been allowed to enter the country. However, in the case of migrant workers the government has prepared a number of solutions to protect their stay and work against illegalisation and to make the further arrival for work purposes possible.

The current Polish government could be characterised as populist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic and keen to implement authoritarian tactics. Their prominent members are not afraid to break human rights standards and are quite reluctant to accept criticism from international organisations. At the moment anti-immigrant rhetoric is not in use (it has been replaced by an anti-LGBT one) but it could be back any moment. And having the parliament and the president under control of one party, a new crimmigration piece of law could wave through the whole legislation process in a few days only. Another possible solution could be authorities introducing new unlawful practices against immigrants that will not be stopped legally (as the checks and balances system in Poland has been dismantled piece by piece since 2016).

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Klaus, W. (2020). A Border on the Other Side of the EU: Crimmigration in Poland. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/06/border-other-side [date]