Guest post by Maryla Klajn. Maryla is a PhD student, working in the NWO-funded ‘Getting to the core of Crimmigration’ project, led by professor Van der Woude of the Leiden Law School (Netherlands). Her focus is street-level border protection of the intra-Schengen border regions, specifically the Polish-German border. Maryla spent the second half of 2018 conducting fieldwork among the Polish Border Guards. Much of information in this blog is based on the recently acquired data from her respondents. This post is part of our new themed series on border control and Covid-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been met by various responses in different countries. A challenging situation for which nobody was fully prepared, the pandemic continues to evoke a range of reactions, with some countries acting faster and more restrictively than others. For example Spain, UK, and USA reluctantly implemented social distancing and did so only once faced with growing numbers of COVID-19 related deaths, while Germany, Hungary, and Poland reacted swiftly with a multitude of far-reaching measures to minimize the spread of the pandemic. However, the nature and execution of some measures as well as their intentions remain questionable, as they appear to be focused on securing political power rather than protecting citizens from the disease.

Poland was one of the first European Union member states to officially 'close' its borders, and implement national isolation with far-reaching legal impositions of social distancing. However, the consistency and motivation for these laws remain dubious.

Polish border during COVID-19: a Polish Border Guard officer conducting the control with no mask and no protective gear, here next to the Sanepid employee in the white bio-defensive suit.

On March 13th  the Polish government announced that starting March 15th at midnight, Poland would close its borders. Gatherings of more than two people in public spaces have become illegal and wearing face masks in public became mandatory. Travel that was deemed not urgent and essential, even within Polish cities and towns, was forbidden. Stores assessed as not carrying essential supplies were closed. Disobedience was met with severe fines and even imprisonment. Parks, boulevards, and forests were also closed, while cities and roads continued to be monitored by the national and municipal police, in certain places with the aid of the Polish military. Polish government praised its own quick and extensive response to the virus, pointing to the quick act of ‘closing borders’ as one of the essential decisions on Poland’s alleged low spread of the virus.

But what exactly do ‘closed borders’ mean in 2020? For the older generation of Poles this phrase evokes times of greatly limited, if not impossible, international travel under the USSR regime. Countering COVID-19 measures, however, are very different, and more lenient. In fact, despite the claim of ‘closed borders’ which entails a full national isolation and is persistently used by Poland’s government officials as well as the media, borders could be crossed during the pandemic. While international air and sea travel was temporarily suspended, land border crossings continued to operate. Current measures resemble the times of border control from the pre-Schengen era: rather than ‘closed’, the borders are reinstated, with limitations in terms of who can enter the country and under what conditions. The economic needs are prioritized over people’s safety, and the rights of citizens over those of the immigrants.

Polish citizens as well as their families could, and still can enter the country, under the condition of a mandatory two-week quarantine, a process that is rigorously enforced by the police. Foreigners with permanent and temporary residency, exchange students, and legally employed non-Poles can also enter the Polish territory, after proclaiming the intent of staying there upon arrival rather than retaining the right to travel in and out of the country. This created an issue for many Ukrainian temporary workers, estimated to exceed one million, who are in Poland on short-term employer invitations. Working in blue-collar and low-skilled industries such as taxi and delivery drivers, grocery store clerks and cashiers, and in sectors such as construction or agriculture, many worried about inability to return to Poland once they leave. Such policy would deprive them of income and threaten the survival of their families back home. At the same time, staying in Poland posed a risk of overstaying their visa, the consequences of which are deportation and re-entry ban for minimum of 6 months.

Contrary to this, the Poles working in border regions of neighboring countries, with the majority near the Polish-German border, were allowed to travel to and from work for the first month of the borders’ ‘closure’. For them, crossing the border did not involve quarantine. International truck and delivery drivers were also allowed to travel without restrictions or health checks at the border. This was clearly an economic decision. Ironically and worryingly, due to the very nature of their work, they are a group highly exposed to the virus, and, with frequent international gas station and loading stops, a group in high risk for both contracting and transmitting the infection.

The Polish Border Guard is the agency in charge of the implementation of border crossing restrictions. However, although exposed to the virus themselves, border guards have not been equipped to implement border controls and social distancing. This was obvious in the early days of the ‘border closure’, when many guards did not have personal protection equipment, and worked 12-hour shifts. They personally checked travelers’ documents, questioned them about the reason for entry and previous travels, and even took the temperature in confined spaces often breaching safe social distancing measures. Staff shortages resulted in up to 35 hour waiting queues at Polish borders. Border guards have rarely been administered tests for coronavirus. Hailed by the government as the ‘front line defenders of the country’, it seems that those in power pay little attention to the officers’ own safety, while at the same time potentially putting at risk all those undergoing the border control procedures at the hands of untested border guards.

There is a clear contradiction and a lack of systematic approach to the so-called ‘closed borders’ measures in Poland. They are put in place to appease citizens in creating the sense of isolation and territorial protection, and to mitigate the risk that comes from the outside and from outsiders. The government and the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) party, in their quest to rationalize the process of isolating Poland during the epidemic and while exacerbating their anti-EU stance, claim the intervention was successful, refusing to acknowledge its problematic aspects and inherent inconsistency. The response to COVID-19 accompanies other recent legal and political developments which illustrate the politicization and polarizing of the idea of national identity, or ‘Polishness’. The latest political decisions of PiS-led Polish government falsely promised safety, while resorting to a pragmatic manipulation of the public perception of risk and protection during the challenging times of the pandemic, as illustrated by the act of ‘closing’ of the national borders.

This blog post is a modified version of the blog post published on the European Border Communities website.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Klajn, M. (2020). Bordering the Biological Threat and the Questionable Logic of Poland’s ‘Closed Borders’ Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/06/bordering [date]