Polish Court Rules Pushback of Asylum Seekers Unlawful

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Two women and a child huddle in sleeping bags on the forest floor after crossing the Polish-Belarusian border near Michalowo on October 6, 2021.
© 2021 Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via AP

Although a violation of international law, Polish border guards almost daily summarily push back asylum seekers attempting to cross the Polish-Belarus border. However, a Warsaw court has renewed hope that this practice might end by ruling a November expulsion order to be unlawful.

The case, bought by the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights using reports from Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations, concerned a Syrian man who, after being hospitalized in Poland, was returned to the Belarus border. On the basis of a summary expulsion order, he was forced back to Belarus, where he faced serious human rights abuses, including beatings, rape, and restriction on his movement. The court noted that border guards denied the Syrian man his express wish to apply for asylum in Poland.

The court’s reference to reporting by nongovernmental organizations on this issue is noteworthy.

In November 2021 and June 2022, Human Rights Watch published dozens of similar, unlawful cases of pushbacks it had documented. Asylum seekers recounted disturbing stories of being detained and forced back to the border by Polish border guards. Sometimes the asylum seekers had no opportunity to lodge an asylum claim and were treated violently. Many reported suffering violence and abuse at the hands of Belarusian border guards. Volunteers in Poland attempting to provide food and water to asylum seekers risk prosecution.

By contrast, there is a humane open door policy at the Polish-Ukraine border with border guards and volunteers assisting refugees fleeing the war.

An October 2021 amendment to the Act on Aliens gave Polish border guards the power to return people without an individual assessment of their asylum claims. The Warsaw court ruling confirms that this procedure violates the right to seek asylum as guaranteed by international and EU law.

Although not final, the judgment should prompt the border guard authority to halt unlawful summary returns to Belarus and ensure that people who wish to apply for asylum in Poland can do so. The Polish Sejm, or lower house, should amend The Act on Aliens, and the government should change its border policy so it complies with its obligations under EU and international law.

If Poland fails to address continuing violations at its border, then the EU should act. Poland should be held accountable for ignoring its international obligations and for breaching EU law.

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