Poland builds a border wall, even as it welcomes Ukrainian refugees

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MICHALOWO, Poland — Her impulse was to welcome people in desperation, so Maria Ancipiuk made sure her border town was ready. After thousands of immigrants from the Middle East began arriving in Poland from Belarus last year, Maria Ancipiuk lobbied for two vacant town apartments to be made available to anyone who needed them. Volunteers replaced the wallpaper and renovated it. Ancipiuk purchased a fridge and a TV.

Five months later, though, the apartments are empty.

Rather than being welcomed into Polish homes, the vast majority of people crossing from Belarus are being detained or pushed back by Polish authorities.

That stance, in effect just to the north of Poland’s border with Ukraine, means two different groups seeking the same thing — refuge — are arriving to find what amounts to two different versions of Europe.

Along one segment of Poland’s border, where 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled, border agents help carry duffel bags, push wheelchairs, hold tired children and escort to safety refugees who’ve been granted automatic European Union residency for up to three years.

On another segment of that border, Poland is trying to stop what it describes as “illegal” immigrants by using drones, infrared cameras and helicopters. It has dispatched 13,000 soldiers and border guards to patrol the forested boundary, while sealing off the area — under an emergency decree — to journalists and human rights groups. It is hurrying to finish a $380 million 116-mile steel wall that the government says will be “impenetrable.”

“I cannot stand the contrast,” said Ancipiuk, a 65-year-old town councilor and grandmother of six who now furtively provides aid to immigrants trying to move through the Polish forest at night. The Ukraine is considered a refugee from war, while the Yemenis are considered to be migrants. Why? What is the difference?”

Poland’s approach is in line with the broader E.U. Poliand’s policy is to forcefully discourage undocumented migration — even from countries where it is difficult or impossible to reach this continent legally. E.U. has been funding the Libyan coast guard to thwart immigrants from crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. Turkey and immigrants have accused security forces in Greece of preventing asylum seekers from crossing into Turkey. And when Poland vowed to block people trying to cross from Belarus — a crisis orchestrated by authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who lured people to his country with the promise of access to Europe — E.U. leaders said Poland was justifiably responding to a “hybrid attack.”

Months later, though, Poland’s national human rights institution says the country is not living up to European ideals — and is also violating international law.

It is illegal for security authorities to expel foreign nationals without giving them a chance to claim asylum. Yet humanitarian groups have documented Polish border guards tracking down people in the woods and driving them back to Belarusian border, a practice that Poland’s parliament has effectively legalized. Poles so closely patrol the border, some immigrant claim they have been forced back to Belarus more often than half a dozen times. According to the Council of Europe’s human right commissioner, one of those who had returned to Belarus only hours before was a mother.

Poland has garnered much praise for its willingness to accept so many refugees in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the war leaves Poland in an awkward position of sending its citizens back to Ukraine as it serves as a base for missiles being launched into Ukraine.

“Poland should not be sending anybody back,” said Hanna Machinska, Poland’s deputy commissioner for human rights. It is not safe. There is no question about it.”

Belarus has one of the world’s most repressive governments, and its approach to immigrants is also harsh: Though it invited thousands of people, it appears to have no interest in hosting them; hundreds spent the winter in a warehouse, and when the facility was recently shuttered, the immigrants were taken to the Polish border and given instructions to leave.

For those crossing from Belarus who are fortunate enough not to be pushed back, the next stop is generally a closed detention center, including one where people are kept in rooms with 24 beds. Only a very small number of Poles are allowed to use alternative facilities, such as the Michalowo homes Ancipiuk prepared. As the flow of Belarusian migrants has declined, so have the numbers of the lucky few.

In mid-March, Ancipiuk received a call from a regional official, notifying her of funding incentives for towns that would host Ukrainians.

She asked if there were similar incentives for hosting people who’d crossed from Belarus.

“There was a bit of consternation on the line,” Ancipiuk said.

She never heard back with an answer but took the silence as a no. She is offering two apartments in her town to people fleeing Ukraine.

At Poland’s border agency headquarters in Warsaw, Lt. Anna Michalska said her country is responding as any should: by defending order and its own laws. Lukashenko was responsible for creating the crisis in an area where border crossings were once “practically zero”. Lt. Anna Michalska, Poland’s head of the Border Agency headquarters in Warsaw said that her country is responding as any other nation should: by defending order and its own laws. They were granted tourist visas. Unlike Ukrainians, she said, they are not looking “for the first place to be safe.”

What they tend to want above all, she said, is a life in Germany.

She denied the widely documented accusation that Poland is pushing back people who request asylum. She said that most people do not want to request protection. However, she stated, knowing this triggers an obligation stay in the country. According to her, there are no legal issues in allowing people to return home from Belarus.

“I don’t have information that there is war in Belarus,” she said. “We’re not a taxi service from Belarus to Berlin.”

So Poland is building its wall. Two Washington Post journalists were granted access by the border agency to the restricted area. They met at a point 5 miles away from Belarus where they could be checked in. A van with border security officers was also waiting. The exclusion zone was populated by police who checked vehicles and roads through small villages and farms. Border guards spoke of daily tension between immigrants, who throw stones at authorities and smugglers, who operate routes from Germany to Germany and activists, who “incentivize” immigrants to cross.

Then the van stopped at the wall.

It is partially completed, composed of 18-foot-high planks of vertical steel beams, with tiny spaces in between. The spaces provide visibility to the other side, and from afar, the wall has the look of a translucent silver strip running along the horizon, covering a territory where this year there have been more than 3,500 attempts to cross.

“Everything is going according to plan,” said Katarzyna Zdanowicz, a border guard spokeswoman who was on the tour. According to her, the wall will be finished in June.

She said the border guard over the past months has improved “a lot” in its efficiency in stopping people. The agency purchased tear gas canisters, put razor wire along the border and plowed roads while they waited for it to finish.

As part of the tour, Zdanowicz walked over to a green-painted Toyota SUV, parked in a field, where two agents were patrolling the border with high-resolution cameras.

“We’re trying to show that this is not the way to come,” she said.

In villages near the border, some residents — sympathetic to the plight of immigrants — have taken to turning on green lights in their homes, a signal that they have a safe place to stay for someone on the run. Michalska in Warsaw said that it was permissible for someone from Belarus to be housed, provided the host alerts border guards immediately.

“Otherwise,” she said, “you’re offering help for an illegal stay in Poland.”

Activists and human rights officials say Poland is treating the immigrants coming through Belarus as universally undeserving of protection in Europe, when that is not always the case. Many of these immigrants come from Cameroon and other countries where asylum is not often granted to their citizens. Others come from war-torn countries like Syria or Yemen where many towns were destroyed by Russian airstrikes.

For Ibrahim Al Maghribi, 27, a Syrian, seeing Poland’s response to Ukraine has made him feel all the more confounded about the inequities.

After being displaced from his home outside Damascus, all he wanted was safety and a “decent life,” he said in an interview conducted over WhatsApp, because he said he could be more articulate with written English.

To get that life, he booked a tour package to Belarus, where he was chauffeured by members of the Belarusian military to a spot along the Polish border they said was easy to cross. After spending the night in the Polish forest for miles, he was stopped by Polish border patrols who said that he could not return to Belarus. He then tried to cross into Poland, but was denied reentry. This time, he and some friends successfully reached the car of a smuggler and eventually wound up in Germany — a trip that cost him $5,000, paid to tour guides and drivers, as well as several nights of exhaustion and sleeplessness.

“It’s a horrible feeling to feel that you came from another planet,” said Al Maghribi, who is now applying for asylum and living in a public housing complex in Rieden, Germany. He said that the same Polish officials who welcomed Ukrainians would not even offer them a glass water.

One consequence of Poland’s approach is that immigration along the Belarusian border has been pushed nearly out of view. Poland refused to allow asylum seekers into the centers.

Activists say they have had to become more cautious after Poland last month arrested four volunteers on charges of organizing illegal immigration.

Even the number of immigrant deaths in Poland is disputed; the government says nine have died since the middle of last year, while activists put the number at more than two dozen. There are many unknowns about what will happen to immigrant families who have been repelled and refuse to return. Two Kurdish families with children were among those who lost contact with activists after they crossed into Poland.

“We can’t reach them,” said Monika Matus, an activist working with one of the main border activist groups. “This is the reason I’m having a hard time sleeping at night.”

Even at the height of the crisis, last November, the volume of people crossing was about 700 per day — compared with tens of thousands of Ukrainians. Now, the number of arriving from Belarus has dropped even farther; some days, as many as 130 try to cross, according to Polish government data. On other days it is only a handful. This decrease is due in part to pressure from international tour companies and airlines to stop the flow of immigrants to Belarus. Many of the people crossing into Belarus now do so via Russia, rather than directly. Many activists who were once overwhelmed by SOS calls in the middle of the night now work for several days with no alerts.

For Poland, it’s a sign that its tactics are working.

For activists, it’s a sign that Poland’s response has been disproportionate.

“We’re spending so much money to create a fortress,” said Tomasz Thun-Janowski, a volunteer for the humanitarian aid group Fundacja Ocalenie, “when helping them would cost a fraction.”

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