(Budapest) – Polish authorities routinely deny asylum seekers at the Belarus-Poland border the right to apply for asylum and instead summarily return them to Belarus, Human Rights Watch said today. Since 2016, large numbers of asylum seekers, mostly from the Russian Republic of Chechnya, but also from Tajikistan and Georgia, have tried to apply for asylum in Poland at the border with Belarus.
The numbers peaked during spring and summer 2016, with up to 200 to 300 asylum seekers each day, down to 40 to 80 a day during the winter. When they arrive at the border station by train from the Belarus city of Brest, Polish border guard officials briefly interview passengers seeking asylum. Usually all but a handful are denied entry into Poland and the ability to apply for asylum. The written decisions handed to asylum seekers usually refer to whether the person has a visa or entry residency permit, without comment on or acknowledgement of the person’s protection claim. Those denied access are sent back by train to Belarus the same day.
Seeking Asylum at the Terespol Border Station
In December Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 asylum seekers whose asylum applications had been rejected by Polish border officials. They all gave consistent accounts of the procedure at the Polish border station in Terespol. Their accounts were also consistent with those of asylum seekers interviewed by other organizations. Logistical constraints meant that Human Rights Watch was unable to interview anyone who had been admitted to Poland to apply for asylum.
It is reported that between August and September 2016, as many as 3,000 asylum seekers and migrants were turned back at the border crossing and stranded in Belarusian border town Brest.
It’s like Groundhog Day. The same thing happens every time. I start every interview by saying that my life is in danger [in Chechnya] because I’m a journalist. They keep asking why I don’t have a visa… I cite international law and procedure, asking them to take me to a camp to process my [asylum] request. They [Polish officials] tell me they can’t do anything but it’s the Immigration Services. I ask them [Polish officials] how I can get to there [Office of Foreigners] but they just give me my passport back and hand me a paper stating I was denied entry.
“Marcus” said that he received death threats in Chechnya after reporting about enforced disappearances there. He fled to another part of Russia in 2011, but Chechen security services found him and threatened his family in Chechnya to try to make him return. With a renewed crackdown on dissent in Chechnya, Marcus fears he is in a direct line of fire.” You know, I had a good job and a good life,” he said. “Why would I want to leave all that behind for nothing.”
“Asya,” a 25-year-old woman from Tajikistan, traveling with her husband and three children aged 2, 5 and 7, said that the family had attempted to file asylum claims 29 times at the Polish border:
Every time, we told the Polish [border guards] that my husband is a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party [persecuted by Tajik authorities] and that if we go back to Tajikistan he will be jailed for life. They don’t listen to us…Today is the last day we can stay legally in Belarus. We have been here for three months…
“Abdulbek,” is a 22-year-old man from Chechnya traveling alone who had made 17 attempts to lodge asylum claims in Poland. He said that Polish authorities refused to accept paperwork supporting his case for persecution by Chechen authorities:
My father and brother disappeared during the [Chechen] war [1994-1996]. Authorities in Chechnya claim that they were insurgents. Now they are after me too. Eight days ago my uncle disappeared. I have papers from the prosecutor in Chechnya with charges against me that I try to show the Polish officials but they are not interested in my papers. The authorities in Chechnya threatened to send me to Syria or Ukraine to fight, but I don’t want to join.
“Lana,” 67, from Chechnya, traveling with her sister, 53, and children ages 14 and 16, had 16 failed attempts to file asylum claims in Poland:
At the station, there are three tables in the same room. Polish psychologists [border officials] ask about our problem, about what happened at home. I tell them that I have come to protect the 14-year-old boy because his father was an insurgent and died in the war and that the boy will have problems because of this at home. The Polish people don’t say anything, they just listen and write something on their computers. After the interview, which is about five to 10 minutes, we are made to wait for about one to two hours before they put us on the train back to Brest.
“Eldar,” 31, from Chechnya, traveling with his wife and five children ages 2 to 11, said he had failed nine times to lodge asylum claims in Poland. He described dismissive and apparently purposefully humiliating treatment at the Terespol border station:
Once, when the Polish guards asked about police security at home and I said I don’t have the money to rent it [i.e. pay the necessary bribes] and had to flee the country, they just laughed at me. That time, my wife, who is pregnant, fell to the floor [collapsed] because of a disease she has [unclear what] that caused her stomach pain. The Polish guard laughed and said she was pretending. They made fun of us and humiliated us.
“Eldar” said that a lawyer in Belarus told him to write the word “asylum” on the paper denying him entry that Polish border guards present to asylum seekers when they are handed back their passports. He did so on November 16:
I tried to do this [write “asylum”] but the guard screamed at me and asked what I am doing and said: “if you do that one more time I will deport you from Poland and you won’t ever be able to come back.”
“Asma,” a 47-year-old Chechen woman traveling with three children who had made 24 unsuccessful attempts to file asylum in Poland, said the Polish border officials did not listen to her story:
I say, look at me and my children. We are afraid to go back. Security people in Chechnya beat my oldest son so badly he couldn’t walk for a week. They [Polish officials] look and say nothing, just tell us to go and wait. Once, the man [Polish official] we spoke to said: “Go to Kyrgyzstan, go to Turkey. Poland doesn’t want you.” Another time a man [Polish official] just said “no visa – no entry.”
“Albika,” 24, said she had made 36 failed attempts to file an asylum claim. She said the Polish officials did not even bother interviewing her the last 10 times she attempted to apply:
It’s like they [Polish officials] already knew what our fate would be. On my last attempt, there was a rude woman psychologist [border official] who made me cry. I told her that it was our 36th attempt and that we were almost out of money and had to sleep at the train station and that I can’t go back because my husband would kill me and nobody will protect me and my children. She [Polish official] started screaming at me: “Why do you think I care about your business, what am I, the Red Cross? You are a fake! You are a liar!”
“Mayrbek,” 32, a Chechen man traveling alone who had tried to lodge asylum claims 27 times, said:
They take our details but don’t listen further. I tell them that I fear for my life, that law enforcement in Chechnya are making problems for me. They [Polish border officials] tell us to go to Turkey, China or Kazakhstan. They take our passports. These days, when I arrive at the border station, they just ask if anything changed in my story. When I say no, they just put me in a cold room with other single men and then put us onto the train like cattle.
Another single man, “Anzor,” 30, who says he fled Georgia because of threats related to his membership of a religious minority, and made four failed attempts to submit an asylum claim in Poland, said:
I tried to explain what my reasons are but they don’t listen. They just put the basic information into the computer and ask why I don’t have a visa. I try to explain why I can’t get a visa but they don’t even type that part down. It’s like I am talking to myself. The whole interview takes about three minutes.
The Situation in Brest
The Polish officials’ systematic denials of efforts to apply for asylum puts a severe financial burden on asylum seekers. Most of those interviewed said they had sold all their property and possessions back home to be able to travel. In Brest, they rent private accommodations, but after several months of being stranded in Belarus, many people run out of money at which point and are forced to live at the Brest train station. The situation is particularly problematic for families with children. Several people also said they feared retribution from security services from their countries.
Alla, a 39-year-old woman, from Chechnya, with four children who had made 13 attempts to enter Poland, said:
It takes approximately €150 per week for our family to survive here; that includes food and rent and train tickets. Two weeks ago, my relative from Chechnya sent us a package with food to help us last here.
“Albika,” said she ran out of money after 36 unsuccessful attempts to cross into Poland:
For the last week, we have been sleeping at the train station. Local security don’t let us lie down on the benches so we must sit and sleep. If we lie down, they come and poke us to make us sit up. It’s difficult for the kids. Some ask quietly and politely, but some just yell or bang on the bench with a baton to wake us up.
“Lana” and her sister (mentioned above) said they are running low on money and are forced to stay at the train station with the children. “Asma,” who has also been living at the train station due to the lack of money also said that she is unable to sleep properly because security staff at the station keep poking her if she lies down.
Most families Human Rights Watch interviewed stayed in Brest for months and said that their children, especially if they were sleeping at the train station, had been exposed to poor sanitary conditions and other health risks.
Two Human Rights Watch researchers carried out research in December 2016 in Brest, Belarus, and at the Terespol border station in Poland. Researchers interviewed 29 asylum seekers. Interviews were conducted in private using a Russian-English interpreter. Interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview. They were told that they could end the interview at any time or decline to answer any specific questions. No interviewee received compensation for providing information. Pseudonyms have been used for all interviewees to protect their identities.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed representatives of the nongovernmental organizations Human Constanta and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, staff at the Commissioner for Human Rights Office, staff of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Poland and Belarus, the head of the Refuge and Asylum Unit at the Citizenship and Migration Department at the Belarusian Interior Ministry, human rights lawyers, and activists.