(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.

Asylum seekers in the arrivals hall at Brest train station, returned on the 13.46 pm train from Terespol, where their requests to seek asylum Poland were rejected. Brest, Belarus, December 7, 2016. 

© 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

“Poland is putting people in danger by denying them access to its asylum process and returning them to Belarus, where they can’t get protection,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Trapping families and others at the Belarus border and refusing to hear their asylum claims is no way for an EU state to behave.”

Local human rights groups in Poland and Belarus say that the summary returns have been going on for years but that the numbers increased significantly in 2016. An August 2016 inspection of the Terespol border station by Poland’s human rights commissioner, whose report was published in September, found that border officials’ cursory interviews failed to adequately identify asylum seekers. A November 2016 report by the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights also found that Poland was summarily rejecting asylum seekers at the Terespol border station and returning them to Belarus. Both groups confirmed in February 2017 that the summary refusals and returns are ongoing.

Under Polish law, the Office of Foreigners, Poland’s asylum authority, not the Border Guard Services, is responsible for deciding on asylum applications. But in practice, asylum seekers at the Poland-Belarus border said, border guards carried out superficial interviews for two to 10 minutes, and then refuse the vast majority access to the asylum procedure.

Human Rights Watch researchers boarded the daily train from Brest to Terespol on December 7, and observed the arrival and departure of migrants from the Terespol border station. In early December 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 asylum seekers who had unsuccessfully tried to enter Poland from Belarus, 25 of them from Chechnya. Twenty-one were female or male heads of households, most accompanied by children and eight were single men.

 

Train station, Brest, Belarus, December 7, 2016. 

© 2016 Yulia Gorbunova/Human Rights Watch
All those interviewed said that they tried to explain to Polish officials their intention to seek protection during the interviews at the Terespol border station. Two said they had tried over 40 times and one said he had tried 50 times, but were turned back every time.

A Chechen journalist who had experienced death threats for his reporting said that he and his family had been repeatedly turned down. “You know, I had a good job and a good life,” he said. “Why would I want to leave all that behind for nothing.”

The September 2016 human rights commissioner’s report says that Polish border officials in Terespol speak and/or understand Russian. Some of those interviewed said they spoke or wrote the words for “asylum” and “refugee” during interviews, but were still turned down. Thirteen of those interviewed said the border officials mocked or humiliated them.

Belarus has provisions in law for an asylum system, but in practice it does not offer meaningful protection. Tajiks, many of whom have experienced abuse in Tajikistan and fear deportation or harassment from Tajik security forces in Russia, cannot get effective protection in Belarus, which views Russia as a safe third country. Chechens also risk being sent back to Russia in spite of their fear of abuse there from the authorities of Russia’s Chechen republic.

The Polish border guards’ practice of routinely denying people access to the asylum procedure at the border violates the right to asylum under the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and creates a risk of chain refoulement – that is one country returning an asylum seeker to an allegedly “safe” third country which then returns the person to an unsafe country – contrary to international refugee law, Human Rights Watch said. Asylum seekers from the Russian republics in the North Caucasus and from Tajikistan are exposed to a risk of being returned by Belarusian authorities to persecution in Russia or in Tajikistan as a result of being denied access to the asylum procedure in Poland.

Belarus also has a responsibility under international law to treat all migrants humanely and to provide access to asylum procedures for those seeking protection, Human Rights Watch said.

The Polish Ministry of Interior, in a January 11 response to a letter expressing Human Rights Watch’s concerns, stated that foreigners can seek asylum at the border station and their asylum applications will be received by the border officials. The response also said that Polish border officials determine through screening interviews that the majority of third country nationals approaching the Polish border station at Terespol are “economic migrants,” and that improvements had been made at Terespol border station by increasing privacy during interviews with foreigners.

Human Rights Watch researcher interviewing Chechen husband and wife at train station in Brest who were summarily returned from the Polish border after trying to apply for asylum. Brest, Belarus, December 7, 2016. 

© 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

Asylum seekers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that fear of arrest and torture by the authorities back home, and failure of their home countries to protect them from blood feuds were among their reasons for leaving. None cited an economic motivation.

In August 2016, Mariusz Błaszczak, Polish minister of internal affairs, stated in a media interview that the country would not accept refugees from the Russian republic of Chechnya, saying they were a threat to national security. In 2016, Poland’s recognition rate for asylum seekers from Russia (including Chechens) was 5.6 percent and for those from Tajikistan, 10.5 percent. This compares with average across the EU 28 member states of 19 percent for asylum seekers from Russia and 27.5 percent for those from Tajikistan. In February, Poland’s Ministry of Interior published draft amendments to the country’s asylum law that would facilitate accelerated asylum procedures and summary removals of those who applied for asylum at the border.

The European Commission has failed to speak publicly about Poland’s denial of access to asylum procedures at its border with Belarus. The EU is seeking to step up migration cooperation with Belarus. An October 2016 EU-Belarus “mobility partnership” agreement includes “enhance[d] operational cooperation on return” of third country nationals and combating irregular migration as priorities. The commission plans to provide Belarus €7 million in financial support to build open and closed reception facilities for irregular migrants as part of a wider deal on migration cooperation including a future readmission agreement. Poland has no bilateral readmission agreement with Belarus.

“The Commission’s failure to call out Poland’s denial of access to asylum at its border with Belarus makes the prospect of EU migration cooperation with Belarus deeply worrying,” Gall said. “The Commission should press Warsaw to halt summary returns to Belarus and ensure that all asylum seekers approaching Poland’s border can lodge their claims and have them decided in a fair way. And it should make sure that its migration cooperation with Belarus does not lead to asylum seekers being denied access to protection.”

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.

8:28 a.m. train carrying asylum seekers to Terespol, Poland. Brest, Belarus, December 7, 2016. 

© 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

Each day, passengers board the 8:28 a.m. train from Brest to Terespol, the train’s final destination, approximately 13.4 km away. Since November, those without proper documents to enter Poland and therefore believed to be asylum seekers and migrants have not been allowed to purchase one-way tickets and are assigned seats in two or three carriages apparently reserved only for them.

Once the train arrives in Terespol, Poland, border officials take those passengers without valid visas or residency permits off the train and lead them to passport control, where border control officials conduct cursory two to 10 minute interviews in an interview room where they conduct three interviews at a time at three separate tables.

The majority of asylum seekers interviewed described the interview process as rushed and lacking privacy. They said that the officials seemed either uninterested or acted as though the outcome of the interview was pre-determined. They said that some of the questions seemed unrelated to their fear of persecution in their home countries. Several described humiliating treatment, saying the Polish officials screamed at them, referred to them in a derogatory manner, tore papers the asylum seekers presented to support their persecution claims, or threw their passports in their faces.

In a written reply on January 11 to a letter from Human Rights Watch, the Polish Interior Ministry said it had made improvements to the procedure at the Terespol border station, based on the human rights commissioner’s September 2016 findings. Those findings included denial of access to the asylum procedure, poor conditions in the waiting areas, “arbitrary isolation” of single men, and lack of privacy during interviews. The letter says that authorities now “ensure maximum privacy during interviews” and introduced prescreening interviews in late October that aim to better identify vulnerable asylum seekers, including torture victims.

In spite of some improvements, asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch in December that privacy during interviews at the border was still not respected and regular border officials were still responsible for conducting prescreening interviews.

In the majority of cases, asylum seekers receive their passports back after two to three hours stamped with a denial-of-entry stamp. The authorities also issue a document in Polish, with parts in Russian, stating that the person has been refused entry due to lack of a valid visa and has the right to appeal. Asylum seekers are asked to sign the document and are provided a copy. Once all passports have been returned to people who have been turned down, they are escorted back onto the train and locked into carriages on the train departing at 1:46 p.m. for Brest.

Polish authorities do admit a small number of asylum seekers at the border, mostly family groups. However, human rights organizations in Poland and Belarus say that the decisions appear completely arbitrary, as most of those allowed to submit asylum claims have previously been turned down multiple times.

None of the asylum seekers interviewed had appealed their rejections. To appeal, the asylum seeker needs to be on Polish territory or appoint a representative in Poland, making it difficult to appeal without contacts in Poland. However, Human Constanta, a local Brest human rights organization, told Human Rights Watch that it has assisted some families in writing appeals to the Border Guard Headquarters in Warsaw, with the help of someone based in Warsaw.

Human Constanta said they then notify the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw that an appeal has been filed. If the Border Guard Headquarters dismisses the appeal, the asylum seeker may seek legal recourse before an administrative court. The Helsinki Foundation said in February that it was providing legal representation in just one case, which was pending, and that this was the only case they knew about.

Under Polish law, when a person expresses an interest in applying for asylum to a Polish border official, that official should forward the case to the Office of Foreigners the asylum authority for consideration. Human Rights Watch research suggests, however, that instead, Polish border officials carry out a prescreening procedure to assess whether or not a person’s reasons for entering Poland warrant protection. Such determinations appear to be arbitrary and based on minimal and sometimes seemingly irrelevant information, often not extending beyond asking asylum seekers why they do not have valid visas.

Poland is entitled to refuse to admit irregular migrants without international protection needs. But the procedures at the Terespol border station violate Poland’s obligations under EU law and standard international refugee law practice, under which any expression of intent to seek asylum should promptly be forwarded to the competent authorities for assessment based on the person’s individual grounds for seeking asylum. International law does not require asylum seekers to provide valid visas.

Lack of Effective Protection in Belarus

An official at Belarus’s Citizenship and Migration Department told Human Rights Watch that all asylum applications are considered on a case-by-case basis regardless of nationality. But there is virtually no chance for asylum seekers from the Russian republic of Chechnya or from Tajikistan to get refugee status or subsidiary protection because Belarus officials regard Russia as a safe country of origin in the case of those from Chechnya and a safe third country in the case of those from Tajikistan.

The Union Treaty with Russia grants Russian nationals the right to legally settle in Belarus, which makes an asylum procedure superfluous. No one from those countries was recognized as a refugee in Belarus from 2013 through 2015, based on government statistics. The 2016 statistics are not yet available.

Asylum seekers from Chechnya said they do not feel safe in Belarus, though, because the lack of any visa requirements or border checks for Russians enables agents of the Chechen security services to travel to and operate in Belarus. Asylum seekers said that they live in constant fear in Belarus due to what they described as the presence of Chechen security officials, who openly watch and threaten them.

Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the presence of Chechen security services in Brest. However, longstanding documentation of the human rights situation in Chechnya, including past and recent crackdowns on any form of dissent, show that Chechen authorities, whether directly or through apparent proxies, punish even the mildest critics.

Over the past two years, the authorities in Tajikistan have arrested, imprisoned, and tortured members of the country’s political opposition. They have also targeted perceived critics abroad, seeking their detention and extradition to Tajikistan, and have forcibly disappeared critics abroad only to have them reappear in Tajik custody.

An activist from Tajikistan was detained in Belarus on June 13, 2015, under an extradition request by the government of Tajikistan after Polish border guards refused that day to let her enter the country to apply for asylum. While detained in Belarus, she submitted an asylum claim to the Belarusian authorities, which she said was rejected. She was released in February 2016, following the intervention of human rights groups and the US State Department and was subsequently admitted to Poland, where she successfully lodged an asylum claim.

Accounts from Asylum Seekers

“Marcus,” a 35-year-old Chechen asylum seeker traveling with his wife and three children, who had made five unsuccessful attempts to lodge a claim in Poland, described the procedure:

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.

Methodology

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.