“Ahmad,” a 34-year-old Chechen man, boarded a Polish-bound train in Brest, Belarus, last week, hoping to seek asylum there. He had fled from Chechnya, a Russian republic, where he says the authorities tortured and unlawfully detained him.
Having taken the 15-minute trip from Brest to the Polish border unsuccessfully 27 times before, Ahmad hoped this time was going to be different. Polish and Belarusian lawyers and activists had asked for, and received, an emergency order from the European Court of Human Rights instructing that he not be summarily returned to Belarus. He knew Polish authorities would have a legal obligation to comply with the order while the European Court considers the claim.
But Ahmad’s hopes were crushed when Polish border guards ignored the court’s order and put him on a train back to Belarus that same day. Ahmad tried again the next day with the court order in his hand. To no avail. So Ahmad remains in Belarus, a country that does not have a functioning asylum system and where he is not safe from his persecutors back home in Chechnya due to the open border between Russia and Belarus.
And he’s not the only one. Polish border guards routinely return asylum seekers from North Caucasus and Central Asia at the Terespol border station, after concluding they are economic migrants based on no more than rudimentary, two- to three-minute pre-screening interviews conducted in front of other asylum seekers. But instead of border guards, it’s Poland’s asylum authority, the Office of Foreigners, which should be examining their asylum claims. Polish border guards are certainly not hearing what I heard from asylum seekers, who told detailed stories of political persecution, blood feuds, torture, and enforced disappearances.
The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims border guards did not ignore the order concerning Ahmad, arguing that the area where pre-screening interviews are conducted is not in Polish territory. But claims of “rights-free zones” for asylum processing in other European countries have been rejected by the European Court in the past.
Polish authorities have an obligation to allow anyone at their ports of entry to claim asylum. And as Poland is a party to the European Convention of Human Rights, Polish authorities are obliged to respect the court’s emergency orders, rather than creating bogus excuses to violate the human rights of Ahmad and many others like him.