Poland’s treatment of migrants at its border with Belarus are symptomatic of the country’s turn away from democracy that has taken place over the past few years. Many countries across Europe have been forced to cope with a global migration crisis with people arriving in the country from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Cuba seeking asylum. This is not an easy issue for any country to deal with but the methods that Poland has used to lock down the border has raised the alarm of human rights organizations. Last year, Poland’s parliament gave border officials the authority to expel migrants from the country who enter the country illegally. The result of this decision is that migrants at the border have been faced with severe mistreatment and there have even been documented cases where border guards have violently turned and pushed migrants back without due process. This is against international law as it has been established that those seeking asylum have a legal right to do so. Not only has Poland militarized the border with Belarus to prevent migrants from entering the country , but they have also refused to open humanitarian channels and have prevented human rights groups including the UN from entering the region. This border policy is emblematic of the country’s larger turn towards populism and is a signal of what will happen if institutional changes are not in Poland and around the world.
It is worth looking at the political environment that led to Poland’s repression of migrants on its border with Belarus. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, Poland and countries from the Soviet Bloc began processes of democratization. As these countries adopted more free market, capitalist economies they began to experience many problems that we associate with neoliberalism. That is, economic inequality skyrocketed in Poland and it became the third most unequal country in Europe in terms of wealth disparity and saw massive amounts of unemployment. This economic hardship disproportionately fell on rural areas in the country and the populist Law and Justice party (PiS) quickly became popular on a platform of social conservatism and a rejection of the neoliberal political order that took the vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. From 2001 to 2005, this party managed to pick up 111 seats in parliament which made it the country’s largest political party. Since taking power, has galvanized its political base behind the issue of immigration and the global refugee crisis. This has drastically changed Poland’s border policy over the past few years.
It actually wasn’t too long ago when Poland was welcoming refugees and immigrants into their country. Back then, Poland’s bigger problem in regards to migration was people emigrating from the country. However, as Poland has developed into a more capital intensive economy from a trade intensive economy they have had less of a problem with people leaving the country. The other reason why Poland’s immigration policy used to be more open was because the migrants that it did see came from neighboring countries like Ukraine that had close cultural ties. Over the past five years, immigration into Poland has increasingly consisted of people from countries with large muslim populations. The ruling party in the country, Law and Justice (PiS) took power on a wave of populist support and a promise to implement catholic social policy. Among other things, this has led to discrimination against LGBT individuals and a near total abortion ban. Like most populist movements around the world, PiS created an “us versus them” mentality to galvanize their base and frame themselves as the true representatives of Polish values. If you’re a Muslim coming to Poland from the middle east, you definitely fit into the latter category. Because of this, Poland has taken a much harder stance against immigration over the past few years.
Understanding how Poland got here is one thing, knowing how the international community should respond to these human rights abuses is much more difficult. Recently, the EU managed to coerce a province in Poland from declassifying itself as an LGBT zone by threatening to withhold recovery funds. This has led to calls for international organizations like the EU and UN to exert similar pressure on other cases of democratic backsliding in Poland like this crisis on the border or the destruction of the country’s judiciary. While there may be some utility to this, we need to tread carefully about overusing international coercion to influence policy change in Poland. As mentioned previously, PiS was able to build up so much support so quickly because it framed itself as the one institution that could represent regular, everyday Poles. The party has successfully used populism and euroscepticism to galvanize their base so it is likely that they could point to international involvement as another example of outsiders trying to make decisions for them. Basically, it could end up fanning the flames of populist sentiment in the country. That is not to say that international actors should do nothing, but they must be mindful about the extent to which it’s possible that they can actually influence Polish policy.
The core of efforts to address democratic backsliding over Poland’s border policy or other areas must be a grassroots effort amongst Poland’s people. In 2020, the strength of Poland’s civil society was shown when thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the government’s restrictive abortion law. Only by engaging in sustained activism can any people push back against anti democratic forces.
Gera, Vanessa. “Poland, with near-Total Abortion Ban, to Record Pregnancies.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, June 6, 2022. https://apnews.com/article/abortion-health-poland-womens-rights-7f2f2839c43e9655d3d898d1ddd4bbe8.
NAPIERALSKI, BARTOSZ. Essay. In Political Catholicism and Euroscepticism: The Deviant Case of Poland in Comparative Perspective. S.l.: ROUTLEDGE, 2019.
“Poland/Belarus: New Evidence of Abuses Highlights ‘Hypocrisy’ of Unequal Treatment of Asylum-Seekers.” Amnesty International, April 11, 2022. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/04/poland-belarus-new-evidence-of-abuses-highlights-hypocrisy-of-unequal-treatment-of-asylum-seekers/.
Yermakova, Olena. “Mythology of the Law and Justice Party’s Migration Discourse.” Politeja 16, no. 6(63) (2019): 177–95. https://doi.org/10.12797/politeja.16.2019.63.12.
I have been researching similar trends in Hungary and can see how different elements of Poland’s and Hungary’s immigration policy reflect and support each other. It seems that cultural identity is a stronger motivator in this part of the world than enlightenment principles of liberalism and democracy. The EU has its hands full these days.