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“All people should be welcomed” [Belarus, Poland, Ukraine]

Racism and unequal treatment: Katarzyna Czarnota from Grupa Granica on the situation on Poland’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine.

Originally published by Medico International.

medico: What is the current situation on the Polish-Belarusian border and what impact does the war in Ukraine have on the people who are still stuck there?

Katarzyna Czarnota: We’re currently on the sixth day of seeing the crisis unfold in front of us and what we have seen so far is when it comes to the Polish government responding to the Ukrainian crisis and when compared to the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border: All the border crossings have been opened to refugees coming from Ukraine. So, that’s the first level of difference in the Polish government response. But also on the Ukrainian-Polish border, we have seen segregation or unequal treatment of refugees crossing into Poland. Also, the Polish people have responded massively at the individual level to the Ukrainian crisis and we have seen a massive mobilization of people. But also, on the Ukrainian border, we have seen some level of unequal treatment to third-country nationals or non-Ukrainians coming from Ukraine to Poland.

What I want to highlight is, that the crisis on the Belarussian border with Poland is ongoing and there are still dozens of refugees trapped in Belarus . In recent days, we have received numerous requests for humanitarian assistance which also signifies that the crisis there is ongoing. We have been in touch with people who were pushed back 10-15 times into Belarus by Polish authorities and they end up in a very difficult terrain made up of wetlands and swamps. Others were pushed into the rivers while we have temperatures dropping below zero. Additionally, we’re in touch with a group of approximately 50 people who were put into tents by the Belarussian authorities somewhere close to the border area and they have been reporting torture-like treatment. They have been deprived of access to food and are in a very difficult overall situation. So, we have also seen a change from the Belarussian authorities in terms of attitude towards refugees coming. In the past, we could probably say that they were granted some basic level access to food and water whereas now, the conditions and treatment have become much more severe. Beside this, I would like to shed light as well on another, not media-focused group: Yesterday we had an intervention, where people at the border were helping Ukrainians without documents. They were kind of lost and we’re expecting more cases of Ukrainian men being forced to join the military service who leave behind their documents and then try fleeing from Ukraine.

So you’re saying that while we have the ongoing war in Ukraine and the news that Belarussian soldiers are now moving into Ukraine, there is still an influx of people trying to reach the Polish border from Belarus? 

Yes, and we have two very different border situations. It’s kind of a two-faced attitude also in the context of how the government responds to that. Just a few minutes ago, the Ministry of Interior (MSWiA) tweeted about segregation on the borders. They stated that Ukrainian nationals would be given priority to cross the border and that all those who do not have documents proving their Ukrainian citizenship or legal status would be thoroughly checked and if necessary, brought to detention centers. So, we don’t know yet how the situation will evolve but we have already seen a change in the Polish migration policy today. We’re expecting that several third-country nationals were unable to bring along their documents as they are escaping the war. We see racial profiling and discrimination when it comes to access to services of third-country nationals coming into Poland and some of the reception points that were established both along the border by the Polish authorities and in different cities. It’s really clear how they’re using the situation to implement their racial profiling policies at the border. Last night, we had a few cases of racial violence in the city close to the border zone. Grupa Granica and independent activists and human rights defenders are also getting more information about discrimination and racism in cities all over Poland.

What we can also see are third-country nationals who were displaced multiple times and have now become a refugee for the third or fourth time. We know of a group of Palestinians who were born in Syria as refugees, who were then displaced to Lebanon in the course of the Syrian regime oppression, from there fled to Ukraine and who are now in Poland and displaced for the fourth time.

And based on your assessment, do you think these would be the same centers that refugees from the Polish-Belarussian border are brought to?

Yes, and honestly, there will be so much chaos in the border zone because the border security staff is not able to verify everyone’s citizenship and legal status. A lot of the people wanting to cross the border are escaping war and the detention centers are quickly filling up. And I think the Polish government is using this kind of narrative because they want to prove that they have the power to control the situation but it’s impossible to filter out these people. I think in the coming days, we anticipate the Polish government to implement different steps and measures to justify the segregation and unequal treatment and also to legitimate the state-sponsored violence and this unequal treatment of third-country nationals and also to justify what has happened yesterday in one of the border towns called Przemyśl. Refugees from the Middle East and Africa who had just arrived were attacked by the local football team’s hooligans. So now, we’re seeing a narrative in the media and public discourse that is meant to justify what is happening and my analysis is that this is why the government decided to introduce different measures for third-country nationals now. In the end, it essentially serves to justify the state-led violence against people who came from Belarus in the past. So, the government could not be held accountable for the uneven treatment for third-country nationals coming through Ukraine, vis a vis refugees coming from Belarus to Poland.

With third-country nationals, you’re referring to third-country nationals, like students from Africa, coming to Poland fleeing the war?

Yes. The level of racism that has been systematically implemented by the Polish governments, especially since the election in 2015 is tremendous. The government was using the so-called refugee crisis as a political tool so the level of social acceptance and violence in defense of the national state is so high that they were attacking people who look different. Another example from the past is that some people were attacking people who were speaking a different language, in this particular case it was German, on the tram. This is a daily reality in Poland. Another time, students from Spain were beaten up or Palestinian, or even Polish citizens that look different. So overall, since the right-wing government came into power in 2015, they have been pushing this nationalist narrative in the public media. And the state has enhanced the nationalist movements in Poland and allowed them to flourish and grow. But yes, in 2015 and 2016 there was a lot of violence in Poland and now we’re just very much concerned with what is happening now in the border zone and the city of Przemyśl. 

In the light of the current crisis, what does the work of Grupa Granica look like right now?

So we had to adjust to the situation on the Polish-Ukrainian border but at the same time Grupa Granica will continue to deliver aid at the Polish-Belarussian border. One of the difficulties is adjusting our communication strategy. We try to advocate for third-country nationals or People of Color to ensure equal access to services but we also don’t want to jeopardize our support because there is a lot of public mobilization. So, we have to balance out our communication, how to ensure that we can still advocate for those who are excluded from accessing basic services or those who face discrimination.

What we do at the moment as Grupa Granica but also as individual members are providing transportation, taking people from reception centers set up by the Polish government. We try to act wherever the government response fails or is not there. For example, when reception centers are overcrowded, we step in and try to provide transportation. We also do a bit of evacuation in Ukraine or we support other evacuation efforts. Individual members and activists go into Ukraine to try to help the most vulnerable individuals. We run media campaigns and provide legal counseling. We, for instance, published a document in Ukrainian, Russian, English, and Polish on how to cross the border, which documents you should bring with you, and what happens to you when you are a third-country national. We also provide transport to shelters set up through our personal or professional network. And basically, Grupa Granics tries to fill in the gap the government leaves and at the same time criticizing its practice. We also engage in lobbying and advocacy efforts both in Poland and at the EU level, liaising with different members of parliament. And we still advocate for equal access to services and access to asylum for every single individual.

Do you have any current needs?

One of the most pressing issues is passing on the message about racism being on the rise in Poland and the unequal access to services. 

For now, from a strategic point of view, we need to focus on communication and advocacy for Third Country Nationals / Black Indigenous People of Color. Grupa Granica is a huge social movement which was created as a response to the humanitarian crisis at the Belarus border area. Another critical issue is advocating for establishment of a comprehensive and inclusive migration policy in Poland. We consciously talk about a humanitarian crisis in response to the government wanting to call it a “migration crisis” or “hybrid war”. Grupa Granica is made up of 14 NGOs which have been working with migration issues with some of the members working on these issues since the 90s. Right now, there is a great opportunity for Grupa Granica to capitalize on its expertise, and use the popular mobilization to bring about much needed changes to the migration policy and for the respect of universal human rights.

At the same time, there are a lot of people, individual activists, who joined the movement which is operating under the umbrella of Grupa Granica. 

In the light of the new developments, we’re faced with people wanting to discredit our work because they want to promote a narrative that we are against the ‘real refugees’ from Ukraine and that we are supporting those who are perceived as a threat to national security. This is also problematic because they opened the border but then for us, it is clear that they will implement the discriminatory practices in the future in terms of access to work, access to fundamental rights. We as a movement have the role to define the situation, define the barriers and address institutional racism. And we can do this more powerful as a collective movement. 

What do you expect from Germany and the EU?

I think that the most important discussion is around the policy of pushbacks and migration on a European level. We want to avoid a situation where pushbacks are being legalized. We also need to pressure more for international anti-racist policies and set up monitoring systems. This is also connected to the political situation in Poland which we have been facing for the past five years or more. We aim to not forget about people who are completely left out of the system. We’re still concerned with the difficult situation of the refugees in Belarus. Because all the attention is now being drawn to the Ukrainian border. And all international NGOs now went to Poland and the focus unfortunately solely lies on people crossing from Ukraine but people at the Belarusian border are forgotten in the so-called red zone. Humanitarian aid, medical aid, etc. can still not access the area.

When it comes to Germany and the EU, we want to ensure that there’s no segregation and unequal access to services and rights. Now, 27 EU member states are probably willing to open access to employment to Ukrainians but not the other nationals which is very appalling and just highlights the racism across the EU. And of course, I don’t intend to say that Ukrainians should not be welcomed but I’m saying that all people should be welcomed.

Interview: Kerem Schamberger and Nina-Violetta Schwarz
Transcript: Anna Pagel

Further reading: Humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border (PDF): https://www.grupagranica.pl/files/Grupa-Granica-Report-Humanitarian-crisis-at-the-Polish-Belarusian-border.pdf


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