Polish authorities have been reporting a rise in attempts by migrants to cross the border from Belarusia. Ahead of elections, the government is accused of using the migrant ‘threat’ to gain political support.
On August 13, 159 people from Nepal, Ethiopia and India attempted to enter Poland by crossing its land border with Belarus. The previous day, 160 migrants of Egyptian, Somali, and Ethiopian and Sri Lankan origin also tried to reach Polish territory. The day before that, 106 migrants from Congo, Eritrea, Iraq and Pakistan entered Poland.
The Polish border guard (Straż Graniczna) has been publishing regular posts on its Twitter (X) account, accompanied by photos or videos shot with a night camera, about attempts by migrants to cross the Belarusian border.
This migratory route, which migrants from Afghanistan and the Middle East began using in August 2021, has seen renewed interest since the beginning of this summer. According to Polish border guards, 19,000 migrants have tried to enter Poland since the beginning of 2023, compared with 16,000 over the whole of 2022. In July alone, more than 4,000 migrants tried to cross the Polish border.
Behind this influx are “the Russian and Belarusian special services”, described by the Head of the Polish border guard Tomasz Praga as “a criminal group that is masterminding illegal migration.” His accusations are similar to those made two years ago, when Brussels and Warsaw accused the regime in Minsk of orchestrating a migrant influx with its Russian ally as part of a “hybrid” attack. Minsk has always denied the claims.
This time, Polish authorities claim the “operation to destabilize the Polish border, commanded by the Belarusian and Russian services” is reinforced by the arrival of thousands of mercenaries from the Russian group Wagner on Belarusian soil.
To protect the border and prevent crossings, the Polish Defense Minister announced on August 9 that Poland is planning to move up to 10,000 additional troops to its eastern border with Belarus, including 4,000 in direct support of the national border agency.
An ‘absurd’ panic
This official narrative of a threat at the border comes just two months before the October 15 parliamentary elections in Poland. Some observers note that the timing appears convenient for Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who is in the midst of campaigning for the conservative Law and Justice (Pis) party.
The panic around Wagner is “absurd”, said Andrzej Kruczyński, a Polish security expert during an interview with the Lithuanian public radio station LRT. The retired colonel claims the ruling party is using the feeling of insecurity “to its advantage” ahead of the parliamentary elections.
Wagner’s forces “are in no way a threat to us. We must look at the situation calmly. We can continue to reinforce the border, but not to […] kindle tensions,” he said.
On his Twitter X account, Mateusz Morawiecki regularly publishes videos promoting the strengthening of borders. “Putin and Lukashenko wanted total destabilization in Poland, but they failed”, he said in one of them, before listing the actions carried out to counter immigration, such as the construction of a 186 km metal barrier along the border.
Another video shows two images of the Kuznica border crossing: one in November 2021, when nearly 3,000 migrants were stranded there and the second from this summer, with no migrants in sight. “Today, these situations no longer occur. It is, among other things, thanks to the wall built on the Polish-Belarusian border,” said the Polish prime minister.
The publications reflect the government’s stance with each influx of border crossings: that of an “instrumentalization of migrants, which in two years has never stopped,” said Dorota Dakowska, professor of political science at Sciences Po Aix. “Yet, Poland managed to restore its image a little by welcoming more than a million Ukrainians.”
According to the Polish opposition, this anti-migrant communication campaign is in fact “a way of concealing certain weaknesses of the government”, said Dakowska. “Migrants are a subject which divert the attention of Poles. The government is attracting voters around a simplistic cause with electoral aims”.
‘Winning votes at a low cost’
Another way Warsaw’s ruling party is looking to reinforce its standing is with a referendum. Approved on August 16 by Parliament, the vote will take place at the same time as the legislative elections. Poles will have to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a third question on the ballot, asking them whether they support accepting “thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa” as part of a European Union relocation plan.
Interior ministers from the European Union’s 27 member states reached a deal in June for distributing migrants arriving in the EU in member countries, which Poland immediately opposed. The fourth question will relate to the construction of the wall on the Belarusian border.
In order to push people to vote ‘no’ in his referendum and justify stricter border control, Mateusz Morawiecki has not shied away from publishing shocking images on his social media accounts. One shows the riots in France in July following the death of a 17-year-old young man, Nahel, who was shot by a police officer. By conflating delinquency with immigration, Poland’s ruling party used a time-honored tactic of the extreme right.
“This referendum is a very biased way of attracting Poles to the polls,” said Dorota Dakowska. “The country has taken in millions of Ukrainians, so it is unlikely it will participate in the EU relocation program. Asking simplistic questions [in a referendum] is just a way to win votes at a low cost.”
‘Fractures’ and ‘tear gas’
While the authorities are working for the victory of the PiS in the upcoming elections by publishing images of migrants forcing their way across the Belarusian border, the work of NGOs on the ground reveals a different reality. “Lately, more and more refugees are talking about increased violence by the Polish services,” wrote the Grupa Granica association on its Facebook account. According to testimonies by migrants, border guards sometimes take away their shoes, food and water. “They also deliberately damage backpacks and systematically destroy phones.”
Some people bear the marks of their border crossing: “cuts” and “fractures”, caused by the steel wall or burns “from [tear gas] used by the Polish services.” The latter also causes “very strong coughs” and “momentary blindness, causing disorientation and panic among the exiles.”
Muhammed, a Moroccan migrant lost in the area, told France 24 a month ago that he had not eaten for four days. “Just water, dirty water. I can’t go back to Morocco or Belarus, only Poland.”
On July 28, Grupa Granica also drew attention to the case of Sarah*, a 17-year-old Kurdish migrant. Authorities took her mother to a hospital in Poland because of a broken leg, but Sarah could not get to the other side of the wall. Both the mother and daughter had ended up in Belarus after fleeing Aleppo. An earthquake that shook Turkey and Syria last February destroyed their home and forced them to leave.
Sarah waited alone for several days against the metal barrier, at the Polish border with Belarus, without water or food.