A digital investigation by Amnesty International has revealed previously unknown details about the situation facing 32 Afghan asylum-seekers, including four women, 27 men and one 15-year-old girl, who are trapped on the border between Poland and Belarus without food, clean water, shelter and medicine since at least 18 August. Using satellite imagery and photographs to measure the area and 3D reconstruction, Amnesty International has established the group’s position on the border and found that in late August their position had shifted overnight from Poland to Belarus, in what appears an unlawful forced return.
Amnesty International’s reconstruction shows that on 18 August, many of the 32 people, who had entered Poland from Belarus, were on the Polish side of the border, surrounded by Polish border forces. However, one day later they were back on the Belarusian side of the border. Amnesty International believes that this movement could constitute evidence of an unlawful pushback because it appears that the movement occurred as armed Polish border guards surrounded the refugees’ makeshift camp.
“Poland has been cruelly holding this group of people on their border in horrendous conditions for weeks. Our analysis shows irrefutably on 18 August, their position shifted from Poland to Belarus overnight, which strongly suggests that they were victims of an unlawful pushback,” said Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.
On 20 August, all 32 Afghans stuck on the border made applications for international protection in Poland, with the help of lawyers, showing that they wished to remain in Poland.
The interim measures granted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on 25 August, and subsequently extended on 27 September, instruct Poland to provide the group with assistance, including “adequate food, water, clothing, medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter”. The ECtHR also indicate that the group of Afghans claimed they had previously entered Polish territory on 8 August and been pushed back. Poland has so far failed to comply with the interim measures.
‘State of emergency‘
Since the event, the group has remained trapped between Polish and Belarusian borders guards. Poland has restricted movement in the area and introduced rules, on 20 August, allowing for people intercepted at the border to be returned to the border with Belarus. On 2 September, Poland declared a “state of emergency” at its borders with Belarus, limiting journalists and NGOs from accessing the area. The “state of emergency” has prevented the oversight of potential human rights violations, raising concerns about the treatment of refugees and migrants in the area, including the unlawful return of other people back across the border to Belarus. Since 19 September, five people have died in the border area, including as a result of hypothermia.
“The dire situation facing the Afghans on the border is one that the Polish government has created. The declaration of ‘the state of emergency’ is illegitimate and must be lifted. The situation at the country’s borders does not constitute a public emergency by European and international definitions,” said Eve Geddie.
“Forcing back people who are trying to claim asylum without an individual assessment of their protection needs is contrary to international and EU law. The introduction of new laws and measures that attempt to legalize pushbacks do nothing to change that.”
To evaluate the situation on the Poland-Belarus border, Amnesty International’s Evidence Lab collected and analyzed cross-border satellite imagery and more than 50 videos and photographs of incidents on the border since 12 August. The images confirm the group’s movements and the increased securitization of the border in recent weeks. The images came from numerous sources, such as local people and press, and included helicopter footage and satellite imagery – all of which was then analyzed and verified.
Using photogrammetry and photo-matching to reconstruct 3D models, Amnesty International was able to verify the group’s position on the border, confirm the suspected pushback between 18 and 19 August and the location of the group between 12 August and 13 September. It also exposed the inhumane conditions in the makeshift camp that the group is being forced to live in.
Amnesty International is calling on Poland’s government to ensure that those seeking protection have access to its territory. The authorities must end pushbacks, and urgently provide adequate shelter, food, water, sanitary facilities, access to lawyers and medical care to the group of Afghans stranded at the Poland-Belarus border. Poland should also repeal the state of emergency and laws limiting movement in the border area, and grant unhindered access to journalists, activists, NGOs and lawyers.
“People have requested asylum in an EU country, an EU member state is blatantly violating their rights and the EU must act swiftly and firmly to call out these flagrant abuses of EU and international law,” said Eve Geddie.
On 2 September, Poland introduced a state of emergency in areas at the border with Belarus. A state of emergency is defined under international law as something that threatens “the life of the nation.” Migration to Poland plainly fails to meet this test and poses no emergency. In addition, international human rights law has strict conditions that a state needs to follow when it imposes a state of emergency that limits human rights, such as notifying relevant international bodies. Poland has failed to act in compliance with these requirements.
On 20 August 2021, prior to the introduction of the state of emergency, a ministerial decree limited movements at the border and established that, except for people falling under certain categories, those intercepted in the border area must leave Poland and be “returned to the state border line.” The decree conflicts with Poland’s obligations under refugee law, as it limits asylum-seekers’ access to Polish territory, which is instrumental to their ability to claim international protection there. The decree is also at odds with the principle of non-penalization of asylum-seekers, whereby people seeking protection should not face penalties on account of their irregular entry or presence in a country. By allowing Polish authorities to return people without an assessment of their circumstances and without an effective opportunity for them to challenge the return decision, the decree is inconsistent with the principle of non–refoulement and could lead to collective expulsions prohibited under international law.
Lithuania and Latvia, which also neighbour Belarus, have seen comparable arrivals at their borders, and have introduced measures similar to Poland’s. On 17 August, the Polish government proposed a series of worrying amendments to the legislation on returns and international protection. The amendments propose to facilitate returns, which could lead to collective expulsions; allow asylum authorities to discard asylum applications made by people intercepted at an irregular crossing, unless specific circumstances apply; and impose penalties for irregular border crossings. The UNHCR strongly criticized the proposal. At the time of writing, the proposal is not yet in force and is pending before the Polish Senate.
On 25 August, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Poland to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees at their borders. This was renewed on 27 September. Poland has so far failed to comply with the Court’s order.
UNHCR and IOM have made public calls to be granted immediate access to people in need at the border.