The humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border has been intensifying. The psychological and political effect of escalation is analysed by Prof. Przemysław Sadura based on his own research from the zone where the state of emergency was declared.
Instrumentalisation of migration for political purposes leads to a dangerous situation of "dehumanisation" of this process in the public space. In turn, the border zone becomes an epicentre of violence and a territory of great trauma, which is experienced daily not only by migrants, but also by activists, local residents or representatives of the Border Guard, as the struggle for human life is played out before everyone's eyes.
We live in an age of migration. We know full well why the inhabitants of the Global South make the decision to seek a better life in the Global North. The increasingly palbable effects of the climate catastrophe, primarily affecting countries located in the subtropical zone, make living conditions in many of them unbearable. The destabilisation of the political situation in countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa has led to international conflicts, civil wars, and ethnic cleansings. Authoritarian regimes often pursue policies that transform entire countries into labour camps (e.g. Eritrea). Global economic inequality and the encumbering demographic growth that is overloading local labour markets increase migratory pressures. All this means that increasing numbers of people risk their own and their families’ lives by choosing to escape.
The 2015 migration crisis. The birth of Law and Justice’s anti-migrant rhetoric
Amid constant migratory pressure, there are moments of build-up, associated with a rapid destabilisation of an entire region, the opening of a new migration route or the deliberate actions on the part of certain states that aim to destabilise the situation in certain others. This was the case in 2015, when, according to Eurostat, European Union member states received over 1.2 million asylum applications – twice as many as in 2014. Most of these migrants chose sea routes, arriving in Greece and Italy. When these countries appealed to the rest of the European Union for solidarity in accepting refugees and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that those in need should be given asylum in Europe, thousands set off along a new Balkan route via Hungary, heading for Austria and Germany. As a consequence, in 2015 the European Commission issued two decisions on the relocation of a total of 160,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary to other European Union countries.
CBOS, the most important Polish research institute conducting social research for public use, has been studying the attitude towards refugees in Poland since 2004. Over the course of 10 years (between 2004-2015) the attitude of Poles on these matters was consistent. Before the summer holidays of 2015, just as in 2004, more than three-quarters of respondents (76%) believed that Poland should provide shelter to people persecuted in their countries for their beliefs and political activities, and almost quarter (22%) of respondents were willing to allow them to permanently settle in Poland. However, a year later, by mid-2016, the majority of Poles (53%) believed that Poland should not accept any refugees. Granting them shelter in Poland until they can return to their countries was accepted by 37%, and only 4% of respondents believed that migrants should be allowed to settle in Poland. Similar results have continued up until 2021.
So what happened in 2015 that made the number of Poles ready to accept refugees halve within a few months? In the autumn of 2015, Poland held general elections. When the EU decided to share out the refugee quota (Poland would have received less than 7,000 people), the Law and Justice (PiS) party made refugees the subject of the election campaign. PiS politicians began to present an increasing number of views saturated with Islamophobia and racism. The PiS chief Jarosław Kaczyński used language that many critics readily associated with National Socialism, accusing refugees of spreading dangerous diseases and parasites. Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of the Civic Platform party began to change her arguments, claiming that she did not support accepting refugees, but wanted to fulfill her obligations to the EU in order not to cause Poland any problems. This allowed PiS to accuse the government of submitting to the “the diktat of Brussels and Berlin” and to shift the outcome of the election in its favour. Since then, the attitude of Poles towards refugees has remained distrustful, and PiS periodically uses the opportunity to fuel these fears.
The 2015 refugee crisis basically bypassed Poland. Only 2,000 illegal border crossings were recorded along the Polish stretch of the Eastern European route, compared with 1.8 million crossings on all European routes and 800,000 on the Balkan route running through Serbia and Hungary (which was not hindered by the fence built along the entire length of the Hungarian-Serbian border). However, the anti-refugee attitude of Polish society has become one of the foundations of Law and Justice’s power.
The 2021 hybrid conflict with Belarus and the birth of the fear management strategy
The situation from 2015 repeated itself in the summer of 2021 when President Lukashenko, in response to the EU imposing sanctions on Belarus for the hijacking of a plane with the Belarusian oppositionist Raman Pratasevich on board, decided to openly support the cross-border transfer of illegal immigrants. It was also considered to be an act of revenge on Poland, Lithuania and Latvia for their alleged support of peaceful demonstrations against electoral fraud in Belarus in 2020. The Belarusian authorities have set up channels for the transfer of refugees and migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East and Africa across the EU border into Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. In turn, the authorities of these three states have treated this organised transfer as a situation reminiscent of a hybrid war and decided to introduce states of emergency in their border areas with Belarus. Belarus has become perhaps the first case in history where a state has been involved in human smuggling. The entire channel of transfer along the Eastern European route was launched with the consent of the state apparatus (who make money from this activity) and agencies associated with it. In this case they are jointly implementing the specific goals of politically and economically destabilising Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, as well as the entire EU.
From the very beginning, i.e. from August 2021, the PiS government has been pursuing a policy aimed at exploiting the overlapping migration, political and humanitarian crises in the fight for political support.
The message in the government-controlled media is not only directed against the Lukashenko regime. It also serves to create enemies out of the desperate victims of the Belarusian human-smuggling practice. Refugees are denied access to asylum procedures. As human rights organisations have repeatedly proven, the migrants are forcibly removed from the territory of the Republic of Poland, with serious, sometimes fatal, health consequences. For this purpose, Poland uses the so-called push-back procedure, introduced by a regulation incompatible with Polish and international law (that is, with the Constitution of the Republic of Poland, the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child). Only a few of those in need are given the necessary assistance. Official communications attempt to legitimise actual acts of violence and make them appear legal, employing terms such as “turning back to the border” and “defending borders”. During official press conferences with the Minister of the Interior and heads of special services, state authorities dehumanise asylum seekers, for example by displaying obscene images and using language that evokes associations with terrorism.
The decision to seal off access to the border area from the media and aid organisations has caused social distrust and information chaos. Despite repeated calls from the Council of Europe for the humane treatment of refugees, and from the European Commission to cooperate with Frontex, Poland has remained adamant that it will try to solve the problem on its own, violating international conventions. A country really wishing to solve the crisis would reach out for the potential of migration NGOs and the assistance of Frontex, which has experience in dealing with organised people-smuggling and verifying the veracity of declarations asking for international protection. So, the Polish approach does not bring the refugee problem any closer to a solution, but by applying such an unyielding policy, Law and Justice achieves other goals. To understand this well, one should look at what is happening in the border zone covered by the state of emergency.
Inside the zone: the psychological and political effects of escalation
Myself and another sociologist from the University of Warsaw, Dr Sylwia Urbańska, were among the very few representatives of independent institutions who managed to legally enter the state of emergency zone. We were given permission to conduct ethnographic research and interviews with the local population in the zone. We collected the preliminary results in the form of two sociological reports published in Polish political magazine Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique).
The research revealed what the gradual escalation of violence does to people at the border: to refugees, local residents, and members of the uniformed services. The study recorded an accelerating process of traumatisation of locals and newcomers. Feelings of anxiety, the fear of war, as well as Islamophobic and xenophobic attitudes have begun to intensify among the representatives of local communities since the introduction of the state of emergency. Despite the fact that volunteers from aid organisations spread information about the deportations on social media, local residents immediately called the Border Guard at the sight of refugees.
Service personnel themselves were put in a difficult situation. The false dilemma proposed by PiS nationwide was imposed on each of them: either the humane treatment of refugees and migrants or the protection of the border and the interests of the state. On a daily basis soldiers, border guards and police officers have to decide whether they will behave in accordance with the human impulse to help the cold and hungry, or whether to act in accordance with the order to defend the border, which means chasing off frightened refugees (often women, children and the elderly) into the forest and marshland. This situation does not only bring a threat to the health and life of migrants. It also leads to numerous issues among service workers (dissociative disorders, PTSD and other psychological problems, alcohol abuse).
One of the effects of these actions is also a mutual escalation of violence. Repeatedly pushed-back and sometimes robbed, refugees gather in larger and larger groups and try to force their way across the border. The response to this is increasingly aggressive behaviour on the part of uniformed services – the use of tear gas, taser and dogs. In the locations where the research was conducted, group attempts to force the border took place long before global media showed photos from the fights that broke out on 8 and 9 November near the border crossing in Kuźnica.
The mechanisms we observed in the state of emergency zone were then amplified across all of society by the actions of the PiS government. By retaining its monopoly on the reporting of events from the border area (there are no journalists present), the government is offering the public images of young men who, forced by Belarusian officers, are storming the border fences. What they are concealing are images of women and children – the victims of the ongoing powerplay at the border. Polish society, fed with these images conjured up by Belarusian and Polish authorities, is increasingly afraid of war and of being deluged by uncontrolled waves of refugees and migrants. In this atmosphere, 52% of Poles surveyed support the government policy of catching and pushing back to the border refugees who have managed to get to Poland. Nationwide surveys have shown that the strategy adopted by PiS initially bumped up the party’s support in the polls, and is now cushioning its rate of decline (a drop is an effect of the highest inflation rate in the EU).
The solutions proposed by Poland to stabilise the situation stand no chance of success. Its basic tool, in addition to the use of illegal push-backs, is the construction of a Trump and Orban-inspired wall on the border. Migration specialists argue that walls only temporarily limit migration, because smugglers always find other migration channels. There is no way to separate oneself from the outside world. Specialists in political manipulation know that building walls intensifies fear and reduces empathy towards strangers. In politics it also triggers the so-called “to the king” effect, i.e. closing ranks around those currently in power. As it seems, the latter is the most important goal of the activities of the Polish services on the border with Belarus.
Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.