Impact of Polish election on asylum seekers and rights defenders

By Maya Fernandez-Powell

Poland is gearing up for its parliamentary election set for October 15. The results could have major consequences for the country during its ongoing border tensions with Belarus and the war in Ukraine.

The ruling right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has chosen irregular migration as the main polarizing campaign issue. The PiS will hold a national referendum on the same day of the election, where voters will be asked, among other questions, if they want to accept, “thousands of illegal immigrants”

The opposition party and activists have criticized the PiS for using the referendum to manipulate the outcome of the election.

“The only purpose [of the referendum] is to mobilize the voters of the ruling party,” said Marta Górczyńska, a human rights lawyer with Warsaw-based NGO the Helsinki Foundation. She described it as a political mechanism to spark fear around migration.

Human Rights First has reported on irregular migration in Poland since 2021, when many refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa began to cross from Belarus into Poland. In June 2023, we published a report on Polish authorities attacking and intimidating human rights defenders who were providing humanitarian and legal aid to refugees at the border.

Polls suggest PiS is leading, and could win a historic third term in office, while the liberal Civic Platform, the main opposition party, is close behind. Neither party looks likely to win an outright majority, making them unable to govern alone. This presents a historic opportunity for the party unexpectedly polling in third place: Confederation, Poland’s far-right alliance.

Confederation has risen from the obscurity to a legitimate political contender. Co-led by Sławomir Mentzen, a 36-year-old tax adviser turned TikTok star, Confederation is successfully targeting Poland’s white male youth. According to an IPsos poll in late June, 40% of young men plan to vote for the far-right party.

Young Poles frustrated with the country’s economic state are drawn to Confederation’s tax-cutting and anti-welfare platform. The party’s emphasis on economics is part of an effort to appear more mainstream and rebrand itself as a “national conservative force.”

Confederation’s policies and recent history suggest otherwise. At a rally in 2019, Mentzen stated that his party was made up of voters who “don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortions, taxes and the European Union.” The party also includes the National Movement and Confederation of the Polish Crown, two smaller far-right parties with ties to violent far-right extremism.

The election’s focus on migration has played to the far-right’s advantage, as Confederation takes even more extreme positions on migration than the ruling party. Confederation is critical of the government’s reception of over a million Ukrainian refugees following the full-scale Russian invasion. Some members have pushed the slogan “Stop the Ukrainization of Poland.”

The consequences of far-right success in Poland would be significant. Human Rights Defenders who provide assistance to asylum seekers are already facing hostility and intimidation from government authorities. Far-right electoral success on October 15 risks increasing the threat to Human Rights Defenders.

Mentzen has previously vowed to never enter an alliance with either of the two main parties, threatening political chaos. If the PiS does enter a coalition with the far-right to lead Poland, policies on irregular migration will likely shift even further to the extreme right. The impacts on asylum seekers and HRDs are already being felt.

“Because of the politicization of the topic of migration, more and more people are, right now, at risk. There are criminal cases, there is a very strict detection policy for those who manage to cross the border and enter asylum proceedings, and at the same time there is a lot of hostile and even hate speech in the public sphere, in the media, and among politicians,” said Górczyńska.


Published on October 13, 2023


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