New Polish government, similar border policies
In its October 15, 2023 parliamentary election, Polish voters brought an end to eight years of right-wing nationalist rule under the Law and Justice Party and ushered in a center-right coalition government formed around Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform.
Human Rights First followed the election with an eye toward Poland’s migration policies and the government’s respect for the work of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) there.
We have reported on 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 reported on Polish authorities attacking and intimidating HRDs who were providing humanitarian and legal aid to refugees at the border.
Before last October’s election, we wrote about the potential impact of the Polish election on asylum seekers and HRDs.
In the buildup to the election, Tusk criticized the Law and Justice Party for their cruelty and lawlessness on issues like migration. HRDs welcomed the exit of the xenophobic and right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party. So far, however, Tusk’s government is leaving HRDs in Poland disappointed, particularly because they have seen little progress from the new government on humane border solutions.
For an update on the election’s impact on the ongoing migrant crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border, I spoke with Marta Górczyńska, a human rights lawyer with Warsaw-based NGO the Helsinki Foundation. Górczyńska accepted Human Rights First’s William D. Zabel Human Rights Award in 2022 on behalf of Grupa Granica, a network of activists helping those at the Poland-Belarus border.
“It’s been six weeks since the new government was formed, and we have seen no changes so far,” said Górczyńska. “In general, things have not changed since last summer when Human Rights First was at the border.”
There have been some slight improvements since the ousting of the Law and Justice Party. For example, the new deputy minister of the Ministry of the Interior and Administration, Maciej Duszczyk, is a researcher with expertise in migration.
In stark contrast to the Law and Justice Party, the new government is also engaging with HRDs. “I see a spark of hope,” said Górczyńska. “With the consultations that are going to take place, we might be able to design new solutions to the situation at the border.”
The government has yet to act on the suggestions and demands of HRDs.
One major concern is the criminalization of HRDs providing humanitarian aid to migrants at the border. While Polish courts have consistently upheld that providing humanitarian aid is legal, Górczyńska stressed, “the problem is that there are still criminal cases pending against Human Rights Defenders. And we are not sure what the new government will do about it.”
Under the new government, Polish authorities continue to push back migrants at the border. “Pushbacks can never be humanitarian in any sense. We need to have procedures for every person crossing the border,” said Górczyńska.
Despite small signs of hope and the Polish government’s increased engagement with civil society, HRDs remain concerned and skeptical.
With the European Parliament elections taking place in June, Górczyńska expects migration to be a central topic in Polish parties’ campaigns.
“I am still worried that even with this new government, there is a tendency for populism when it comes to migration. It’s an easy card to play.”