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Press briefing notes on Poland/Belarus border

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Liz Throssell

Location: Geneva

Date: 21 December 2021

Given the continuing desperate plight of migrants and refugees at the Belarus-Poland border, the UN Human Rights Office is today reiterating its call to both countries to urgently address this appalling situation in line with their obligations under international human rights law and refugee law.

From 29 November to 3 December, a UN Human Rights team visited Poland. We thank the Polish Government for its cooperation and ongoing dialogue, although our team was not granted access to the restricted border area. Belarus regrettably did not accept our request to visit.

During the team's visit, they met Government officials and representatives from civil society, among others, and conducted 24 interviews with 31 people – nine women, one girl, nine men and five families – who had arrived in Poland through Belarus between August and November 2021. Those interviewed described dire conditions on both sides of the border, with no or limited access to food, clean water and shelter, often amid freezing temperatures.

The majority said that, while in Belarus, they had been beaten or threatened by security forces, and also alleged that the Belarusian security forces forced them to cross the border, instructing them when and where to cross, and prevented people from leaving the border area to return to Minsk. Several interviewees said Belarusian security forces had demanded extortionate sums for food and water.

We call on Belarus to conduct full investigations into these disturbing allegations, which include coercion and ill-treatment, and put an immediate end to such practices.

Our team also heard numerous reports of people being immediately and automatically returned to Belarus from Poland, including children and individuals who said they had requested international protection. Recurring practices by the two countries of pushing people up to, or across, the border meant many migrants and refugees the team interviewed had crossed the border multiple times, in both directions.

Under current Polish legislation, people who enter through unofficial border crossings can be immediately returned. We call on Poland to review this legislation and to instead conduct meaningful individual assessments to determine individual protection needs, consistent with the prohibitions in international law of refoulement and of collective expulsions.

Poland also systematically detains those migrants and refugees whom it has not returned to Belarus. Many of those interviewed said they had not been given proper physical and mental health care in detention, and had limited contact with the outside world, including with independent lawyers, human rights monitors and civil society organisations.

We remind Poland that detention should be an exceptional measure of last resort, and only be used for a limited period of time, if at all. Immigration detention of children is never in their best interests. Polish authorities should make use of non-custodial alternatives to detention.

Under Poland's Act on Border Protection, the border area remains restricted. This lack of access for human rights and humanitarian organisations, lawyers and media is deeply concerning. Restricted access has also created a significant information gap, raising concerns regarding transparency and accountability.

The team also heard about the challenging conditions in which those supporting refugees and other migrants -- as well as journalists covering the situation -- are working, including cases of harassment and intimidation.

In an atmosphere dominated by a focus on security and fuelled by anti-migrant narratives, practices and policy choices are being made on both sides that violate the human rights of refugees and migrants. We therefore once again urge Belarus and Poland to ensure that refugees' and migrants' human rights are at the centre of their actions.

We urge the authorities of both countries to allow access to the border areas for human rights and humanitarian actors, journalists, lawyers, as well as civil society representatives, and to stop practices that put refugees and other migrants at risk. They should bolster their accountability mechanisms, including through holding prompt, independent and thorough investigations, to ensure their security forces comply fully with human rights obligations.

We also remind the EU, and EU Member States, of their obligation to uphold human rights at EU external borders, and to ensure that the human rights of migrants are respected and protected in line with international law.

ENDS

For more information and media requests, please contact:

Liz Throssell + 41 22 917 9296 / elizabeth.throssell@un.org or
Rupert Colville + 41 22 917 9767 / rupert.colville@un.org or
Ravina Shamdasani - + 41 22 917 9169 / ravina.shamdasani@un.org

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