On Thursday, July 9, the European Court of Human Rights judged that Poland had pushed back three Syrian nationals illegally to Belarus. Their case has been before the court since 2017. Poland has been ordered to pay each of the three €10,000 compensation.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg has confirmed that Poland acted illegally when it pushed three Syrian nationals back to Belarus in 2017. The risk of being returned to their home countries from Belarus is high, found the court, and therefore Poland should have taken that into account before refusing entry to these people. The court has ordered Poland to compensate the three plaintiffs €10,000 each.
According to the European Court of Human Rights, the three Syrians, two brothers and the wife of one brother, known as D.A, M.A and S.K. currently reside in Belarus. They were pushed back in 2017 as they tried to cross into Poland from Belarus.
The applicants "allege that the Polish authorities repeatedly denied them the possibility of lodging applications for international protection, that their situation was not reviewed individually and that they were victims of a general policy followed by the Polish authorities aiming at reducing the number of asylum applications registered in Poland."
Their complaint was upheld by the ECHR on Thursday, July 9, reported the German news agency epd. The Polish authorities said that the three Syrians had not asked for protection and had instead declared they wanted to enter the EU "for family reasons."
The Syrians disputed this version of events, saying they made it clear that the two brothers were fleeing the army and that they didn’t feel protected in Belarus as it was threatening to return them to Syria.
Epd reports that the ECHR had also found against Poland in a previous case and judged that Poland did indeed have a "systematic praxis" of misrepresenting the request for protection from potential asylum seekers.
'Pushed back at the door'
The UN refugee agency UNHCR also supports the Syrian’s version of events, reports epd. Back in 2017, when the three were refused protection in Poland, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO working in the region, wrote a report ("Pushed back at the door") about illegal pushbacks at various borders, including the Polish-Belarus one.
In the report, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee found that "NGOs providing assistance to refugees have been observing an increase in the number of reports from individuals who were denied the possibility to apply for international protection at the eastern border crossing point of Poland, in particular in Brest-Terespol, which is a border crossing point between Belarus and Poland."
In 2017, only "two or three families are allowed daily to submit such [an asylum] application," noted the report and the "selection of these families is based on unclear criteria."
According to the report, these issues had been going on for some time. Many of those hoping to cross that border at the time and ask for asylum were of Chechen origin. A complaint was made about the issue in July 2016 and the Polish Ombudsman office then made an unannounced monitoring visit to the border post in Terespol in August 2016.
The Ombudsman visit confirmed cases where "the Border Guard officers did not allow foreigners to apply for international protection despite their clear declarations of an intention to apply for such protection."
Following the Ombudsman’s visit, several NGOs from Poland and Belarus also visited the border post and reported that border guards tended to ask people questions "not necessarily related to the fear of persecution declared by a foreigner trying to apply for international protection."
For instance, the border guard officers were reported to "ask about a foreigner’s professional status in the country of origin, family members living in the other EU Member States, their intention to take up work in Poland, etc."
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee found that this was a "clear attempt to demonstrate that foreign nationals’ motives behind seeking entry to Poland are mainly economic and have nothing to do with persecution."
The figures, says the report, back up this pushback trend. Between January and September 2015 just over 17,000 were refused entry at the Polish-Belarus border. In the same time period the following year these numbers had "quadrupled to 72,528" according to the report. The report cautions that the figures include all foreigners who were refused entry and so it is "impossible to estimate how many of them unsuccessfully tried to apply for international protection ... and were subsequently rejected."
In its judgement, reported epd, the court also noted that its decision comes at a time of growing tension between EU countries and Belarus, following the state hijacking of a Ryanair plane recently. A Ryanair plane was forced to land in the Belarus capital Minsk after Belarusian authorities stated there was a bomb on board, the plane had originally been headed for Lithuania. Two citizens, a Belarusian and a Russian were taken off the plane in Minsk, and have been in detention ever since.
Epd said that according to media reports, more and more people are attempting to cross the border from Belarus to Poland at the moment, some of them from Syria and Iraq. Some reports have speculated that the Belarusian President Alexander Lukaschenko might be attempting to put pressure on the EU by opening these borders in response to the sanctions placed on his regime by the EU.