Despite its tough public rhetoric, the Polish government might turn out to be more flexible behind closed doors regarding the New Pact, to prevent embarrassing defeats on issues that are far more important from a domestic policy point of view, such as the rule of law.
This commentary is part of our dossier on the New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.
Poland, as part of the central-European Visegrád group, has consistently and uncompromisingly resisted any distribution and hosting policy of refugees managed at European level since 2015 – and hence suffered a defeat before the European Court of Justice in spring 2020. The New Pact on Migration and Asylum was eagerly awaited to overcome the deadlock in European migration and asylum policy. In his initial reaction, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stressed that the Visegrád group’s position on migration was unchanged.
Just as the Visegrád group had always strenuously rejected what it saw as compulsory distributions (of migrants reaching southern Europe), it now began insisting on fundamental rules that absolutely must be complied with. First and foremost, the strictest possible border controls should be provided and assistance given to the areas from which potential migrants may be able to reach Europe.
Tough Rhetoric of the Polish Government
The Polish government’s motto seems to be “If you don’t let them in in the first place, deporting them isn’t a problem”. The message continues: “We are happy to help, but it only makes sense to do so in regions problems exist and only then if it reduces the migration pressure on Europe”. This suggests that Poland is not particularly optimistic about the potential of migration in the field of democracy and the labour market (read: EU Blue Card) referred to in the Commission’s proposal.
President Andrzej Duda then stated his position on national television far less diplomatically: “if somebody wants to come to us, then please. If they need help, Poles will be prepared to help them. But I will not agree to transport people to Poland by force, because if they are brought here against their will and have to remain here, then they will have to be detained and I will never agree to free people being brought to Poland and us being forced to lock them up”.
The Polish Institute for International Affairs (PISM), a think tank close to the government, suggested that bolstering border control efforts certainly meets Poland’s demands. At the same time, however, the de facto forcible hosting of refugees whose asylum procedures cannot be concluded within the allotted period (of eight months, or four in a crisis situation) is a cause for concern. It remains to be seen how the Polish government will ultimately position itself. The “compulsory solidarity”, as Morawiecki calls it, with the option to either take refugees from other EU member states or be obliged to take responsibility for deporting persons with no entitlement to asylum, is unlikely to be much to the taste of the Visegrád group, even without EU refugee redistribution quotas.
Yet there have not yet been any signals pointing to a categorical rejection. It cannot be ruled out, therefore, that despite its tough public rhetoric, the Polish government might turn out to be more flexible behind closed doors, so as to avoid the possibility of embarrassing defeats on other fronts that are far more important from a domestic policy point of view (particularly on the matter of the rule of law).
It should also be borne in mind that migration and asylum has massively decreased in importance in Poland as political leverage since 2018 and the PiS is currently looking to maintain its hegemony in public discourse with matters of a more ideological and socio-political nature, such as the witch hunt against the LGBT community and anti-gender issues.
Low media coverage and restrained reactions from civil society
The media response to the new proposal has so far been relatively restrained. Serious media sources continue to report on the situation on the Greek islands and other rescue missions in the Mediterranean, but these are sporadic contributions to the debate. This was recently the case with the emotional appeal issued by well-known non-government organisations working, among each other, with the Union of Polish Metropolises. This alliance of cities has spoken out many times in the past in favour of hosting and integrating Syrian refugees, amongst others, but these initiatives have stumbled over resistance from the central government in Warsaw.
Even the positive signals coming from the senior echelons of the Catholic Church – usually a faithful ally of the government Law and Justice party (PiS) – did not help. Ultra-conservative fora were spending more time on the question of whether PiS was not in fact letting in Muslims, whom they have depicted as public enemy number one, thereby stoking fears among the population by the back door.
As has been clear for some time from research by NGOs, media and the ombudsman for civil rights, the Polish border police, for instance on the border with Belarus – a transit route for Muslim refugees coming from the Caucasus– have for years, and contrary to international law, received very few asylum applications from entitled persons or documented their applications insufficiently.
People seeking international protection are therefore forced to endure weeks in a country that works closely with the state (the Russian Federation) in which they suffered human rights abuses. In the first three quarters of 2019, there were a total of 2,900 applications for international protection (most from citizens of the Russian Federation), of which just 217 were granted. The reactions of civil society organisations and individuals supporting refugees’ rights in the country to the Commission’s proposal ranged from restrained to concerned; mistrust of their own government has remained high since PiS began its anti-asylum campaigns in 2015.
Although NGOs welcomed the Commission’s positive rhetoric concerning the civilisation value of migration, the document’s emphasis on effectiveness and restricting access to the EU’s external borders went down less well. In line with the statement of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, there is a general fear that individual rights will be progressively less taken into account – and also that the situation of refugees already in the EU, some of whom are being housed in degrading conditions, will continue to be neglected.
As Poland under no circumstances wishes to host any refugees, there is the concern that a long list of so-called safe third countries will further restrict access to asylum and Poland will specialise in speedy deportations, which will make a sufficiently qualified assessment of the circumstances of individual asylum seekers even less likely. Many people who have fled persecution, particularly those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, already struggle to set out and document their concerns to border officials in sufficient detail.
In view of the many reasonable doubts as to the state of the rule of law in Poland, furthermore, it would be very naive of Polish NGOs to trust an independent control mechanism set out in an asylum and migration pact. It is also to be feared that a restrictive asylum policy could encourage the right wing to go for easy votes by spouting anti-foreign rhetoric, along the lines of: any foreigner coming to Poland cannot by definition be an asylum seeker and has therefore no right to be here.
No downward spiral of standards
With regard to possible proposed amendments in the ongoing consultation process, Polish organisations would welcome the increased integration efforts – an area in which Poland does not compare well to its fellow member states – and the need to guarantee human living conditions and the international rights of refugees during the asylum process, including legal assistance and full access to healthcare. Above all, a downward spiral of standards must be avoided. Pushing back asylum and so-called return procedures to the borders brings concerns that applicants will be locked up (with particular regard to minors).
The EU is, moreover, expected to take responsibility for sea rescue missions in the Mediterranean and to refrain from using other EU policies (such as development, trade and investment) to bring pressure to bear on third countries. Instead, the opportunity of legal entry to the EU should be expanded and made more transparent.