Held hostage to one’s values


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March 11, 2023

Held hostage to one’s values

On the responsibility to refugees at the Belarusian-Polish border

  • Belarus
  • border
  • Poland
  • Refugees
  • Ukraine
Photo: Irek Dorozanski

What are Poles’ attitudes towards refugees? 2021 and 2022 witnessed the emergence of two strikingly different border regimens along the eastern border of Poland. Those crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border were offered faster border checks and supportive infrastructure, as well as a warm welcome, encouraged by the rhetoric of dignity and proximity. The border crossing from Belarus into Poland saw brutal blockades, racialization of non-European refugees and rapid border militarization. 

As a result of these actions, the Polish-Belarusian border crossing has been, since mid-2021, one of the world’s many border zones where people get sick and die under the watchful eye of the state. Vulnerability and deaths occurring at state borders have been normalized — they came to be seen as a regular and acceptable outcome of migration policy. In view of the fact that these refugees seek asylum in Poland, forcing them back into a life-threatening environment is against the principles of both the Constitution of Poland and the Geneva Conventions. 

A limit situation

In practical terms, we are dealing with an illegal response to an act of illegal border crossing. However, there is no symmetry between the two in terms of their unlawfulness. State authorities deliberately and systematically put human life in jeopardy, whereas refugees feel they have no alternative but to violate so-called border integrity; they are unlikely to be allowed into Poland at a regular border checkpoint. Those coming to Europe have fled wars in Syria and Yemen, long-time misery in Jordan’s refugee camps with their container homes, persecution in Afghanistan or hunger in Sudan and Ethiopia. Faced with a choice between the European land and sea borders, they opt for a seemingly safer crossing through the forest. Up to a certain point during the crossing, they can count on support from the Belarusian authorities. Playing hot potato with the refugees at the border has particularly drastic consequences around winter. At that time of the year, the local geography, including landscape and weather, takes its toll on migrants. Hypothermic, often injured after having climbed over the border fence, the refugees end up hopelessly trapped in the midst of Białowieża forest where the ground goes from water-logged to frozen. 

Drawing lines: where do the narrative and solidarity end? 

These basic and well-known facts serve as a very general reminder of what has been going on at the Polish-Belarusian border. However, jogging the public’s memory has become something of an issue. There are three reasons for this. First, it is hard to keep providing meaningful news updates, if the facts are well-known and have remained unchanged for a dozen or so months, with one key difference: the number of victims increasing. That said, this difficulty with finding a new way to talk about a permanent crisis cannot serve as an excuse for ditching any attempts at communicating the problem to the public. We no longer believe that reporting on the humanitarian crisis (which started in 2015) in a war-torn Yemen makes any sense. Struck by extreme weather, South Sudan is way too far for the news reports from this country to get our attention. 

Secondly, pushbacks at the Polish border provide a perfect example of the echo chamber effect. The topic is regularly brought up, if not flogged to death, only in this part of the Polish society who accept this knowledge. In a polarised public sphere, the target audience of governmental media outlets is unaware of the developments at the border. Alternatively, it shows little concern upon accidentally finding out that “something is still going on at the border”. 

Thirdly, solidarity has its limits. We should be realistic about it. As much as we try to wave away the word “crisis”, there is no denying that we are currently confronted with a growing number of serious challenges, both locally (breaches of the rule of law) and globally, including migration, climate change, inflation, the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine. Water pours in from all sides; short-handed and slow off the mark, we are struggling to plug the holes. In uncertain times, gravitating towards the groups to which we feel the greatest loyalty, based for example on shared religion or ethnicity, is a natural defence mechanism typical for many societies, not just the Polish one. Not to mention the fact that during the pandemic we were literally advised to lock down. The pandemic prompted the need to redefine the concept of “home”: where and what it is, who belongs to it and under what conditions. As Ivan Krastev pointed out, increased selectivity of our response to the issue of migration and the shrinking of space for solidarity are both by-products of the pandemic. This selective approach has been actively encouraged by political fearmongers and their warnings against strangers. At the same time, the sense of helplessness in the face of global challenges brought out the limits of universalism. 

Global issues at Poland’s door

The events in the borderland, i.e. in Białowieża, Narewka and Siemianówka, unfold just over 200 kilometres away from Warsaw, on the territory of Poland. We tend to push them aside on a daily basis, but the faraway conflicts, consequences of climate change and hunger, have hit close to home. They took the form of refugees on our doorstep. What happens to these people once they have made it to the “safe” side (after years of turbulent history, Poland is  eventually seen as a safe haven)? Whose responsibility are they? 

A few of the refugees were buried in the Muslim cemetery for Polish Tatars in the border village of Bohoniki. Among almost 40 fatalities (and dozens of missing persons) resulting from pushbacks are also Christian refugees. Some of the migrants had been kept for months in detention centres for foreigners that are not much different from prisons. Thousands of refugees have crossed the border and reached their families or friends in Western Europe. They are left with horrible memories of an extreme experience, the time spent hiding in the forest from aggressive guards from both sides of the border, violence and multiple attempts to climb the fence or cross the river. We are left with what remained of their camps, soaked jackets and empty cartons of baby milk; in short, traces of a criminalized human presence. 

I could write at length about the financial and environmental costs of the construction and maintenance of a fence that is 180 kilometres long and five metres high. Instead, I shall focus on human costs. Physical barriers were erected in Greece, Austria, Hungary, Lithuania and the USA, among others, not to mention the separation walls built in Israel and Pakistan as a security precaution. The number of the world’s walls and fences designed to keep migrants out is now close to 80, with more of them being erected as we speak. Migration researchers have been exploring the effectiveness of a fence as a barrier to migration. While reducing the flow of migrants, it does nothing to stop it. Instead, it contributes to more injuries among refugees, encourages abuse from smugglers and the humiliation of another human being. Case in point: a refugee ended up hanging upside down on the border fence, his foot hooked on the razor wire. Instead of helping him, Polish border guards, later followed by some media outlets, made fun of the man. Whoever manages to cross the fence, is forced to hide in the Białowieża Forest’s wetlands, as if they were wild game. Everyone is illegal in the forest’s “no visitors allowed” area. Outside that zone, only those with darker complexion or suspicious facial hair are hunted down like animals. 

Border ethnicization and moralisation

Expected to ease our guilty conscience, a popular belief has it that there are real refugees and there are fake ones. Consequently, not everyone deserves to be rescued. As if some people were not human enough. No amount of mental gymnastics can change the fact that the discourse of “merit” boils down to the skin colour and as such is one of the elements of biopolitics. The war in Ukraine continues, so do the wars in Yemen and Syria. Those who keep on bringing up the argument about economic migrants should cast the first stone if nobody in their families had ever left their homeland to seek a better life abroad.  

Next to an economic argument, the issue of a security threat has often been raised. Many ask, with alarm, “Why are migrants from Syria and Yemen predominantly young males?” To find out, we only need to listen to refugees and explore their literature. In her autobiography “The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria”, a Syrian journalist Samar Yazbek recalls the reaction of older women to the evacuation: “The elderly grandmother was angry and hadn’t wanted to leave her home. There were tears in Ayouche’s eyes. She told me that she hadn’t wanted to leave her home either, to become a refugee. She would have preferred to die with dignity. Displacement stripped us of dignity. Better to die in our homes.” As a historian specialized in the refugeedom of Polish Jews, I can confirm that such reactions of elderly persons can be found in the majority of the first-hand testimonies of refugees participating in the great exodus in the autumn of 1939. The above is just one of the many reasons why young men are more likely to leave their homeland during such conflicts. They do it also in a bid to flee a fratricidal war or, being physically the fittest in the family, to pave the way for their relatives. If these men arrive at the border unshaved and dirty, they are perceived as a future burden. If they happen to have fancy smartphones and nice jackets, they are not thought of as people in need. One cannot but quote from Robert K. Merton, an author of a classical sociological formula: damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t (1948).

According to Dirk Moses, bringing up the argument of a potential threat is a proven strategy in legitimizing selective violence. A person is subjected to violence not because we do not like them, but because they might constitute a threat. An analogy can be drawn between the Jews in the Third Reich or kulaks (wealthy peasants) in the Soviet Union, both perceived as a “permanent threat” in their respective countries, and Muslims today, so often equated with potential terrorists. It is their alleged unusual propensity for violence, and not geopolitics, that is believed to be the source of conflicts that they flee from. While the young people flocking to Europe are not responsible for wars and hunger in their native lands, they stand no chance against local dictators and global powers involved in chaos. These powers bear the bulk of responsibility for the suffering and deaths of the victims of such conflicts, including refugees. Still, does it absolve us, passively condoning deaths at the border of our own countries?

The hypocrisy of migration policies

In one likely scenario, we should assume the following: had it not been for the border wall and determination of Polish border guards, the President of Belarus would have most likely intensified the migration traffic in the corridor cutting through the Białowieża forest. What we are dealing with is an instrumental use of refugees in order to destabilize the political situation in the European Union by playing on economic and cultural fears. The concerns in question are being played out also by – note a paradox – the government of a country that has been among the most pro-migration in Europe over the past decade. In 2018 Poland emerged as the country which accepted the highest number of immigrants of all European states, Germany included. The vast majority of Ukrainians who found jobs in Poland were not classified as war refugees despite the fact that they fled from a war-torn country. Still, Poland opened its doors to them. Before the Covid-19 pandemic pushed the country into crisis, the Polish government had not only recruited workers from a culturally and geographically close Ukraine, but also from the faraway Asian countries. 

Meanwhile, the fears that are spread whenever a migrant is a refugee are played out based on uncertainty as to whether the newcomers are willing to adapt to the local work culture, laws and customs in European countries. Nothing easier than to use these misgivings and unknowns, as well as racist conspiracy theories (such as The Great Replacement), as ideological fuel for elections. This would explain the EU’s reluctance to explicitly condemn the measures adopted by Poland at the Polish-Belarusian border. The attitude towards Ukrainian refugees is completely different, yet the same economic, cultural and, let us not forget, racist factors play the part. In 2022, after having been shelved for two decades, the European Temporary Protection Directive was implemented for the first time in the EU’s history. The European community made that decision in response to the influx of refugees from Ukraine. With elections around the corner, topics such as a humanitarian border with Belarus or open detention centres for foreigners are not strongly featured in election policy platforms of Polish political parties (The Greens are the only exception). 

Death as a side effect

Tragically, refugees are used as an instrument of political warfare between the two parties to the Polish-Belarusian conflict. While not an end in itself, their deaths and suffering are the side effects of safeguarding a country’s territorial sovereignty, in the way it is understood by the governing party. That said, such consequences, albeit unintended, can be easily predicted. Who does not intend to cause the death of others yet accepts, if not contributes to, conditions conducive to it and does not try to prevent it is morally guilty. Damage turns into harm whenever an accident or mistake could have been prevented, yet no deliberate attempt to do so has been made. 

Refugees have been used as pawns in the hybrid war waged by Belarus. Is the sacrifice of their lives acceptable to us just because we are fighting a defensive and thus a “juster” war?  If the war metaphor seems a bit far-fetched, particularly in view of a real war in Ukraine, let us use instead other terms, such as Mark Leonard’s unwar and unpeace; both have been increasingly used to define many of the international relations. Are the lives of dozens of refugees turned into human shields an adequate price to pay for thwarting far-reaching “attack” plans of a Belarusian dictator? According to military conflict theorists such as Michael Walzer, in a situation of a just war, a sacrifice of innocent victims is required only if there is no other way to counter the threat.

What lurks round a u-bend?

It may seem that a humanitarian approach has become a soft spot in the Western morality, making the Western countries vulnerable. Unscrupulous individuals can easily take advantage of it. It can be used to trigger international conflicts. The West is not the only region in the world whose economy allows for providing support to refugees. The same can be said about many Arab countries, yet they have never been blackmailed over refugees. Under such circumstances, a systemic rejection of moral principles may appear as a reasonable strategy to keep things under control.  

As a historian, I cannot but think of the late 1930s, when the Western world started to close its borders to refugees. People fleeing Nazis were denied entry and turned away at the border, such as the passengers of the St. Louis. Then, as now, the Western countries used an economic and security threat as an excuse. The Polish borderlands have seen similar developments in the past, too. In the autumn and winter of 1939, Polish refugees were trapped along the German-Soviet demarcation line. Remains of those who drowned or froze to death are scattered across the nearby woodland and fields. They mostly belong to Polish Jews who got stuck in the border zone due to the blockades on both sides and multiple pushbacks, usually involving crossing of the Bug river. Same as before, albeit for different purposes, Poland’s eastern border and landscape are now used to torture people on the move. At that time, however, Polish authorities were not the ones to blame.

 “We were just following orders”, wrote a Polish columnist Witold Bereś in his essay entitled “The Ship of Fools: Poor Poles Look at Usnarz”, published in 2021. This is what he expected the border guards, now involved in the pushbacks, to say in the future in their defence. Historical analogies are obvious in a country so strongly stigmatized by the Second World War; since the beginning of the blockade at the Polish-Belarusian border, they have been repeatedly brought up by the authors familiar with this chapter in Polish history. There are as many similarities as there are differences between the current developments and what happened during the Second World War. It seemed that the European societies have left this u-bend of history well behind them. They claimed that they had learned their lesson on the dangers of indifference. Michael Rothberg offers a new perspective on the familiar categories of victim and perpetrator. According to his proposal, so-called bystanders or indifferent observers are in fact implicated subjects, being participants of a social formation encouraging violence. Systemic responsibility is the sum of individual responsibilities. 

Compassion makes us more vulnerable. Compared to such global players as Russia, China or the countries in the Persian Gulf region, we have become hostages to our own values. That said, what alternative is there to this entrapment (as a decent person)? What awaits us around another u-bend? Much depends on what path we choose to take. We can continue being implicated in the deaths of refugees on Polish land and European seas. Or we could make a joint effort to develop principles of a new Solidarity based on long-codified human rights. We do not have to follow the utopian vision of a “global citizen” (or, to quote Iris Marion Young, a “universal citizenship”). Instead, we could talk pragmatically about a necessary, yet humanitarian border regime; after all, borders are there also to protect us from the right-wing populist surge. The opening of Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015 has contributed to the consolidation of populist parties in many Western European countries. It is impossible to ignore the fact that fear of poorly protected borders and migration strengthens the right-wing fringes of the political spectrum and is an important catalyst for the popularity of populist movements. In the long term, this situation could threaten European cohesion and social peace. The (still) ruling politicians on the other side of the parliamentary spectrum in Western European countries are increasingly calling for a new, more realistic and systematic approach to migration policy. A significant and collective intellectual effort is needed so that borders cease to be a weak point in Western morality. So that they cease to be a tool of moral blackmail and an instrument of violence against people seeking a chance for a normal life.

We need to further the discussion on the extent of refugee admissions and their integration. To implement these processes in a respectful manner so that they generate fewer inequalities and less resentment. We must not forget the privileges rooted in the colonial past of the Western world to which we now belong; nor should we ignore the present sources of global problems, which spring from our pursuit of modernity and our lifestyle. A hard path to take, the current Western morality of human rights does not guarantee happiness. But Europe and the United States of America renounced it in the past and are right to feel ashamed to this day. They promised they would never do it again.

Lidia Zessin-Jurek is a historian, and researcher of memory (Holocaust, Gulag) and refugee movements in East Central Europe, with the focus on Poland. She is a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the ERC-Project “Unlikely Refuge? Refugees and citizens in East-Central Europe in the 20th century.”

The Polish version of the text was published in March on the Badaczki i Badacze na Granicy website, and the Italian version by Micromega Edizioni.


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