Thirty-two Afghan refugees have been trapped at gunpoint for four weeks now by the Polish border guards, military and police without clean water nor access to a doctor on the border with Belarus in Usnarz Górny. Moreover, the Polish state has introduced a state of emergency on the border against the refugees. Why is this singular situation on the Polish-Belarussian border of such enormous significance to Poland, Europe and the wider world? This expulsion and simultaneous non-admission of refugees has mobilised the full xenophobic and anti-humanitarian ideology of two states that have no shame in creating a new concentration camp all’improvviso. Engaged activists try to provide fundamental help—in vain. The police, army, and border guards prevent any humanitarian action.
It turns out that this very same borderland was the location of a similar crisis at the beginning of World War II, when refugees from occupied Poland to the USSR also found themselves trapped on a narrow strip of no man’s land. As the professor of history, Jan Tomasz Gross explained, the masses of refugees, mainly Polish Jews, were blocked by Soviet soldiers, who prevented them from entering the territory they occupied, while the German troops blocked their return to the Poland they had occupied. With no livelihood, no shelter, and in similar weather, people waited for salvation, which eventually came when the Soviets finally let in the crowds of exhausted refugees. Today’s situation is in many respects similar to that described above.
This policy of so-called ‘pushback’ against refugees, that is the proud insignia of right-wing regimes in Europe, the UK and beyond, is creating a ring of new concentration camps (Pitzer, 2017) on borders and coastlines around Europe. It divides the population of these countries into civilian rescuers and state-sponsored abusers. It re-introduces the tragic dilemma of the twentieth century: who has the moral strength to act as ‘the righteous among the nations,’ to recognise the needs of others, to save a life and thereby all humanity.
The Polish state has found it easy to recruit a new paramilitary to threaten vulnerable parts of the population. At last you can dress up in camouflage and pretend to be a hero, to identify with those whom you have worshipped for years, the anti-communist ‘outlaw soldiers.’ Life becomes vivid when you are licensed to attack the colourful trash, the rainbow activists, hysterical leftists and emotional human rights defenders. Order will be imposed, law will be established. Europe will be defended from a flood of refugees…
The fact that the enemy is small, skinny, malnourished and sick, lying on the ground and shaking with terror is not important. It means nothing that the enemy is a small child staring at the faceless giants who encircle his family with menacing eyes and bright weapons. The same weapons they have been fleeing from for days and months. For years. There are no officials to prepare asylum seekers documents, only soldiers in full combat gear.
The right to apply for refugee status has been violated, and these refugees are outside the law. They are not protected. They can be flung across the border, beaten, and thrown into the dismal swamps that constitute this border zone. They can be held at gunpoint for twenty days without food, drink or shelter. One does not have to be a specialist in genocide or a historian of World War II to recognise that the war is not over for those that ask for help. They are running from war, but more war greets them, and this assault reached its next stage on September 1, 2021 in Poland.
The state has called this war a ‘state of emergency.’ That makes it possible to seal the border and impose order on the zone. The intention that underlies this action is to sow fear in Polish society, to create the fiction that the country is threatened by a flood of refugees. Polls demonstrate the success of this toxic propaganda. The majority support the state even though few have ever seen a refugee in their life. This may seem paradoxical but historians of anti-semitism and racism are well aware of this phenomenon which occurs in its most extreme form precisely where the presence of the stigmatised population is at its smallest.
This recalls Everett C. Hughes essay of 1962, ”Good People and Dirty Work.” In it the author demonstrates how such situations occur, and shows how it was possible for the S.S. to have “perpetrated and boasted of the most colossal and dramatic piece of social dirty work the world has ever known.” (Hughes 1962:3) Hughes pointed out the role of silent majority, ordinary “good people” who desired to see the “Jewish problem” resolved. That division of society between people who are performing dirty work (soldiers) and “good people,” who are not personally involved in dirty work and refuse to know how it is being performed, by their passivity, makes such horrible crimes possible.
Today we face a similar situation.
The ‘good people’ don’t want refugees and are happy for someone else to clean them up. Those delegated cleaning duties are soldiers obeying orders. Those who give the orders do so in the knowledge of social support. The good people never need to see the refugees, they know nothing about them, and feel relieved when the problem is solved.
Above all, the state of emergency makes it possible to eliminate the witnesses of what is happening. Citizens of Poland will be removed: activists, journalists and MPs, doctors and clergy, all of whom exercise their democratic rights, are trying to gather around the security cordon but are denied the chance to help the refugees. The rest of society learns what is happening mainly from the official media, which confines itself to the false narrative of “foreign migrants” who seek an easy life in Poland and threaten our security.
Poland is a free country that lives in peace, and these people will die in our country because they are denied our support. They will die because even a healthy person, when deprived of food, shelter and clean water will eventually die. This will be no accident, no coincidence and no bad luck. It will be the result of deliberate actions, and a conscious strategy that has played out over the past month. These are the decisions of many people that have passed through the hierarchy of government and been meticulously maintained. This is the deliberate denial of requests for help, deliberate starvation and deliberate abuse of those who are begging us to save their lives. Incoherent decision for claiming support of Catholic values government (in Poland, the Roman Catholic Church enjoys enormous political power, the concordat, a special alliance with the Vatican, was signed in 1993 and in a 2011 survey by CBOS, in Poland 95% of participants declared that they are Catholic).
Many European countries share this strategy and anti-refugee propaganda has been exceptionally effective. Since the majority of the electorate is believed to be hostile towards the refugees, politicians have adopted a so-called ‘securitarian’ vision, and now talk of the need to seal the EU’s borders.
But how European is this policy? Is contemporary and xenophobic Lublin more European than 16thcentury Lublin in which many nationalities, faiths and ethnicities mingled freely? To be oneself, does one reject the other, or embrace the other?
To be European is to extend hospitality to those who are considered other, or foreign, or needy, or suffering persecution and war. To those with whom we share our humanity.
Hospitality is a secular as well as a religious virtue. It is advocated in the sacred texts of many cultures: in the Hebrew Torah and the New Testament, in the Koran, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and the Greek epics; also in Japanese culture (omotenashi), as well as Polish culture, the Pan Tadeusz, the national epic poem by Mickiewicz, that begins with an invocation of hospitality as a high virtue:
The gate wide open stands and to strangers attests
Guests are welcome, and all invited as guests
The great thinkers of Europe, from Immanuel Kant through Franz Rosenweig and Emmanuel Levinas, to Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Zygmunt Bauman and Julia Kristeva all elaborate the ethical basis of hospitality. These profound reflections were animated by the liminal experience of WWII and the Holocaust.
‘Pushbacks’—the repulsion of refugees requesting refugee status by Frontex and other border guards—is not a new practice. It has already occurred on the southern and western borders of the EU. However, the situation on the Polish/Belorussian border is unprecedented because of the attempt by the authorities to legalise this crime.
Previous pushbacks were regarded by authorities as anomalies, accidents or reprehensible acts by border guards. Public opinion in Western Europe has strongly criticised such brutal treatment, such as occurred near the French-Italian crossing of Ventimiglia. While such incidents are frequent and occur with the tacit support of governments, they are supposed to happen discreetly, out of sight and far from witnesses.
In Poland, pushbacks have acquired a new character. It has become something else, more like encirclement than simple expulsion. This has permitted the heart-rending spectacle of the slow degradation of the health of 32 hostages of two national powers, both of whom are playing the same game. This situation is being overseen by new legislation that is illegal in the light of Polish and international law, but no one cares about this juridical contradiction. The orders are to ‘give no aid,’ and to ‘give no food.’ The law has created a façade of legality to hide the crime of murder. Given the law, the soldiers know what their orders are.
Can the refugees tell the difference between the soldiers? Perhaps they can, as sometimes they receive dry bread from one side and not the other. Only the Belarussians have leavened the cruelty with small acts of mercy when they permitted access to the Red Cross and UNHCR shortly before the state of emergency was proclaimed.
This atrocious situation appears to confirm Stanley Milgram’s research, conducted in the 1960s, to examine the response of ordinary people to authority. In laboratory conditions people were tested for their capacity to inflict suffering on a designated and unknown person. The results were terrifying: those given the order carried it through without difficulty or qualm, and inflicted more and more pain on the victims. The difference is that in this case these are not actors playing the role of victims, but 32 real people. The famous exercise in social psychology is being enacted in vivo.
‘And when a foreigner dwells with you, in our country do not oppress him! Like any native among you there shall be a foreigner dwelling with you, and you shall love him as yourself…’
(From Leviticus, as translated into Polish by Rabbi Cylkow)
Until the 1st of September the situation on the border was followed by the media. The situation of encircled refugees in this trap—as a play in the game run by politicians—was in the eyes of the whole country. It is reminiscent of the famous movie— Le prix du danger (1983) based on the novel (The Prize of Peril) published in 1958 (there is an American version of this movie—Running Man). Society followed this horrible situation through the media, in which no one could help and save 32 people because they were encircled by soldiers. It was a horrible spectacle of cruelty.
On the 2nd of September, all people who were not permanent residents in the border zone according to emergency law were evacuated—journalists included. From that moment we have no more news about 32 encircled people. We also have no more news about other groups of refugees (families with small children included) who were lucky to be rescued by activists, but instead of being placed in the center for refugees during the time of processing the asylum requests, the soldiers abandoned them in deep wild forest, with orders to leave Poland immediately.
Today, we do not know what happened to them. As we will not know what will happen to 32 encircled people—some of whom are in a critical condition.
We will not find out which person died first. We will not be given the opportunity to see what is called in the language of bullfighting ‘la mise a mort.’ We won’t see whether the corpses are taken away on stretchers, one by one or all together, in a wheelbarrow or in plastic bags. We won’t see whether others, caught in the surrounding villages, were corralled into the place of execution. The last act will take place beyond our cameras and computer screens. “Dirty work” will be done far from our eyes.
‘Of hospitality do not forget, for by this it has escaped the notice of some that they have hosted the heralds (angels)…’
(From the New Testament, in an interlinear translation into Polish by Remigiusz Popowski and Michal Wojciechowski)
The 32 stranded people have tested our fitness: the vitality of civil society, our sensitivity to the injustice suffered by others, the degree of our dehumanisation and submission to authority. We gave our consent and we looked away.
Where are the righteous?
Izabela Wagner (PhD EHESS-Paris) is an ethnographer and interactionist who investigates the professional trajectories of artists, musicians and scientists in the laboratories, focusing on creative careers, intellectual migrations and recently forced migration. She is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw and a Fellow at the French Collaborative Institute on Migrations (2018–2021, 2021–2025) inParis .Wagner is the author of Bauman: a Biography (Polity, 2020), Producing Excellence: The Making of Virtuosos(Rutgers University Press 2015), and Becoming Transnational Professional (Scholar, 2011 in Polish). Her books have been translated into Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Polish.
Tomek Kitlinskistudied with H. Cixous and J. Kristeva. He is an academic, author, and activist. He lectured at Curie University in Lublin for more than 20 years and was a Fulbright scholar at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at The New School. After intimidation in Poland and due to his academic record, he has become a New University in Exile Consortium and Academy in Exile fellow at the Freie Universitaet Berlin.
Angus Reid, (B.A. Hons, Oxon; MSc) writes, paints and makes films and performances. He has won Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival. He lives and works in Scotland. www.angusreid.co.uk.