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Below, we are publishing an excerpt from the original report released by Amnesty International on April 11, 2022. The full document can be accessed here.

The rapid relief effort at the border, exceptional generosity of civil society and willingness of Polish authorities to receive people fleeing from Ukraine contrast starkly with the Polish government’s hostility toward refugees and migrants who have arrived in the country via Belarus since July 2021. Hundreds of people who crossed from Belarus have been arbitrarily detained in Poland in appalling conditions and without access to a fair asylum proceeding. Many have been forcibly returned to their countries of origin, some under sedation. In addition, hundreds of people remain stranded inside Belarus and face increasingly desperate conditions. They are unable to access asylum proceedings and protection either in Poland, where they face repeated violent pushbacks by the Polish Border Guard, or in Belarus, where authorities have forcibly returned many people to their countries of origin, without a fair process. These practices are in violation of international law and the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returns to places where individuals would face a real risk of serious human rights violations.

People who remain in Belarus, whether stranded in towns and cities or trapped in the forests, are victims of beatings and other abuses by Belarusian border guards and other authorities. The outbreak of war in Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions on Belarus has exacerbated an already desperate situation for those stranded and unable to return to their countries. In March 2022, Belarusian authorities cleared the makeshift camp in Bruzgi, which left close to 700 people, including many young children and people with severe illnesses and disabilities, without shelter and support. That action triggered another, albeit smaller, wave of arrivals into Poland.

Despite their dire situation and heightened risk of exposure to serious human rights violations, refugees and migrants in Belarus have been denied access to Polish territory or basic humanitarian assistance. Many are traumatized and exhausted after their months-long ordeal on the border. Polish Border Guards have routinely ignored their requests for international protection in Poland; and pushed many back to Belarus. Since July 2021, when refugees and migrants started crossing the border from Belarus in significant numbers, Poland has implemented measures to prevent people from entering the country’s territory: it erected razor-wire fences, declared a state of emergency, sent military and territorial defense forces to the border, passed legislation that "legalized" pushbacks (summary returns without procedural guarantees), denied people access to asylum, and blocked humanitarian organizations from delivering life-saving aid to those stranded in the border area. Polish authorities argued that the measures were a necessary response to the "hybrid war" waged by Belarus, but in fact, they flagrantly violate Poland’s international human rights obligations and EU law.

People who have avoided pushbacks to Belarus and succeeded in having their applications for international protection considered in Poland have inevitably ended up arbitrarily detained, often for prolonged periods of time, in closed centres for foreigners2. In these centres, they have been held in substandard conditions, without privacy, adequate sanitary facilities, or access to doctors, psychologists or legal assistance. Residents compared some of these centres to "Guantánamo," and described buildings surrounded with barbed wire amid active military facilities with persistent sounds of armored vehicles, helicopters and gunshots from military exercises echoing in the area. In some centres, people lived in overcrowded spaces with up to 24 people in one small room, one hour of access to outdoor areas per day and almost no communication with the outside world. Many people reported being victims of torture in their home countries, thus prolonged detention in these centres, the lack of information about their status and continued uncertainty exacerbated their existing trauma and will undoubtedly have negative long-term consequences for their physical and mental health.

The Polish government must immediately stop illegal pushbacks; grant access to its territory to any person fleeing conflict or other danger and seeking protection; halt the arbitrary detention of foreign nationals who have crossed from Belarus; provide access to fair asylum procedures; and refrain from returning any person to a place where they would be at risk of serious human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment. Such obligations are not optional under international human rights and refugee law, they are required.

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Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

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