According to the Polish Border Guard, over 39,000 third-country nationals attempted to illegally enter Poland from Belarus last year. But the numbers don't add up. Did authorities mislead the public on purpose?
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Pushbacks on the Polish-Belarusian border continue to take place. It means that Polish Border Guard officers are sending refugees and migrants back to the other side of the border citing regulations that, according to the Commissioner for Human Rights, are incompatible with international treaties.

At the same time, in official reports, authorities massively exaggerate the scale of migration happening along the border with Belarus.  

Massive inconsistencies in data

According to a dispatch posted on the Border Guard’s website in January, 39,697 people attempted to cross the Poland-Belarus border last year.

After the publication of this article, the Polish Border Guard changed the content of the said notice. Originally, the first sentence read: "Last year, 39,697 third-country nationals attempted to illegally cross the state border with Belarus, outside official border checkpoints". It now reads: "Last year, we recorded 39,697 instances of third-country nationals attempting to illegally cross the state border with Belarus, outside official border checkpoints".

This data is certainly worth a closer look because it does not match the numbers provided by Frontex, the EU agency monitoring the Union’s external borders. According to Frontex, in 2021, only 8099 third-country nationals crossed into EU member states through the Union’s eastern land borders. That is five times less than what the Polish Border Guard claims in its reports.

When talking about the situation at the eastern land borders - and this is precisely what data provided by Frontex is about - we mean the 6,000-kilometer-long land border connecting Norway (which is not an EU member state but cooperates with Frontex), Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania with Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. The Polish-Belarusian border is only a small part of it.

The massive difference in numbers reported by Frontex and the Polish Border Guard could mean that the Border Guard was very effective in stopping illegal immigration. But Wyborcza asked both institutions to explain this discrepancy and it turned out to be something else - something that could be either a simple mistake or an intentional lie.

How Polish authorities came up with the number of border crossings

When asked about the inconsistency - after all, Frontex draws data from institutions in the individual Member States, so it cannot deviate from national data – Frontex replied that the Polish Border Guard does not provide the number of actual people, but the number of attempts to enter the country. The Frontex spokesperson referred us to the Border Guard for further clarification.

Talks with the Border Guard were difficult, because the acting spokesperson, Lieutenant Anna Michalska, provided contradictory information. Finally, however, we received a written answer.

Reporting on 39,697 crossings, the Border Guard did not mean the number of specific individuals (even though in its initial notice it has explicitly stated that it was the number of third-country nationals). What it meant was the number of attempts to cross the border outside official border checkpoints. What counts as an attempt to cross the border? According to the Border Guard, this number includes, for example, instances where someone was standing on the Belarusian side of the border and moved away after being warned by Polish officers that he/she was not allowed to cross into Poland. Such activity is reported as an attempt to cross the border even though the person has not set a foot on the Polish territory.

As the Border Guard spokeswoman explained to us, such cases could involve groups of multiple people.

When members of such groups dispersed and tried to cross the border in smaller groups, they were counted again. When they were sent back and tried to enter again another time, it counted as another attempt.

The spokeswoman for the Polish Border Guard told us that groups of migrants camped near the border, like the one we saw on the footage released by the Border Guard from Kuźnica, as well as people trying to force their way across the border, were not counted.

The actual number of migrants crossing the Poland-Belarus border

Wyborcza asked the Border Guard about the nationality of people apprehended by officers in 2021. We asked for data in the form of tables so that our data journalists could analyze it themselves. Yet, despite our repeated requests, we only received a brief note:

"In 2021, Border Guard officers detained 2,744 migrants who crossed the so-called green border with Belarus. 1,557 were from Iraq, 447 from Afghanistan, 269 from Syria, 69 from Russia, 68 from Somalia, 55 from Iran, 54 from Turkey, 51 from Tajikistan, and individual citizens of other nationalities".

The Border Guard spokeswoman explained that only those who, after contact with officers, "were placed in guarded or open migration centers or transferred to open houses run by foundations and NGOs" are listed as detained. It means that this figure does not include individuals pushed back to Belarus.

Therefore, we do not know how many people actually tried to cross the Polish-Belarusian border outside official border checkpoints. There were at least 2744 people (the number of individuals detained by the Border Guard and sent to migration centers). At most - 8099 (this is the number provided by Frontex for the entire EU eastern land border).

Of course, there is a chance that more people have crossed the border, unnoticed by the authorities. However, it is certain that the number of attempted illegal crossings mentioned on the Border Guard’s website as the number of specific individuals is incorrect. The actual number of people with whom the Border Guard had contact last year at the border with Belarus is much less spectacular. And it does not fit the narrative promoted by ruling camp politicians that there was a dangerous flood migrants storming the Polish-Belarusian border.

***

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 Russian invasion in Ukraine. Our journalists are on the front lines in 32 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

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