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What will be the human cost of Poland's new border defenses?

June 14, 2024

With a steep increase in the influx of migrants and a desire for greater security, Poland has announced plans to fortify its border with Belarus. But critics are asking at what — or whose — cost the project will come.

Migrants are seen stretching their hands through the fence on Poland's border with Belarus in Bialowieza, Poland, on May 28, 2023. The migrants were part of a group of some 30 people seeking asylum in the EU country
Polish border forces recorded 16,000 attempts to cross the border illegally in 2023Image: Agnieszka Sadowska/AP Photo/picture alliance

The recent death of a Polish soldier who was stabbed by a migrant at the fence on the Polish–Belarusian border has put the country's already fraught border area under intense scrutiny.

"The situation is potentially explosive," says Piotr Czaban, a local journalist who follows events in the border area. The arrest of three Polish soldiers for shooting in the direction of migrants at the border has further exacerbated the situation.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on May 29 that his government would restore a buffer zone at the border, which came into effect on Thursday. It also laid out plans for the so-called Eastern Shield, which is set to cost 10 billion zlotys (€2.35 billion, $2.5 billion).

Polish PM Donald Tusk stands at a lectern and speaks into a microphone in front a group of soldiers, Krakow, Poland, May 18, 2024
The government of PM Donald Tusk has restored a buffer zone at the border, which came into effect on ThursdayImage: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The project will be a mix of physical barriers designed to slow incoming forces and higher-end surveillance systems, including some powered by AI. Tusk also spoke of creating a more humane environment on the border.

A continuation of Poland's previous border policy?

But critics believe Poland's border policy hasn't changed since the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party was in power and that it weakens civil and human rights, undermines legal and democratic oversight and accountability and criminalizes media and humanitarian engagement, citing the re-introduction of the buffer zone as one example.

"If taken to the extreme, they could pave a path of democratic erosion and creeping authoritarianism, all under the pretext of border security," says Nina Perkowski, junior professor of sociology at Hamburg University.

Poland accuses Belarus of 'weaponizing' migrants

For those who support what critics call "securitization of the Polish side of the border" — and some who don't — the blame lies squarely at the feet of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (left) and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko shake hands, Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2023
Poland has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (left, with Russian President Vladimir Putin) of intentionally luring people from the Middle East to Belarus on the promise of an easy entry point to the EU across the Polish border Image: Vladimir Smirnov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

"Our border with Belarus is being attacked with the help of migrants who are weapons in the hands of the Belarusian services, although Moscow is, of course, the main instigator of this hybrid war," says Mateusz Multarzynski, an expert at the Defence24 publication in Warsaw. "This is cross-border terrorism carried out by militias organized by Russian-Belarusian services," he told DW.

The crisis was started by an act of monumental cynicism in 2021, when Lukashenko's regime encouraged people from Syria in particular to visit Belarus on "hunting holidays." Belarus' COVID-19 pandemic travel laws had two exceptions that allowed foreigners visiting Belarus to avoid quarantine: business trips and hunting.

Last year, Polish border forces recorded 16,000 attempts to cross the border illegally, according to official data.

Polish soldiers in combat uniform are seen patrolling along the Poland-Belarus border between the border fence and barbed wire defenses, Bialowieza Forest, Poland, June 3, 2024
Polish soldiers patrol the border with Belarus along the border fence in the Bialowieza ForestImage: Attila Husejnow/ZUMA Press Wire/IMAGO

"One of the most powerful weapons is the creation of a moral crisis in the country under attack," says border security expert Robert Gonczi. "The easiest way is to contrast the national interest of the attacked country with its international obligations. A security and defense focus thus seems understandable," he adds.

Migrants claim 'brutality' at Polish border

But migrants crossing from Belarus speak of immense brutality on the Polish side of the border. Amnesty International also says people have been subjected to violence. In a report published in 2022, Human Rights Watch said that "asylum-seekers face serious abuses, including beatings and rape by border guards and other security forces." In April of this year a woman from Eritrea was forced to give birth in the woods. 

There have also been numerous reports of pushbacks at the border and many migrants have died in the forests of the border region. Although estimates vary, volunteer organization Grupa Granica puts the number of deaths at between 100 and 200. But even for those who do make it into Poland, many are detained in detention centers.

"After torture in prison in Syria, threats against my family and then months on the road, I think I was finally broken in Wedrzyn," Khafiz, a Syrian refugee, told DW. The Wedrzyn detention center — which was part of an active military base — has been closed, but Khafiz says the constant noise of armored vehicles, helicopters and shots fired during military exercises deepened her trauma.

Seven graves of migrants who died on Polish soil after crossing from Belarus are pictured at the Muslim cemetery on July 9, 2023 in Bohoniki, Poland
Although estimates vary, volunteer organization Grupa Granica says that between 100 and 200 migrants have died in the forests of the border regionImage: Omar Marques/Getty Images

Under the nationalist PiS-led coalition, which was in power until October 2023, public media framed migrants as threats to national security. In June 2022, work on a 5.5-meter-high (18 foot) steel wall topped with barbed wire at a cost of 1.6 billion zlotys was completed and a 206-km-long (128 mile) electronic barrier with 3,000 cameras with night vision and movement sensors, was added to the fence in 2023 at a cost of €71.8 million.

"Poland's attempts to secure its borders should not be at the expense of the rights and dignity of people on the move," says Perkowski. "There has been a worrying expansion of military means, with the deployment of military personnel, weapons and surveillance systems designed for warfare against migrants. This creates an extremely hostile environment, targeting people on the move, who are often already traumatized," she added.

Migration control now a lucrative business

Perkowski notes that a security-industrial complex both promotes and profits from such measures, "raising the question of whether these policies are at least in part driven by financial incentives rather than genuine security needs."

A closed Polish-Belarusian railway border crossing gate with the word 'Mir' (peace) in Cyrillic characters, Gobiaty, Poland, August 12, 2023
Poland began fortifying its border under the previous PiS government as a deterrent amid 'destabilizing' actions by its pro-Russian neighbor, BelarusImage: Attila Husejnow/Zuma/IMAGO

"Migration ― and migration controls ― are now big business," says Mark Akkerman, a researcher at anti-arms trade campaign group Stop Wapenhandel. "In publicly-funded border controls, European defense groups have found a potential gold mine, with increasing sums poured into research and development for new security technologies," he told DW.

Akkerman believes that these technologies don't really succeed in halting migration, as people just opt for more risky routes instead.

Focus on migrants or deterring potential aggression?

The fence is also leaky, having been crossed 14,000 times since the start of this year alone. Some 13,000 of those who crossed the Polish border since early 2023 made their way to Germany, according to an internal border guard report obtained by the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

"You can cut the fence with an ordinary hand-held metal saw, because its rods are made of aluminum and are hollow inside," said the report, which noted at least 1,000 cases of such damage. It also said that the fence goes less than a meter deep into the ground, meaning it can be tunneled under.

"Poland should focus its efforts on monitoring and deterring potential direct military aggression by Belarus or Russia. It needs to invest appropriate resources into properly receiving and processing migrants through legal migration pathways," says Perkowski.

"Lukashenko's gambit only works if EU states view migrants as an intolerable threat. If migration is understood through a more nuanced lens — asylum seekers as victims of persecution or desperation rather than infiltrating agents — we would make ourselves less susceptible to being coerced by such regimes," Perkowski concludes.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

Head shot of a man (Jo Harper) with grey hair and brown eyes
Jo Harper Journalist and author specializing in Poland