Poland’s migration border crisis pays political dividends for the government

WARSAW — The Polish government’s imposition of a state of emergency on the border with Belarus turned into a political flashpoint Monday, with the opposition accusing it of trying to block the media from reporting on how troops and border guards are responding to migrants trying to cross the frontier.

The government says the state of emergency — the first such measure since the communist regime’s martial law decree in 1981 — is needed to stem migrants, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, illegally entering from Belarus. Despite not having a solid majority in parliament, the government got the backing of most MPs after a stormy debate, with 168 deputies voting to rescind the measure while 247 backed the government.

Although the legal reasons for the decree only mention the migrants — who are being encouraged to cross the border by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko — the government also says there’s a danger from the Zapad joint military exercises being conducted by Russia and Belarus starting on Friday.

“We can clearly see that scenarios threatening the sovereignty and security of the Polish state have been written in Moscow and Minsk,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party said in parliament.

Although the Zapad exercises have been held regularly in the past — in 2009 they even simulated a nuclear attack on Warsaw — the government says this year’s maneuvers are more worrying.

“The level of threat at the moment may be the highest since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Paweł Soloch, the head of the president’s national security office. “We see a correlation between the migration crisis and the Zapad exercises.”

Lukashenko is being accused of encouraging migrants, flown to Minsk from the Middle East, to cross into the EU in retaliation for sanctions imposed after last year’s contested presidential election and the subsequent brutal crackdown on protests. Belarus has denied these allegations. Migrants have been intercepted in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and all three countries have imposed special measures to bring the problem under control.

“Our services have identified 46 planes from Baghdad to Minsk … that is around 10,000 residents of Iraq,” said Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński, calling for preventive measures to avoid a “great migration crisis.” Some 3,500 people have tried crossing Poland’s 418-kilometer border with Belarus last month. 

Two narratives

The opposition accused the government of spinning the border problem into an existential crisis for political gain.

“There is no justification of the state of emergency on the basis of constitutional conditions,” argued Tomasz Siemoniak, a former defense minister and an MP with the Civic Platform opposition party.

Although the government is sounding the alarm at home, it’s not doing the same abroad. It has not called on help from Frontex, the EU’s border agency, which is headquartered in Warsaw. Frontex is helping Lithuania deal with its border problems since late July, where Poland has also chipped in a helicopter and patrol units.

Kamiński said the opposition’s suggestion to enlist EU help was “an expression of [its] incompetence.”

Polish Border Guard spokesperson Anna Michalska said: “If we will need assistance from Frontex, we will certainly ask.”

“Poland has no shortage of staff and is well equipped to defend its border on its own,” said Marek Świerczyński, head of the security desk at Polityka Insight, a think tank in Warsaw. “But there could, unfortunately, be a political reason too — the Polish government may not want European institutions watching its hands.”

Media crackdown

The border crisis is the biggest story in Poland — one that’s attracted human rights groups, opposition MPs and subjected the Polish government to intensive scrutiny over how people are being treated and criticism from European organizations and campaigners over its refusal to accept asylum applications from many migrants. The European Court of Human Rights last month told Poland to provide migrants at the border with aid.

Siemoniak called restrictions on media activity in the 3-kilometer-wide border zone “unprecedented and absurd.”

But barring outsiders from entering the area means there will be less of a chance of any “provocative” activity by foreign agents, and that could take some of the pressure off the military and police operating in the area. “They need not look around, and can focus on looking east,” said Świerczyński. 

While human rights groups are calling for help for the people stuck on the border, many Poles have qualms about opening the country to large numbers of outsiders.

Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Platform, has been quite careful in how he treats the issue — criticizing the government for not helping 32 migrants stuck on the border between Belarus and Poland, but also saying, “We have to ensure the safety of our borders.”

The border crisis has shifted attention from PiS’s recent run of political troubles and has helped boost support for the nationalist party in recent opinion polls.



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