Held Without Rhyme or Reason: Poland’s Detention System for Migrants Labeled a Farce (2023)

In Poland, there are two types of premises for asylum seekers and people who have entered the country illegally: open centres such as refugee hostels; and detention camps like the one Rosa is stuck in, which look like high-security prisons complete with bars on the windows and barbed-wire fences topped with surveillance equipment.

Entry into Poland’s current six detention camps is highly restricted and the Polish Border Guard, a state security agency tasked with administering them, reluctantly shares information, so the NGOs rely on its ‘snitches’. Each camp has its Rosa, Zoya, Ahmed or Therese, who signal when someone has been beaten up by the guards, needs a doctor, or has attempted suicide.

Some things occasionally hit the headlines, and a few concerned MPs come to inspect the camps and issue recommendations and warnings. Kids and pregnant women must be released, as well as those in poor health and victims of past torture. The scarce food rations are a threat to health; and placing 24 men in one room (2 square metres per person), with barred windows facing military ranges and the constant sounds of gunshots, have the hallmarks of torture.

The authorities note these concerns, but claim they are unable to address them: the camps are just improvised measures to address the current huge migratory pressures on the border, for which no one was prepared.

Only that Poland actually was. The lice, cold and loneliness suffered by Rosa and others in these camps can be traced back to ministerial acts passed over the years since the victory of the anti-immigration Law and Justice (PiS) party in 2015.

In 2017, legislation was introduced that put bars on the windows and allowed containers to be used to house extra inmates in the detention camps. In 2020, nutritional norms for the detained were lowered by 25 per cent for children and pregnant women, and 35 per cent for everyone else, setting the standard of 2.70 euros per adult.

Then in July 2021, when the migration crisis being fomented by the Belarusian regime had already begun on the borders with the Baltic states, a series of other Polish laws came into effect, further reducing living space in the detention camps and limiting amenities.

The capacity of the detention system was also quadrupled in anticipation of a scenario that soon unfolded, when the dictatorial regime of President Aleksandr Lukashenko began herding over the Polish border thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa that it had flown into Belarus with the sole purpose of fomenting a migration crisis.

Before the migrant crisis on the Belarusian border began in the summer of 2021, there were nine open centres and five detention camps operating in Poland, most of them located near the eastern border.

At the open centres, administered by the Office for Foreigners, migrants and asylum seekers are free to come and go during the day in order to access external services, seek employment or simply visit the local shops. While far from perfect – typically they are located in remote areas and hugely underfunded – these open centres are under EU norms and practices the preferred destination for such people, as detention must be used only as a last resort.

Except, as in Poland now, detention is increasingly being used as a first response and as a deterrent.

In the face of the migration crisis, the Polish authorities chose not to develop these open centres, but instead invested in a huge expansion of the detention system.

When 500 places in the five detention camps were quickly filled as the migrant crisis gathered pace, peaking in November 2021, the authorities swiftly created 1,600 new places by setting up containers in the detention camp yards and using the 2-square-metre norm to squeeze in more people.

The authorities also established a new camp on a military training base close to the western border, which has since been closed. And two of the open centres were requisitioned by the Polish Border Guard and turned into detention camps, though one has since been turned back again, meaning there are currently six detention camps in operation.

Since the autumn of 2021, people who have managed to cross the Belarusian border and apply for asylum in Poland have nearly always been detained behind barbed wire or walls. According to the Polish Border Guard, 3,800 people crossed the Belarus-Polish border and applied for asylum in 2021 (excluding citizens of Ukraine, Belarus and the government-led evacuation from Afghanistan); 3,580 of them, of 94 per cent, were placed in detention.

Polish Border Guard representatives speak in the media about the importance of public safety. And Polish people by and large seemed satisfied with such an explanation, that these detention camps enable the authorities to verify people’s identity, while ensuring they do not escape.

Held Without Rhyme or Reason: Poland’s Detention System for Migrants Labeled a Farce (1)

‘Soon we’ll be free – and in Germany’

That’s why I’m puzzled when Rosa tells me about the plans that her Cuban, Iraqi and Yemeni fellow migrants share while socialising with a cigarette or playing rounds of Monopoly in the containers in the detention camps.

They say they are looking forward to seeing their parents in Sweden, they pre-arrange crossings from Calais to the UK, or simply dream of a life in Germany. Sadly, all those dreams on the face of it appear far-fetched.

Detention is a waiting lounge, a time paid for by the powerful Polish Border Guard and the understaffed Office for Foreigners. The clerks there can’t keep up with the flurry of asylum applications and the statutory time to process an asylum application of six months is often not met.

Detention is ruled on by a court at the request of the Polish Border Guard and its default duration is also six months. The outcome is binary: those with a positive decision will be released but obliged to transfer to one of the open centres and forbidden to leave Poland; a negative decision will trigger deportation procedures, which involve being escorted directly from a detention camp in a convoy to the airport, taken to the plane by a border guard and fastened into their seat.

I advise Rosa to disillusion the others of what they hope will happen, even herself – Cubans are amongst the lowest successful asylum claimants in Poland.

Yet Rosa insists that is not how things work in reality.

She and her fellow migrants hold papers that state their planned release date – six months from filing an official asylum request. Starting this countdown is tricky, as the authorities put up obstacles, by insisting, for example, on the use of scanners and printers, while there is no legal and translation help available. Weeks can pass before people figure out all the necessary paperwork. Sometimes detention is prolonged by up to 18 months for Iraqi, Moroccans, Congolese and others who have poor chances of being granted asylum.

All this may take time and be tough to get through. But eventually, Rosa says, almost everyone is later granted the freedom to leave the detention camp.

I struggle to believe it. Detention camps are surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire; cameras detect movement and border guards patrol the area on quad bikes. Detainees are not allowed lace-up shoes and manicure kits, and can only use mobile phones without a camera and access to the internet. When some migrants are moved to another camp or brought into hospital, a convoy must escort them. Border guards speak in the media about “public security” and technologies that “prevent escapes” of “unverified people”.

Yet, over the ensuing months, I see how dozens are released from these detention camps, only to post selfies several weeks later in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate after having reached Germany.

The reason for that is simple – their maximum time of detention was reached, and the Office for Foreigners hadn’t processed their applications on time.

It’s impossible to say exactly how many of the migrants apprehended by the authorities simply disappear after their period in detention – migration lawyers unofficially speak of 90 per cent. Some idea can be drawn from the statistics of the Polish Border Guard and Office for Foreigners: in the second half of 2021, atotal of 3,570 migrants were detained and placed in detention centres. By February, the number had fallen by half and currently it doesn’t exceed 600. Over the last 18 months, more than4,700 asylum application procedures have been halted: the reason, according to the Office of Foreigners, is that the person had simply disappeared.

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Held Without Rhyme or Reason: Poland’s Detention System for Migrants Labeled a Farce (2)

Liberation limbo

Weeks in detention camps blur together, but not the last one. People get their backpacks ready, prepare the kids for what’s next and anxiously wait it out, hoping all the time that a guard won’t come with a prolongation order.

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The gate opens at dawn. People collect from deposit all forbidden items – razors, nail cutters and, most importantly, smartphones and money. Security guards give them referrals to the open camps where they are meant to go and paper maps to get there. They are free to go.

For some, “taxis”, as they call the paid smugglers, wait just around the corner. Others walk some kilometres to reach any bus station. People leaving the Ketrzyn detention camp in the north of Poland sometimes go to a small grocery shop nearby. There, the owner, an elderly lady, already knows what to do: she dials a number: “Three men to pick up,” she instructs.

There are some determined to follow the rules and get to an open centre, but it seems harder than just heading off to Germany. Lesznowola detention camp, 40 kilometres from Warsaw, is in the forest and the area has no public transport. Sanna Figlarewicz, a member of the NGO Hope & Humanity, says that some are given directions and sent on a seven-hour walk through the suburban woods.

“They get lost, often arrive at night, security guards at the open centres are already asleep and there is no one to let them in. We have tried to organise them transport, but soon we became completely overwhelmed,” she says.

“The knotty issue is that it is unclear who should cover these rides,” explains Magdalena Fuchs, a lawyer with the Association for Legal Intervention. Border guards manage the detention camps; the Office for Foreigners the open centres. Between them there is a no-man’s land, she says. Border guards fall back on the law, saying that they cannot drive foreigners in their cars because they are now ‘free’.

In the first weeks after the outbreak of the war in next-door Ukraine, releases from detention camps became increasingly ad hoc.

“Guards entered at night, gave people two hours to pack, and told them to get out,” says Olga, a leader of an NGO supporting two camps in western Poland. “In March, one boy was thrown out overnight, in flip-flops. Another had been detained for 14 months and already received several denials of asylum, his case seemed hopeless, we expected a deportation order anytime. But suddenly, he’s out on the street. We were all in shock, we didn’t believe what was happening.”

I meet several migrants who had intended to stay in Poland, but did a one-eighty after a few weeks out of detention.

“One detained family I helped had two small babies, no connections in Europe and just longed for a bit of stability,” says Joanna Winogrodzka, a volunteer helping in the Ketrzyn detention camp. “One day, they called me, all happy and relieved on their way to the open centre. Two days later, at night, they called again, from a train station in Warsaw. They already had tickets and begged me to help organise them car seats for the babies. I tried to convince them at least not to travel at night, but they were just desperate to leave [Poland].”

“I suppose it’s because the open centre they went to was 30 kilometres from the Belarusian border,” she surmises. “Just months before, this family had spent weeks in the forest trying to cross [the border]. I think they thought it’s a trap, that one night they would end up in the forest again.”

Figlarewicz of the Hope & Humanity NGO recounts how another family tried to settle in Poland but left because of the kids. The smallest boy kept remembering the pushbacks at the border, wet himself at night and limped when hearing Polish on the street.

People who claimed they were abused by border guards in the forest or in detention told me that they had zero confidence the authorities would not lock them up again or haul them off into the woods.

But some really have tried to settle in Poland. Rosa left detention after eight months and went to the open centre in a suburban forest nearby Warsaw. “People disappeared from there one by one, just leaving the building with all their luggage, passing security and getting in cars,” she says.

“I had nowhere to go and really needed to start sending money home to my family, so I applied for permission to work and found an NGO that helped with finding jobs. And two weeks later, they suddenly moved me 200 kilometres north. This other open centre was in the middle of nowhere and food so scarce that, after several days, I struggled to climb the stairs. People there were desperate for any job, but the staff just threw their hands up. So, it looked like I should leave, too,” she says.

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Humanitarian traffickers

Many people who have already travelled to Germany on trains and buses report that checks are rare. When the war in Ukraine started and hundreds of thousands of refugees headed west, other migrants just blended into the crowd. A young Syrian bragged to me that with his white skin and fluent Russian, no one looked at him twice. One group recalled how they got sandwiches from volunteers at the train stations by getting the most European-looking person to queue for it.

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Others paid people smugglers to get them across the German border in the back of vans or trucks. “There was also a time when the local fishermen said they wouldn’t venture into certain parts of the Oder River, because all sorts of things were happening there. Mainly, the smugglers were ferrying people across in rubber pontoons. I went to gatherings in Germany where migrants shared stories on crossing this border. Some paid 1,000 euros to smugglers, others hitchhiked, and random Polish drivers charged them for the lift,” says Olga, an NGO worker in close contact with many border guards and German Federal Police officers, or Bundespolizei, due to neighbourhood relations and from common cultural and social projects, who didn’t want her surname published.

For Beata, a 40-year-old living next to Germany’s eastern border with Poland, who also didn’t want her surname published, the people smuggling business is an outrage and is why, between remote-working for a corporation and raising three kids, she began organising free transport for migrants into Western Europe.

She has a lot of people waiting in the queue: many are still in detention, others waiting in Warsaw, and some are in her kitchen, just rescued from the woods. They can choose where to go – usually Berlin, Cologne or Calais, but sometimes Rome and Madrid – and she links them up with drivers, “crazy, thrill-seeking anarchists”, as she describes them.

These drivers know the best crossing points and have a wide network spread out across Europe. First stop is usually Berlin or Dresden, where they stay for a while in safe houses and wait for the next transport. The service is free: people receive nice meals and, Beata says, it is the safest option, especially for women and children.

I witness the departure of a transport coordinated by Beata. A young Cuban couple going to Barcelona arrives at the meeting point at noon, in the centre of Warsaw. They are stressed, as the plans keep changing: one driver freaked out, the base in Berlin was full, and no one can tell them precisely what the itinerary is. A cheerful, tiny woman with dreadlocks tries to calm them down – it’s normal that these things get a bit messed up.

Soon an Iraqi family of six joins us, then an old van arrives. The Cuban girl blanches and starts asking nervously why this service is even free, who is behind it? Her partner whispers to me that she is afraid of Arabs. The van is ready to depart, but the couple won’t get in. The woman with dreadlocks rolls her eyes – someone could have gone in their place – but gives them a hug and reassures them that they’re not the first to freak out.

Beata calls me later that night, laughing at the “chickens”, and proud that the Iraqis are just sitting down to have supper in Berlin.

Held Without Rhyme or Reason: Poland’s Detention System for Migrants Labeled a Farce (4)

An open secret

“Once I drove a guy from detention to one of the open camps,” relates Figlarewicz, of the Hope & Humanity NGO. “The security man was explaining to us the rules and suddenly said, ‘Just, please, let us know when he’s about to flee, so we can estimate the number of meals’. I must have looked stunned, as he laughed and said, ‘C’mon, cars with foreign plates come and go from here all the time’.”

I speak to dozens who travelled west after their detention ended and all confirm that the border guards are fully aware of what is happening. The shouts of “all out to Germany!” and the ironic “can’t wait to go west, right?” are a part of the camp’s daily routine. Migrants relate how during their release, the guards often point in one direction and say “Germany, that way”. A Kurdish man recounts how a detention camp doctor recommended a heart examination, but said “it could wait until you are in Germany”. And in the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, people in open centres widely reported being asked by workers there, “what are you still doing here?”

When your correspondent helped in the detention camp in Ketrzyn, I sometimes chatted with the guards. One senior officer couldn’t understand why people are so frustrated. “It’s just a stage in their trip, and they act like it’s forever,” he said. “They broke the law, so must repent, but in the months to come they will be where they wanted to go. If I was them, I would use this free time better, to bond with my kids for example.”

Anita Kucharska-Dziedzic, a Polish MP involved in migration affairs, stresses that the Polish border guards don’t enable crossings. “But they admit that they know it happens all the time. One day, over 100 Afghans were released from a detention camp in western Poland. They were about to get asylum and reach the open centre near Warsaw. Only two men arrived.” The MP says that everyone turns a blind eye because the open centres are full.

“It’s logical,” says Olga. “Why catch a guy who was just released after 14 months and has his file stuck in the Office for Foreigners? Deportations are rare because third countries won’t cooperate; no one knows what to do with these people.”

And apparently no one wants to know. Asked what happened to at least 1,000 people released from two detention camps in the west of Poland in recent months, the press officer for the Polish Border Guard replied: “how would we know that?” She referred BIRN to the headquarters’ press office in Warsaw. Spokespersons for other camps also referred enquiries to the Warsaw headquarters, which never replied.

How do the German border authorities regard all this? The MP Kucharska-Dziedzic says that Polish guards have reported being teased by their German counterparts about “sleeping while on duty”.

But Olga, citing her frequent neighbourly chats with the Bundespolizei, assures me that they know full well what’s happening. “When our camps filled up last year, theirs did so twice as fast, as thousands went straight from Belarus to Germany. Now they capture someone from time to time – a random check in the bus, stopping a very suspicious truck – though I’ve never heard about them catching someone released from ‘our’ camps here. Generally, they let almost everyone through. Once I asked why and an officer told me, ‘They will turn up with us anyway, to ask for asylum and to live in a refugee centre.’ And what if they just cross Germany to get to Spain or England? ‘Well, then they are not Germany’s problem’.”

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In theory, people who flee Poland after filing an asylum claim will be readmitted based on the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which seeks to ensure quick access to asylum procedures and the examination of an application on the merits by a single, clearly determined EU country.

The regulation establishes the member state responsible for the examination of the asylum application, and migration lawyers warn clients that leaving Poland will only further complicate their situation. But is that really the case?

Since the beginning of the migration crisis on the border with Belarus in 2021, Poland has received about 1,900 asylum requests from Iraqis, discontinued 1,250 of them as they had left the country, and readmitted just 55.

After readmission, most people are simply put out on the street, making it likely that many will just leave again. The Dublin Regulation procedures are lengthy and migrants move mountains not to be sent back to Poland: hiding, using the institution of German “church asylums”, or going further west, often to the UK, which is not part of the Dublin Regulation.

Moreover, several German NGOs have been clearing legal paths to stop deportations to Poland on the grounds of its mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers. They claim that the first court rulings on Poland not being regarded as a safe country have already been handed down.

However, not for Rosa, who eventually went to Germany and asked for asylum there. She spent three months in a camp in Nuremberg until she heard rumours that deportations to Poland were happening. She left quickly, at night, and boarded a bus to Madrid.

Held Without Rhyme or Reason: Poland’s Detention System for Migrants Labeled a Farce (5)

Migration politics in 3D

Given the gap between the Polish authorities’ reasons for detaining people on the basis of public safety and migration control, and the reality of them wandering around suburban forests, suffering at the hands of people traffickers and, eventually, dispersing around Europe, it is tempting to conclude that detention is simply pointless. But, in some ways the system actually does accomplish some goals.

The first one is obviously about political capital. Projecting dangers and addressing them with securitised narratives is what initially brought victory for the populist, rightwing Law and Justice party. And voters seem to appreciate border raids on migrants as much as clearing them from public sight afterwards.

The second is that “deter-detain-deny” – a term coined for anti-migration policies in Australia – is gaining traction here in Europe. “We are testing our deterrence skills, with walls, wires, violence and procedural barriers,” notes the MP Kucharska-Dziedzic, “on a sample of thousands, but looking ahead to the future millions.”

Yet there is little evidence that “3D migration politics” will actually discourage more people from arriving. For migrants on the route to Europe, the evidence suggests that Polish detention camps are infinitely preferable to Libyan ones, and 10 months in a cold container in Poland wins out over years stuck in a camp on Lesbos in Greece.

Despite dozens of dead and missing in the forests on the border with Belarus, the Eastern Land Route to Europe has earned a reputation of being one of the safest. The newly built walls and fences may be a deterring factor for some, but they won’t close a migration route once it’s open. Bordering Belarus, which attracts and then weaponises the migrants, and Germany, their most preferred destination, Poland is likely to remain a migratory route.

But the route doesn’t equal destination. Poland’s explicit anti-immigration doctrine means it won’t turn into a hosting country for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. While “3D politics” falls short in deterring people from coming to Poland, it quite effectively chases them out of here.

After months of imprisonment and often humiliating treatment, the only appealing thing about Poland seems to be its leaky western border.

Malgozorta Tomczak worked as a volunteer for an NGO network that supports migrants and asylum seekers in Polish open and detention centres. She was not working as an undercover reporter for BIRN at the time, but subsequently chose to write about her experiences.


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