Much has been written about the Polish-Belarussian border. And not only written – an award-winning film has been made, reports and petitions have been published, the issue of humanitarian crisis concerning migration has reached the very top of the European Union. Debates on the issue has been taking place from Brussels through Venice to Warsaw. And still, people are being found dead on the border and others are pushed back, even though the government in Warsaw changed from right-wing nationalist to liberal and, as the politicians in the new team say, smiling and tolerant. But smiling and democratic politicians are closing the borders not only in Poland.

What happens with the debate about the border in Poland? The topic is not ‘hot’ any more. In fact, the greatest opinion exchanges over last couple of months took place around two statements. Or rather, rather interventions of the journalist and cultural world into the world of real politics and life on the border. 

Green border 

The first is, of course, Agnieszka Holland’s film Green Border, which premiered on 5 September during the 80th Venice International Film Festival. Moments after the premiere in Italy, the film arrived in Poland and unleashed a political hell that brought out the worst demons in Polish politics. As the director herself has repeatedly stated, the premiere date was not her invention, nor she wished to intervene in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Poland, scheduled on 15 October.

Nevertheless, the film, telling the story of the migration crisis as seen by a well-off Warsaw psychologist who voluntarily joins the movement helping migrants to survive in the forests and swamps, has probably divided society more than any other piece of art in recent years. After its premiere in Poland, the film was well received by liberal and left-wing critics, who emphasised the nuanced message of Holland’s work, trying to speak about migration and humanity in an universal way and see the light even among the ‘bad’. Right-wing critics disagreed, criticising the film as a manifestation of “Russian propaganda” against the then ruling Law and Justice party. 

Zbigniew Ziobro, who was serving as head of the Ministry of Justice at the time, condemned the film ahead of its Venice premiere, writing in X (former Twitter): ‘In the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films that portrayed Poles as bandits and murderers. Today they have Agnieszka Holland for that’. In a subsequent interview with Radio Maryja, a Catholic and nationalist radio station, Ziobro went on to condemn Holland for being part of ‘Russian propaganda and disinformation’ and for ‘preparing a film that distorts the image and shows Poland in the worst light’. Ziobro’s comments weren’t unique. 

Meanwhile, the Minister of the Interior and Administration, Mariusz Kamiński, branded the film a ‘brutal attack on Polish uniformed officers who defend not only Poland but also Europe’ and a ‘deliberate emotional manipulation’. His words launched the ‘We Stand with Polish Army’ (Murem za Polskim Mundurem) campaign, and Ziobro’s words quickly provoked a return to the slogan from the times of German Nazi occupation of Poland. As there were mainly German propaganda videos screened in cinemas back then, the Polish resistance fighters condemned visiting cinemas and wrote ‘Only pigs sit in the cinema’ (Tylko świnie siedzą w kinie) on walls. In 2023, the right-wing used the slogan against the viewers of Holland’s film. These words were not only repeated by Twitter trolls, but also by President Andrzej Duda. Condemnation of people who wanted to watch a movie with humanitarian message became quite an official state policy.

Law and Justice voters, as well as families of soldiers and Border Guardsmen, put up banners with slogans defending the uniformed personnel working at the border, some of them with anti-Nazi slogans. The film itself was not popular in Poland, skipping festivals and competitions because of the controversy, but also because it was funded by the Ministry of Culture. 

At the end here, let’s add that on October 15, 2023, the nationwide referendum asked questions on ‘accepting illegal immigrants’ and ‘demolishing the barrier’ on the Polish-Belarusian border. The opposition voters largely boycotted the questions, making the vote invalid. But the Law and Justice supporters massively voted not to change anything in the inhuman policies on the border.

Polish School of Reportage

Another statement that caused a real storm was an article published a month after the election. “Families with children, an educated Afghan woman, a pregnant woman – people like those in Holland’s film are exceptions on the border,” wrote Małgorzata Tomczak, a reporter present at the border during the crisis, in the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza on 17 November 2023.

The text began with strong words:

After two years of writing about migration and the border crisis, I have no doubt that we are generating false knowledge. For two years, the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border has been presented in two narratives: the openly anti-immigration one, which refers to security, and the humanitarian one, which focuses on the violation of asylum rights and often refers to the Holocaust. 

In her text, Tomczak deals with the myths surrounding the border, showing the truth of the statistics and the iron reality of the border, claiming that in the end, the reality is more complex than both popular narratives. The article sparked quite a discussion, including strong responses from those engaged in humanitarian aid, but it remained within the bubble of expert journalism. Ending with very detailed conclusions, the following replicas did not bring about easy messages that the modern public could swallow easily. One very important point in the debate was that this border changed over time – at the beginning there were many small children and women at the border – and this was portrayed by Holland – and later in 2022 there were many more men willing to fight more actively to cross the border.

Outside the bubble, however, the text sent a clear message. Politicians from Kamiński’s parties said directly: “We were right”. They claimed that the entire image of a border humanitarian crisis was not based on real human tragedies, but on the imagination of Polish journalists, on fantasy. And here one must know that Polish journalists can have a huge imagination. A few years ago, a debate sparked the journalist world here about the legacy of so-called Polish School of Reportage, including such questions as: is one entitled to invent a significant part of the journalistic material to make the story stronger? how far can a journalist’s fantasy go, even in a noble cause? how much is good reporting about documentation and how much about literary skill? The debate did not leave even the greatest untouched, as it was proven that the legendary reporter Ryszard Kapuściński invented some of the stories he included in his famous reports from Africa.

Reality 

The situation on the border, however, continues on its own brutal course. A week after the elections of October 15, namely on October 23, 2023, a dead body of a foreigner was found near in the village of Dobrowoda. Another foreigner died in the presence of a Polish patrol. On November 4, the body of a Syrian was found. Moreover, the next day, a Polish soldier shot another migrant. According to one of the soldiers, it was the result of an ‘unfortunate accident’. 

Although all of these stories were described by the media, they did not intensify the public debate. The post-electoral turbulences were significant enough to consume most of it. This is no longer clearly a time of loud headlines and increased action on social media.

However, the topic comes back from time to time. For example, on 27 January, Marcin Wiącek, the Polish Ombudsman for Human Rights, presented a report on his activities in 2023 to the Sejm. He stated that

“As a result of the complaints of the Ombudsman to administrative courts, the jurisprudence of these courts confirmed that the actions taken from 2021 towards migrants crossing the Polish-Belarusian border, consisting in returning them to the border, are based on inappropriate legal bases, violating the constitution and international protection standards of human rights.”

In fact, the Polish Border Guard constantly informs about attempts to cross the border. They never provide details of specific situations, rather just quote numbers, unless there is an accident or whether the information is released to the press. The Border Guards rarely mention people, just ‘attempts to get to Poland in an illegal manner’.

On March 6, on the other hand, we read: “In the last 2 days (4 and 5/03) on the border with Belarus 🇧🇾, 105 attempts to illegally enter Poland were recorded.” This is given together with statistics corresponding to the number of passports checked at the border with Ukraine, cars checked at the border with Slovakia, etc.

An comments follow, like this one: “Why is the concertina removed right in front of the barrier on the ground? Now they can jump off the barrier too easily. The fact that there is an additional line on the other side of the technical road (and that’s a good thing) is a separate matter”. 

Occasionally, you can only see groups of people walking along the border-wall aimlessly: 

In other videos, we actually see bottles and flares thrown at the Border Guard, but there is nothing more, no refugees, no Belorussian soldiers. Last but not least, the numbers provided by the services are impossible to verify, and we do not actually know what they represent. Does the number given refer to people who were on the other side of the wall? Or maybe about the number of situations, e.g. fights and clashes at the wall? We will never know.

We will not even know whether the numbers are real. And there is no willingness on the government’s side to adopt a more humane language or to look for humanitarian solutions. The same people who criticized Law and Justice for inhuman behaviour eventually decided it would be fine to do the same.

Debate? 

So what about pushing the migrants back, which is, as Marcin Wiącek proves, simply illegal? Well, the European Union supports pushbacks, thus weakening international law with its actions, in particular that relating to migrants and refugees. Courts can say what they want, activists and politicians can too, and Frontex’s policy is inexorable and unchanging.

A contribution to this discussion was an interview published on Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) website, beginning with the words: “Poland has neither migration nor integration policy, and the coalition agreement does not mention migration at all. The minimum expected from the new government is the decriminalization of assistance at the border and the initiation of a serious debate on necessary solutions, in which we will treat migrants as people”, says Maciej Duszczyk from the Migration Research Center. But perhaps it is the title which says the most – “You can’t end pushbacks right away.” This article, in a sense, opened the way to freezing the topic of what was happening at the border, giving the new authorities a carte blanche to do what they considered right on the Polish-Belarusian border. This happened, probably despite the intention behind the participants of this conversation, who called for the decriminalization of assistance to refugees.

The current government of Poland coincided with the provisions of the new Migration Pact. From the standpoint of the EU member states, the solidarity mechanism is the focal point of the Pact. It is a de facto counterbalance to the concept of forced migratory relocation, which was a failure of the previous Commission’s migration policy and, more importantly, of the concept’s creator, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The existing system operates on the assumption that a state in need of assistance approaches others. They may take over a certain number of migrants or provide the material or financial help required to handle the emergency.

Since Brussels asserts that this procedure might operate as a draw for migration, all information about it will be kept private. The European Commission and the member states will primarily determine whether the situation qualifies as a crisis, and the crisis itself cannot last for more than a year. While there is no significant dispute inside the EU about this system, the opposition in Poland, whose government negotiated the whole Pact during the previous term, asserts that Poland will be compelled to take migrants. It will be compelled to assist nations experiencing hardship, but it is generally expected that Poland would rather offer financial aid (and, perhaps, a know-how how to push people back) than accept any refugees inside the borders.

There are only non-governmental organisations who protest the principles of the Migration Pact. Nobody else in Poladn points out how the first-contact nations will have much more authority to send migrants back to their home countries. In order to achieve this, the EC increased its collaboration with other nations, concluding further accords based mostly on the idea that Brussels would pay a nation to keep its migrants within its borders. In this context, agreements with Egypt are now being discussed, while they have already been struck with Tunisia and Libya.

And the reality of refugees stuck in these countries is far from good.  In return for funding, Tunisia committed to strengthen border restrictions. This led to the creation of refugee camps far from the eyes of Europeans, camps that resemble colonial facilities from the darkest years of colonialism. A similar situation takes place in Libya. After settlements were reached, more than 82,000 migrants and refugees have been forced to return to Libya. The conditions of refugees were described as “hellish” by Amnesty International. The same goes for Tunisia, which is one of the main benefactors of the regional anti-migration agreements. African refugees have been driven by Tunisia into sweltering no-man’s-lands with few supplies of food and water around its borders. 

These agreements and future rules are criticised by non-governmental organisations, who say they are racist and discriminatory. NGOs also question if their ships, which are supposed to be used for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, won’t be considered hostile entities that help to instrumentalize the situation. MEPs who support clarifying the relevant legislation concur with these reservations. Non-governmental groups also fault the EU for not doing more to safeguard youngsters. There might be a disturbance in the family if one sibling is granted asylum under the new laws, and others are rejected.

All these provisions will be discussed by both ‘liberal and democratic’ and ‘far right’ governments, who agree surprisingly often on the migration questions. Just like in Poland the change of government did not change the reality on the border. So let me finish with the words of Agnieszka Holland, the author of Green Border, who recently received the first major film Polish award, the Eagle, and commented on this occasion:  

“I also showed this film in many European countries – at festivals and at film premieres. The reaction was similar everywhere. Simultaneously, the government in Poland has changed. The one I voted for. I should be happy. Meanwhile, on the border we talked about, things are still happening that shouldn’t be happening. I know: geopolitics, big issues, border security. But I also know that when the border guards continue to torture people and show contempt for them, there is no victory for democracy. Because there is no democracy without humanity. If, given the dilemma of comfort or values, we choose comfort, in the end we will have neither comfort nor values ​​and those monsters who are fighting our friends, brothers, and sisters across our Eastern border, will win”.

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