Refugee Crisis At The Polish-Belarusian Border- Foul Play With International Law

Aditya Rajpal Dalal, Gujarat National Law University.

Europe is presently witnessing a refugee crisis that is far worse in magnitude than the one it faced during World War II. The present attitude of most of the countries towards the refugee crisis in Europe exhibits a lot of hypocrisy, because these countries of the West which advocate and preach for human rights and inclusivity, have perhaps exhibited selective inclusivity and have often shown the border (in the literal sense) to the refugees seeking asylum and shown them the way out. By the end of the year 2020, about 82.4 million people all around the world have turned into refugees because of conflict, persecution, or violence, which paints a very dull picture full of despair.

Migrants gather in a camp near the Belarusian-Polish border as they attempt to cross it in the Grodno region.

The current situation at Poland-Belarus is very alarming as there are thousands of refugees who are stranded along the border caught in the middle of a political fiasco whose causes and consequences span around the entirety of Europe and revolve around the European Union. The refugees at the border are living in terrible circumstances, left alone, to fetch for themselves in the forests in Belarus near the border with Poland. Some of them have already lost their fight and succumbed to the brutal cold.

Belarus first asked the refugees to come to Minsk via airways and then directly took them to the borders and reportedly gave wire-cutters to cut open the barbed fences located at the Polish border in a bid to either save themselves and take asylum in Poland or face the cold and die in the forest. The refugees are suffering a shortage of food and there are incidents of abuse by the Belarusian authorities as well. Poland also pushes back refugees who enter Poland without crossing legally at formal checkpoints. Instead of adopting a humanitarian approach and allowing some sort of assistance to these helpless asylum-seekers, Poland has also adopted a hostile approach towards them and has employed a lot of troops (including 20,000 border police) in order to combat the issue of illegal migrants crossing the Polish border from Belarus. As the tension between the two countries increased, and the dreadful state of affairs of the migrants further worsened, the migrants also hurled stones at the Polish authorities who retaliated fiercely by employing water cannons.

The reason for this sly and inhumane tactic by Belarus might perhaps be to fight back the European Union, which has recently put a lot of sanctions on the country due to its violations of human rights and the dictatorial practices approached by the President of Belarus. This was a political move by Belarus and it used the refugees as pawns in furtherance of its own political agenda. After there was a lot of international attention towards this incident, there was a slight change in the ways of the Belarusian government, which repatriated some of the refugees back to their own countries. It must be noted that Poland’s reaction is equally worse and inhumane and has therefore been condemned by Amnesty International.

International Legislations And Principles

A very fundamental principle that has been violated in this political fiasco concerning the refugees, is the principle of non-refoulement which has assumed the role of customary international law. This principle places the rights and safety of the refugees on a pedestal and says that they cannot be sent back to the countries from which they had escaped for their lives, and should therefore be granted asylum.

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees also provides for various measures which countries must undertake in order to protect refugees and provide rehabilitation. The 1951 Convention is also supplemented by the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Both these international instruments have been adopted by 76% of all countries.  Protection of refugees and affording them protection is also in consonance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


The actions of both Poland and Belarus are in violation of settled norms of international law which state that no refugee who has already fled violence or prosecution in a country and seeks help from another country should be sent back to the country from which he came from. Poland has violated this principle by pushing back refugees who crossed the Belarusian border and using water cannons on them instead of allowing them safe passage into their country and granting asylum. Poland’s actions are indeed a brash violation of international law which has been designed for safeguarding the rights and interests of the refugees. Similarly, Belarus has also violated international law by toying with the human rights of the refugees and subjecting them to life in an unbearable environment, while also using them as pawns for furthering their political agenda. Forced repatriation of those refugees who ultimately shall not get any refuge in Belarus, or Latvia or Lithuania would again lead to refoulement. 

The United Nations should take strict action against these countries who have disregarded the rights of the refugees and should probably come up with a plan as to how these refugees who have escaped terrible conditions back home can get refuge in other countries of Europe. The human rights and safety of these refugees should be the top-most priority and receive utmost concern from all countries in the world, and should most definitely override political considerations.

Views expressed are the author’s own, 

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