WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that Poland is endangering asylum-seekers fleeing persecution in the Russian province of Chechnya and elsewhere.
By returning them summarily to Belarus, their springboard into Poland, the organization said the country is not giving them a real chance to request asylum.
Poland's government considers them economic refugees, arguing that there is no war in Chechnya now, and returns almost all the people who have sought sanctuary in Poland.
Lydia Gall, a researcher with the human rights group, disputes that they are economic migrants. She said most feel threatened in their home countries because they are either political opponents to dictatorial regimes, critical journalists, civil rights activists or have been targeted in blood feuds.
She said that the summary returns of Chechens, but also people from Tajikistan and Georgia, have been going on for years but that the numbers jumped sharply in 2016 as crackdowns in those countries intensified.
"It's very disturbing," Gall told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "You don't even have to be the prime target, you might just be related to someone they don't like."
Those refused entry are mostly Muslims, a group that the Polish government has made clear it does not want. Leaders of Poland's populist government say they consider Muslim migrants to be threats to the country's security and its Christian identity.
Typically the asylum-seekers make the short trip from Brest, Belarus, by train just across the border to Terespol, Poland. There they make their cases to be allowed to request asylum in interviews that generally last from two to 10 minutes, Gall said. Those denied entry are returned to Belarus the same day.
In Belarus, they face the risk of being picked up on international arrest warrants and returned to their home countries, where they could face abuse, Gall said.
She also faulted the European Union for what she said was a "failure" to speak out about the matter and she urged the European Commission to press Warsaw to stop the summary returns.
"Poland is putting people in danger by denying them access to its asylum process and returning them to Belarus, where they can't get protection," Gall, a Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher, said in a statement. "Trapping families and others at the Belarus border and refusing to hear their asylum claims is no way for an EU state to behave."