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Kurds in Poland, and why they hunger strike

August 16, 2022
topics: Refugees and Asylum
by: Robert Bociaga
located in: Poland, Belarus, Iraq
tags: asylum seekers, Kurds, Poland, Refugee Convention

Kurdish asylum seekers held at a closed detention centre in Poland have recently suspended a 35-day hunger strike. The men demanded release from their prolonged confinement.

The hunger strike at the Lesznowola Guarded Centre For Aliens, which began on 4 May, is the second hunger strike reported at the facility. Earlier, five Syrians protested and after a ten-day hunger strike were released from detention.  

Following in their footsteps, Kurdish asylum seekers had sent a letter to the centre's authorities containing a list of demands, including their immediate release.

Their hunger strike was ultimately suspended due to threats made by the facility's authorities to separate the inmates and transfer them to other detention centers with worse conditions.

The men argue that the deteriorating health of one of them had also contributed to their decision to suspend the strike, as well as the fact that one of them was severely beaten and threatened with additional violence if he did not start eating.

The detention of people who cross the Poland-Belarus border through forests is carried out almost automatically. This is despite the fact that Polish law prohibits the detention of people whose confinement may pose a threat to their health or life, as well as those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, are victims of war, torture or violence. 

At the same time, several Polish human rights organisations stress that courts sanctioning migrants' detention rarely take the person's health condition into consideration. 

FROM THe MIDDLE EAST TO THE Poland-Belarus BORDER

Kurdish people constitute the world's largest ethnic group that does not have its own state. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, British colonial powers did not recognise the right of the Kurds to self-determination, and today the Kurdish-populated region is divided between Turkey (where Kurds make up less than 20 percent of the total population), Iraq (15-20 percent), Iran (roughly 13 percent) and Syria (about 7 percent). Smaller groups of Kurds also live in Armenia, Azerbaijan and across Europe.

Iraqi Kurdistan gained autonomy in the early 1990s after the American military intervention during the Gulf War. Now, the region enjoys considerable independence from the central government in Baghdad. It has its own government and parliament, and the recent independence referendum held in 2017 affirmed Iraqi Kurds' hope for full self-determination.

However, decades of underdevelopment have made their lives extremely difficult, and many of them live in poverty, trapped between armed conflicts and lack of economic opportunities. 

But how did they end up on the Poland-Belarus border?

Many of them were lured to board flights to the border area by social media smugglers who falsely advertised the route as a safe one. 

Seeking to foment tensions in the EU following the pro-democracy protests in Belarus, the Lukashenko regime  instructed Belarusian tourist agencies to disseminate ads offering transportation to the European Union for a certain amount of money.

Polish immigration officers strictly patrolled the borders, and stood accused of forced push-backs of asylum seekers, an act that violates international law. Polish officers did not exclude children from their campaign, and reportedly led to the deaths of at least 8 people from hypothermia. 

Sporadic crossing attempts persist

October and November 2021 marked the peak of the immigration crisis at the Belarus-Poland border, but cases of the Kurdish families seeking refuge in Poland continue to resurface from time to time. 

Eliza Rutynowska, a lawyer at the Civil Development Forum, stressed that Polish authorities failed to comply with international laws.

"In an attempt to take advantage of the state of emergency, and by an unlawful decree aimed at suspending the the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the [Polish] government claims that officers have the right to violate basic human rights guarantees, such as the principle of non-refoulement, i.e. non-return to a country dangerous to a person seeking international protection," Rutynowska said.

Poland's Interior and Administration Ministry has refused to speak with journalists on the subject of foreigners along the Poland-Belarus border.

Between desperation and hope

Avin Hussein, a Kurdish woman, sold her house to a smuggler in order to cross the Poland-Belarus border with her three children. After spending 14 days in a Belarusian forest, repelled by Polish and Lithuanian guards, Hussein returned to Kurdistan.

Avin Irfan Zaher, on the other hand, was not so lucky. On 3 December 2021, Polish media reported her death from hypothermia and sepsis.

For Kurds, any piece of information regarding a new migration route offers hope for change. Often, their determination to flee their home country is so great that the decision to migrate is made despite an awareness of the attendant risks of the journey.

Alas, Kurds who successfully cross the border into Poland are being detained for an extended period of time, and against the law, human rights activists claim.

"I respect Polish law, and I understand that I would spend here two or three months," a detained Kurdish man told a Polish media outlet, "but I don't understand why they have kept me here for five months."  

"Some people have been here eight, ten months. I haven't seen my son during that time," he added.

At detention centres, migrants await a decision from the Office for Foreigners on whether they'd face deportation or be granted asylum in Poland. The Office for Foreigners has six months to deliver a decision, but in practice procedures are prolonged.

In the meantime, detainees are not permitted to leave the closed centres, have no contact with the outside world and no access to their personal cellphones. They also often lack adequate medical and psychological care, according to an assessment by Poland’s Ombudsman's Office. 

But the rhetoric used by Polish politicians and high-level officials seems to be the biggest problem when it comes to Kurdish asylum seekers. Under the cloak of caring for security and territorial integrity, Poland's ruling party has refused to treat Kurds as typical asylum seekers. A significant portion of Poles supported this view, while some celebrities who opposed the pushback were fired from government television posts.

For Jelena Sesar, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International, "The behaviour of the Polish authorities smacks of racism and hypocrisy."

In her view, "Poland should urgently extend its admirable compassion for those entering the country from Ukraine to all those crossing its borders seeking safety." 

Image by Hasan Almasi

Article written by:
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Robert Bociaga
Author
Poland Belarus Iraq
Items, including a tent, sleeping bags and articles of clothing, lie at the spot where the night before the Polish Border Guard picked up a group of 10 Kurdish migrants, including five children, not far from the border to Belarus on 13 November, 2021.
© Sean Gallup
Migrants stay in the transport and logistics centre near the Bruzgi border point on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on 19 November, 2021.
© LEONID SHCHEGLOV
A man sits in a mosque by the repatriated body of Iraqi Kurdish migrant Gailan Diler, who died while trying to cross into Poland via Belarus on 15 November, 2021.
© SAFIN HAMED
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