Fortress Europe: The Poland-Belarus Border Crisis

Anna Padiasek

Armed soldiers, police hounds, stranded children, and exhausted men and women – these are the images people in Eastern Poland have become accustomed to since August 2021. Because of Lukashenko’s trafficking scheme, thousands of refugees from Yemen, Syria, and Iraq have been brought to Eastern European forests. Most of these migrants, fleeing in the hope of a better life, are met with inhumane treatment on the Polish-Belarusian border. Stuck in limbo on the EU’s external flank, refugees have been re-transported to Belarus by the Polish border control, in many cases without even being given the option of claiming asylum. The human rights abuses on the border are extensive – from physical violence to invigilation of people’s identities and movements. The EU has turned a blind eye to this subject repeatedly, at most declaring their “solidarity with Poland” during this crisis. The lack of reaction from the organisation seems to be a part of the EU’s new refugee policy which seeks to directly target individuals trying to enter Europe through both technology and physical force. This is a drastic change from the EU’s 2015 response which focused on coordinating asylum procedures and migrant redistribution between member states. By tightening border control and stricter monitoring of movements on its grounds and waters, the EU has shifted towards a pre-emptive approach.

Polish border control officers are utilising the Israeli software Cellebrite which allows them to break security barriers in migrants’ phones and copy data deemed helpful in protecting the country’s sovereignty. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and thermal imaging cameras furthermore facilitate all-day monitoring. The latest plans of the Polish government include building a £300m wall with motion sensors along its 200-kilometre border. On multiple occasions, the country has also sent automated texts to foreign mobiles in the border area, telling people not to attempt entry from Belarus. All these actions must be understood within the EU’s strategic moves towards increased border security to deter refugees through member states’ efforts or the EU’s border force, Frontex.

UAVs are commonly used by Frontex to scan Mediterranean waters for refugees and migrants trying to get into the EU. Last year, the organisation awarded a £91m contract to Heron and Hermes drones, both of which have been used before by the Israeli military in Gaza. These machines can fly for more than 30 hours and beam almost real-time feed to Frontex’s headquarters. Data on the position of migrants at sea are later shared with African coastguards, which perform ‘pullbacks’ of refugee boats from the EU waters.

The EU’s  member states have also invested in innovative surveillance methods. Greece has been opening refugee camps with military-grade fencing and CCTV to track people’s movements, while Hungary and Latvia until recently were testing the iBorderCtrl project – AI-powered lie detectors at border checkpoints. Though praised as a success  by the EU, lie detector trials have been scrutinised by scientists and they have found them to be ‘pseudoscience’. Lie-detection systems were designed to analyse whether individuals entering the European Union were truthful about their personal background and intentions, but these are based on non-verbal, mimical expressions formed under immensely stressful conditions. Specialists in forensic psychology therefore argue that there is no evidence to assume that there is a link between lying and fidgeting.

The EU’s tech-centred response to refugee movements has been largely criticised by NGOs working with migrants and asylum-seekers. According to them, such actions will fail to be a successful deterrent as those that look for a safer place to live will take riskier ways to fulfil that goal. This may possibly even result in the deepening of the humanitarian crises on the EU’s external borders. Critical voices are also coming from MEPs, with German MEP Özlem Demirel underlining that “The EU is always talking about values like human rights, [speaking out] against violations but … week-by-week we see more people dying and we have to question if the EU is breaking its values”.

In shifting its focus from social to security issues, the European Union has forgotten those losing and sacrificing the most in this crisis. Refugees, subjected to increased surveillance on all of EU’s external borders, will have to endure even harsher times as winter approaches. It remains to be seen if the introduced policies will succeed in reducing refugee movements, or whether the money spent on these new technologies could have been used in a more efficient way.


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