Being a Refugee in Poland

Human Wrongs Watch

By Claudia Ciobanu*

Warsaw — 36-year old Iranian Leila Naeimi spent two months in Lesznowola, a migrants’ detention center 15 kilometers south of Polish capital Warsaw. She is still waiting for a decision on her asylum application, but she is too angry at Polish authorities to keep quiet.

Putting asylum-seekers behind bars is common in many European countries, including Central Europe. Detainees are often not informed of the reasons and duration of their confinement, and do not get proper legal assistance. Detention centre in Biała Podlaska, Poland. | Credit: UNHCR

Putting asylum-seekers behind bars is common in many European countries, including Central Europe. Detainees are often not informed of the reasons and duration of their confinement, and do not get proper legal assistance. Detention centre in Biała Podlaska, Poland. | Credit: UNHCR

“Everywhere you saw only walls, everywhere the guards were with us, and they treated us like animals,” Naeimi recounts, adding that while at Lesznowola she was the victim of verbal sexual harassment and of an overall abusive attitude on the part of the staff.

She says that food in the camp was of poor quality, basic hygiene products were missing, and medical care was suboptimal.

“They think they can do with the lives of people whatever they want, as if I were just a ball they can play around with,” Naeimi bursts out.

Massive Hunger Strike

In the end of October, over 70 migrants from Lesznowola and three other migrant detention centers in Poland went on a coordinated hunger strike to demand better living conditions but also to protest against the use of detention as a migration control mechanism.

The strike went on for a few days until humanitarian organisations visited the camps and promised to work together with the managements to improve every day life inside.

375 migrants were kept in Poland’s six closed centers at the end of October 2012. Among them, 33 children, including at least one baby (one year old); three of the kids were unaccompanied.

Detention centers host foreigners found staying irregularly in Poland, awaiting to be returned to their home countries after their asylum claims have been rejected or after having been caught trying to pass the border illegally from Poland further into the EU.

Majority from former Soviet Union

The most numerous asylum seekers coming into Poland today are from the former Soviet Union. This year has seen over 4,800 asylum applications from Russian citizens, most of them Chechens, and almost 3,000 applications from Georgians. Armenians and Kazakhs, the next largest groups, applied for protection in the hundreds.

Among the migrants detained, Syrians too are a significant presence; in November, they constituted about half of the inmates at Lesznowola, which has a maximum capacity of 36.

Closing East-West Routes

Most of the migrants going on hunger strike in the Polish detention centers were Georgians and Chechens.

At the Warsaw Polish Border Guards Headquarters, the protest was met with little sympathy. According to Colonel Andrzej Jakubaszek, the Director of the Department for Aliens at the Ministry of Interior, most of the migrants striking were not „real” asylum seekers but economic migrants on their way to Western Europe.

“They do not want to stay in Poland,” Jakubaszek claims. “They go further into Europe and we get them back in days, a week, a month. And then we will be asked by the EU what we do to protect the union’s external borders, being positioned as we are.”

Detention As Last Resort

Aleksandra Chrzanowska, from Stowarzyszenie Interwencji Prawnej (Association for Legal Intervention), a non-governmental organisation working with migrants, argues that detention should only be used as a last resort for migration control, which is not the case in Poland.

According to Chrzanowska, authorities should consider offering work permits for groups obviously coming to seek jobs in Poland, as seems to be the case with most Georgians.

Colonel Jakubaszek answers that Polish authorities would have no problem offering work permits were the migrants intent on staying in this country.

But, according to him, they do not and Poland has to face the consequences of migrants entering the EU via Poland moving further West.

Dublin II

The EU Dublin II Regulation, dating from 2003 and applicable in all member states of the EU, which asks for migrants to be fingerprinted as soon as they enter the EU and returned to the first country of access if caught in another place, is on the minds of all Polish authorities dealing with migrants.

Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and became a member of the EU’s free movement Schengen area in 2007. Now, the country has to secure 1,200 kilometers of Eastern border with non-EU members Belarus and Ukraine, one of the hottest land entry points into the EU.

Between 2004 and 2007, Poland received 313 million euros from the Schengen Financial Instrument to strengthen border protection, and funds keep coming. Since 2004, Warsaw is hosting the headquarters of Frontex, the EU border control agency.

After the Schengen entry, Poland has opened new detention centers for migrants, which were put under the authority of the Border Guards. In 2008, a state of the art detention centre at Biala Podlaska, close to the border with Belarus, was set up almost entirely with European Union funds.


The same year, Lesznowola was turned into a guarded center after decades of functioning as a military compound. Its over two meter high concrete walls topped with barbed wire stayed.

In preparation for joining the Schengen space, Poland has had to recant on some of its previous free travel agreements: in 2003, visas for Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians were reintroduced after 24 years of free movement (in 1979, socialist Poland and the Soviet Union had made an agreement to this extent).

Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians have been steadily flowing into Poland ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since 2003, citizens of former Soviet republics wanting to work in Poland typically overstay their tourist visas.

It is estimated that around 150,000 workers perform illegal construction work in Poland during the prime season, most of them Ukrainians. Illegal work in other sectors, such as agriculture or domestic labour, is more difficult to quantify. Since 2006, former Soviet citizens have had access to legal seasonal jobs in agriculture.

Over the past years, Poland has also seen a considerable influx of Georgians. Since 2009, Georgians represent over 40 percent of asylum applicants in Poland, though none of them has received refugee status to date.

Being a Refugee in Poland

Starting with the late 1990s, Poland has seen a gradual increase in asylum seeker numbers, from 3,400 in 1998 to a peak of over 10,500 in 2009. Since 2009, however, numbers of asylum seekers have decreased, with roughly 6,500 applications for international protection being lodged in 2010 and around 6,900 in 2011.

In 2010, the numbers of people receiving international protection dropped as well: according to the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Poland recognised only 82 people as refugees in 2010, a 38 percent decrease compared to 2009, and only 438 people received subsidiary protection that year compared to 2,377 in 2009.

In 2012, by the middle of November, 83 people had received refugee status and 372 had gotten a secondary form of protection, though the number of applicants seems to be on the rise again.

Over 15,000 refugees currently live in Poland. Just like other countries in the region, Poland is slowly adjusting to receiving people who need international protection.


A pilot study published last year by the Polish Institute of Public Affairs concludes that the number of refugees experiencing homelessness in Poland is between 1,400 and 2,120 persons, while UNHCR estimates that up to a third of refugees in the country are confronted with homelessness at one point or another.

According to Katarzyna Oyrzanowska, an integration assistant at the Warsaw UNHCR office, this situation is caused by the limited access to public housing generally in Poland, coupled with landlords’ reluctance to rent to refugees.

Because of negative social attitudes, most refugees are either denied housing outright, or offered higher rent prices to deter them from pursuing a home. Warsaw, which offers five social apartments for refugee families, is currently held up as an example for the rest of the municipalities.

Highest Number of Children Among Asylum Seekers

Poland also has the highest number of children among asylum-seeker and refugee populations in the entire EU, a challenge for the authorities, which are struggling to offer playgrounds and education in reception and detention centers and ensure integration in schools if status is granted.

„All Central and Eastern European countries lack a clear integration strategy for refugees and people with subsidiary protection,” says Nadia Jbour, Senior Regional Protection Officer with the UNHCR. “There is a lack of cross-ministerial cooperation.

Traditionally, NGOs try to fill in the gap. Yet, although there is a lot of goodwill, not all NGOs have the competency to effectively provide some of the services. Many services should be in the first place secured by the governments and guaranteed in their own programmes.”

According to migrants rights groups, Polish authorities are making progress, albeit slowly, on most aspects related to migrants’ reception and integration.

Back at Lesznowola, the management of the camp proudly shows off the children’s play and study room, labelled as funded by the European Union, and full of colourful books and toys.

Just Doing European Politics

The room is locked outside study hours and its cheerfulness stands in sharp contrast with the grey of the barred narrow corridor where the migrants spend most of their time.

“Poland is, after all, doing European politics,” says Aleksandra Chrzanowska, the migrants’ rights activist. “There is huge pressure to securitise the European borders. But all of this should not prevent us from seeing that these people are not criminals and from continuing to look for alternatives for them. The purpose of migration policies cannot be allowed to be punishment.”

*claudiaClaudia Ciobanu is a freelance reporter based in Warsaw, Poland, covering Central and Eastern Europe.

She’s interested in social activism in post-socialist countries. Claudia Ciobanu has written for IPS, TOL, Eurozine, and others.



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One Comment to “Being a Refugee in Poland”

  1. same case happen with my family they were with Leila at Lezsnowola camp “prison” and those guard patrol so animal how they harass my wife and other girl there , i was locked in another prison at Biala podlaska.
    I will explain refugee status in poland = Hell


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