The report was previously updated in April 2021.
- Access to the territory: Access to the Polish territory at the Polish-Belarusian border became the most significant challenge in 2021. The number of foreign nationals wanting to cross the border increased significantly in mid-2021. In response Poland militarized the border, prevented access to international protection procedure and blocked access to the border zone by introducing the emergency state. As a result, foreign nationals were left stranded at the border for months and those who managed to get through were pushed back to the Belarusian side. The situation quickly became a humanitarian crisis, with people found in the dense woods, suffering from exhaustion and hypothermia. Approximately 21 persons were found dead by mid-December 2021.
The situation at the Polish-Belarusian border gave rise to controversial legislative changes, which allow for an expulsion in a simplified procedure and restrict the possibility to apply for international protection for persons intercepted in the border area.
- First instance procedure: In 2021, a total of 7,698 applications for international protection were lodged, thus marking a significant increase compared to 2020 dominated by the pandemic (2,803 applications). The recognition rate at first instance increased significantly, with more than a half of applicants whose cases were examined in 2021 receiving refugee status or subsidiary protection. The recognition rate was influenced by the evacuation of nearly 1100 Afghans who were then granted refugee status. The vast majority of applicants granted subsidiary protection were Belarusians. Identification of vulnerable applicants remains the main procedural challenge.
- Second instance procedure: The chances of success of appeals at second instance remain very low. In 2021, out of 1,118 persons whose appeals were examined, 1107 had their decision left unchanged. The Refugee Board did not grant any refugee status and only granted subsidiary protection to 11 persons throughout the year. The Voivodeship Administrative Court in Warsaw continued to grant suspensive effect to the majority of appeals against decisions on international protection in 2021 if they concerned first applications. Moreover, on the basis of the COVID Law, the time limit to leave Poland continues to be extended by 30 days after the epidemic state (or the state of epidemic threat) is finished.
- Nationalities of applicants: In 2021 the main country of origin of applicants was Belarus, while in the previous years it was mainly Russian Federation. Second biggest group were Afghans, which was influenced by 1100 Afghans evacuated to Poland. In 2022 (as of 11 May) 3,296 million persons came from Ukraine to Poland as a result of war, most of them were Ukrainians. However, thanks to the introduced facilitations, they did not have to apply for international protection. See more information in the box on the situation in Poland after 24 February 2022.
- Access to reception conditions: The lack of access to material reception conditions is particularly worrying for persons who are waiting to officially apply for asylum as they are not – by law – entitled to any benefits during that waiting time. Moreover, the humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border in 2021 left many prospective asylum seekers without access to food, water, shelter and medical assistance.
- Forms and levels of reception conditions: The number of reception centres dropped in 2021: at the end of the year only eight reception centres were operating (down from ten in 2020). Still more asylum seekers lived privately than in reception centres. The financial allowance that is provided to them to meet basic needs remained insufficient. Despite the governments’ plans to slightly increase it from 1st January 2022, the ordinance in this regard has not been adopted.
- Conditions in reception facilities: the amount and quality of food served in the reception centres was heatedly debated due to the mushroom poisoning in the Dębak centre that led to death of two children.
- Access to education: During COVID-19 pandemic asylum-seeking children continued to face obstacles in participating in online classes due to a shortage of computers and other necessary tools, conditions or assistance.
- Health care: More complaints about the medical contractor providing health care to asylum seekers (Petra Medica) were submitted in 2021. Asylum seekers were included in COVID-19 vaccinations program, but in practice they faced some obstacles in receiving vaccinations (refusal by doctors to refer asylum seekers for the vaccinations, disinformation and lacking assistance in foreign languages). Only 511 asylum seekers were vaccinated in 2021.
Detention of asylum seekers
- Detention capacity: Due to situation at the Polish-Belarusian border two new detention centres (in Czerwony Bór and Wędrzyn) were opened and the number of available detention places has been increased significantly up to 2308 at the end of 2021 compared to 595 in 2020. Foreigners were placed in containers (in Lesznowola and Kętrzyn) and in a sport hall in Kętrzyn.
- Detention of children: The best interest of the child is not properly assessed in detention proceedings. The courts rely on motions for detention issued by Border Guard, without a proper assessment of individual circumstances and regardless of the best interest of the child. Experts’ opinions are very rarely requested and psychological opinions stating that detention has a negative impact on the child’s well-being are disregarded in practice. Children cannot exercise their right to be heard as they are not involved in detention proceedings. Moreover, detention is not ruled for the shortest period of time and there are little efforts to reduce the duration of detention of children. In 2021 the number of detained children has increased up to 567 in total, whereas in 2020 only 101 children were detained.
- Alternatives to detention: The detention is automatic and is applied as a rule. The use of alternatives to detention continued to be an exception in 2021. During that year, Border Guards issued alternatives to detention in case of 96 asylum seekers and to 737 foreigners. The courts often claim that applying alternatives to detention is impossible, as asylum seekers cross the border unlawfully and there is a risk of escape, they do not have a regular place of residence or savings, ignoring the fact that asylum seekers are entitled to stay in reception centres and receive pocket money.
- Legal assistance in detention: Foreigners are not informed about their right to legal assistance in a court proceeding and they do not receive a Border Guards’ motion on prolongation of their detention. Furthermore, in the district court in Krosno Odrzańskie even the legal representatives, if appointed in detention case, do not take part in the court proceedings. As a result, foreigners or their legal representatives are not able to present their views before the court decides on detention. Additionally, the information on the right to appeal is not translated in foreigners’ language and they are not aware of the right to appeal. In some detention centres migrants have a restricted access to telephones, Internet and printer or scanner which influenced their ability to challenge their detention.
Content of international protection
- Integration: Studies show that housing is one of the major issues for both asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection in Poland. Several reports stress that in many cases beneficiaries face homelessness. In less extreme cases inadequate quality of housing results in slowing down the foreigners’ integration and may have a negative impact on their physical and mental health. Another important gap relates to the lack of specialised medical services for victims of torture or traumatised refugees.
- Labour market: Beneficiaries face problems with learning Polish language and the lack of knowledge of Polish determines limited access to labour market.
- Residence permits: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the validity of the residence cards provided to beneficiaries of international protection was prolonged by law until 30 days after the end of the epidemiological state in Poland.
- Long-term residence: the first-instance procedure concerning the long-term residence permit was prolonged up to 6 months (instead of 3) and the appeal proceedings now should last no longer than 3 months (instead of 2).
Response to the situation in Ukraine as of 10 May 2022
As a result of the Russian invasion that started on 24 February 2022 in the territory of the Ukraine, Poland accepted refugees on an unprecedented scale. According to the Border Guard, 3.296 million persons came from Ukraine to Poland since the war started, mainly Ukrainian nationals. Since the beginning of this crisis, Poland implemented an ‘open-door’ policy. Indeed, on 27 February the Office for Foreigners published on its website that all the people fleeing Ukraine do not have to register anywhere or be concerned about the legality of their stay, including Ukrainian nationals that have already stayed in Poland before the outbreak of the conflict.
Entry to Poland was made possible for people fleeing Ukraine on the basis of the consent of the Border Guard issued for 15 days on the basis of the article 6(5)c of the Schengen Code. However, the representatives of the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights as well as NGOs reported that foreigners of other nationalities than Ukrainian faced more obstacles to cross the border, especially when they did not have passports.
Notwithstanding government’s welcoming approach, it was the Polish society that provided immediate assistance such as food, water, clothes, transport and shelter to people crossing the border from Ukraine to Poland.
On 4 March 2022 the temporary protection status was introduced in the EU by the Council Implementing Decision for people fleeing war in Ukraine, that covered both Ukrainian nationals and third country nationals living in Ukraine before 24 February on the basis of permanent residence permit or refugee status or equivalent form of protection.
On 12 March 2022 special Law on assistance for Ukrainian nationals in connection with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine (Law on assistance) was published and entered into force. Its provisions are applicable since 24 February 2022. This Law concerns Ukrainians who left Ukraine as a result of Russian aggression, came directly to Poland and then declared their intention to stay in Poland. They are entitled to register for the temporary protection status, which gave them the right to stay in Poland for 18 months. To be able to enjoy many other rights, services and benefits associated with this status, persons needed a national registry number (PESEL). Applying for it was made possible from 16 March, also in a less formalized manner. The Law applied also to spouses of Ukrainian nationals not holding Ukrainian citizenship who came to Poland from Ukraine as a result of the war.
All the other persons not covered by the Law on assistance can register for temporary protection status on the basis of the provisions of the Law on Protection, which are based on the Council Implementing Decision. The content of temporary protection status offered on the basis of the Law on Protection to foreign nationals living in Ukraine before the war and not being spouses of Ukrainian nationals is narrower; their status is more similar to international protection applicants, although they gain access to labour market straight after registration as a temporary protection beneficiary. The Commissioner for Human Rights suggested that the Law on assistance – ensuring wider protection than the existing provisions on temporary protection – should be applicable also to foreigners who lived in Ukraine before the war started.
On the basis of the Law on assistance, Ukrainian nationals gained full access to the Polish labour market (no work permit required) and the Polish health care system just like Polish nationals and received a one-off cash allowance for subsistence, amounting to PLN 300 (63 EUR) per person. Ukrainians were also entitled to many social benefits, including family benefits. Children from Ukraine gained the right to attend Polish schools on the same basis as Polish nationals. Many ad-hoc reception centres have been created in sport or concert halls, providing assistance, vaccinations, material help (such as hygiene articles), food and shelter. Also, institutions and private entities could benefit from a special allowance in case they hosted Ukrainian nationals (this allowance was then limited to 120 days).
According to the Office for Foreigners, as of 4 May the number of temporary protection status beneficiaries in Poland was 1.065.983 persons: 1.063.696 Ukrainian nationals and 2.287 foreigners of other nationalities. As of 3 May 2022, in Polish schools of all levels (kindergarten, primary school, secondary school) there were 195.847 Ukrainian children who came after 24 February 2022 r. According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, as of 2 May 2022 more than 102.000 Ukrainian nationals who came after the Russian invasion started currently work in Poland, 75% of whom are women.