Dr. Amanda Sloat
Special Assistant to the President
Senior Director for Europe
National Security Council
1650 17th St NW,
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Dr. Sloat:
We write on behalf of the United States and the Polish sections of Amnesty International in the weeks before President Biden’s upcoming travel to Poland to commemorate the start of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. We urge President Biden and other members of the administration to use this moment to raise critical human rights concerns in conversations with Polish officials. Specifically, recent policies implemented by the government of Poland have limited space for LGBTI activists and curbed efforts by civil society to help refugees and asylum-seekers, in particular for those crossing the Polish-Belarusian border, rather than the Polish-Ukrainian one. These policies harm the human rights of Poland’s most marginalized people, violate the government’s international obligations, and undermine its standing as a leader in the global coalition in support of Ukraine.
Over the past year, Poland has emerged as a pivotal actor in the international effort to support Ukraine. Partly through the help of a network of courageous civil society leaders and volunteers, Poland welcomed more than 1.5 million refugees fleeing the Russian government’s war against Ukraine. Polish diplomats have played a critical role in organizing efforts to condemn Russian authorities for their war of aggression in Ukraine and ensure that they face accountability for violations of international humanitarian law. The Polish people and the Polish government have both stepped up to provide vital humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, aid that saves lives by giving Ukrainians access to desperately needed medicine, hygiene products and clothing.
At the same time, the Polish government has undertaken a series of domestic measures that have harmed the ability of LGBTI and refugee populations to secure their human rights. Taken together, these measures not only harm marginalized groups but amount to an attack on the rule of law and on civil society’s ability to operate freely.
LGBTI People in Poland and their Allies
Polish authorities have alternatively moved to silence LGBTI expression and failed to protect LGBTI people from abuse. This modus operandi of the Polish government is systemic and planned. At varying times, these actions have resulted in harassment, discrimination, and violence directed against LGBTI people and their supporters.
Over the past five years, authorities across Poland have abused legislation that requires demonstrators to notify authorities of their plans to illegitimately restrict protests for LGBTI equality. Amnesty International has documented numerous instances where local authorities have weaponized statutory requirements against organizers of equality marches or pride parades, limiting their ability to demonstrate or saddling them with heavy compliance costs. In cities such as Kielce, Rzeszów, and Lublin, local authorities have slapped so-called “preventative bans” on LGBTI demonstrations under the pretext that such demonstrations would provoke a hostile reaction from the local population. In other cases, activists have faced criminal charges for displaying a rainbow Pride flag and protestors against Poland’s “LGBTI-Free Zones” have been slapped with civil lawsuits. The very existence of these “LGBT ideology-free zones”, supported by the Polish Government, cannot be reconciled with human rights.
Demonstrators who are able to gather in defense of LGBTI rights often find that security services are unable or unwilling to protect them against hostile and sometimes violent counter protesters. Following the conclusion of the Warsaw Pride March in 2021, two demonstrators wearing a rainbow flag were assaulted by two men with telescopic batons. In another case, a man was pepper sprayed and beaten in the city of Łódź. The police refused to recognize the attack as homophobic even though the man was returning from an equality march and prominently wearing LGBTI emblems. In fact, none of the incidences of violence against LGBTI people in Poland documented in Amnesty International’s 2022 report “They Treat Us Like Criminals,” were prosecuted as hate crimes.
Attacks Against Civil Society Assisting Migrants and Asylum Seekers crossing the Polish-Belarusian border
Polish authorities have provided entry to over 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, a welcome that stands in stark contrast with their treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing conflicts in other parts of the world. Since July 2021, the Polish government has detained hundreds of people attempting to cross into Poland at its border with Belarus. Many of the migrants and refugees detained have been forced across the Poland-Belarus border by Belarusian security personnel after originally fleeing extremely dangerous environments in Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Individuals attempting to cross often include families with small children and people with disabilities or illnesses who have spent weeks in the forest at below-freezing temperatures and without access to shelter, food, water, or medical care.
Upon arriving to the Polish border, these migrants and asylum seekers are greeted with razor wire and armed guards. In many cases documented by Amnesty International, they have been pushed back across the border to Belarus without the opportunity to submit a claim for asylum. Often, migrants and asylum-seekers are then “ping-ponged” back and forth between the two countries, pushed back by Polish authorities and forced by Belarusian security services to cross the border back again, sometimes through violent means including beatings and being threatened with police dogs. The government of Poland’s actions have been enabled by amendments to the Law on Border Protection, adopted in November 2021, which gave the Minister of Interior power to impose restrictions on freedom of movement along the border with Belarus, functionally legalizing pushbacks.
People who entered Poland have consistently ended up in months-long detention in closed centers for foreigners. Individuals detained in these centers are rarely charged with a crime yet are still held under armed guarded and deprived of contact with the outside world. Polish authorities currently maintain six such guarded centers across the country. These centers provide little privacy and people detained have limited access to sanitary facilities, medical support, or legal assistance.
Where the Polish government has failed to provide assistance to migrants and asylum seekers crossing the border with Belarus, Polish civil society has filled the gap. Activists providing direct services to people at the border have been subjected to verbal abuse, random ID checks, held at gun point, and threatened with prosecution.
During the upcoming visit to Poland, we urge senior administration officials to call on their Polish counterparts to:
- Repeal and reinterpret articles of the Criminal Code used to suppress LGBTI expression: The Polish Government must repeal Articles 137 and 196 of the Criminal Code, which criminalize “Insults to state symbols” and “offending religious beliefs”, respectively, as they are in clear contravention of the right to freedom of expression. It must also ensure that Articles 261 of the Criminal Code and Article 108 of the Act on Protection of the Historical Monuments are not interpreted and abused in a way that targets and harasses LGBTI rights defenders.
- End the selective use of administrative measure to silence LGBTI activists: The Polish Government must immediately stop its selective use of preventative bans against LGBTI demonstrators and enable peaceful assembly for all people.
- Ensure civil society access to migrants at the border and in detention: By supporting migrants and asylum-seekers on the Belarusian border, Polish civil society groups have filled the void left by the Polish government. Officials’ efforts to halt their work and intimidate them represents an unconscionable interference in legitimate civil society work and imperils those who rely on their services. The Polish Government must allow civil society organizations to provide assistance to migrants and asylum seekers and must grant rights monitors access to detention facilities.
- Restructure asylum processes: The Government of Poland must stop the practice of automatically and detaining people entering the country from Belarus for prolonged periods of time and ensure that all asylum-seekers have access to fair and effective asylum procedures.
- Repeal legislation that legalizes “pushbacks” and impedes the human rights of asylum seekers: A raft of legislation and regulation empowers the Polish government to violate the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. In October 2021, the Sejm passed legislation that allows the government to force people who have crossed irregularly into Poland and to disregard applications for international protection filed by asylum seekers. Other national legislation temporarily decreased the minimum standard for personal living space in closed centers holding refugees.
Daniel Balson Dr. Adam Ploszka
Advocacy Director for Eurasia Senior Advocacy Coordinator
Amnesty International USA Amnesty International Poland