While the refugee crisis triggered by the Syrian conflict has gotten wall-to-wall news coverage in Europe, Poland has been barely a blip on the migration radar. Unlike other EU border states such as Greece, Hungary, and Italy, Poland has not seen a major spike in asylum seekers from places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, due to a large extent to its geographical location away from the main migration routes.
Yet the comparatively low numbers of Syrians and Afghans arriving in Poland mask a rather dramatic and largely obscured development: the increase in the number of asylum seekers from Tajikistan.
In the first half of 2016, 660 Tajiks sought asylum in Poland, already surpassing the total of 527 Tajik asylum applicants in all of 2015. If the current arrival rate continues, the number of Tajik asylum seekers may well surpass the 1,000 mark by the end of the year. To put things in perspective, there were just 105 asylum seekers from Tajikistan in 2014 and they were virtually unheard of in years prior.
Within just a year and a half, Tajiks have overtaken Ukrainians as the second largest group of asylum seekers in Poland. The numbers would arguably be even higher given the fact that Polish border authorities prevented more than 3,000 Tajik nationals from entering the country in 2015. While Poland has been a traditional country of transit and destination for Chechen asylum seekers, who continue to comprise by far the largest refugee group in Poland, the surge in arrivals from Tajikistan is a new development.
Fleeing an Unprecedented Crackdown
The timing for the arrival of Tajik asylum seekers at Poland’s borders coincides with Dushanbe’s crackdown on the political opposition, which kicked into full gear in September 2015. There had already been signs of mounting repression in the month prior marked by the assassination of Umarali Kuvvatov, a prominent Tajik opposition leader in exile, on March 5, 2015 in Istanbul and the attempted extradition of Sobir Valiev, a member of the same Group 24 opposition group as Kuvvatov, in early August 2015, from Moldova to Tajikistan based on trumped up charges of extremism.
By September 2015 Tajikistan’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, had been shut down, followed by a flurry of arrests on September 16. The arrests targeted members of Tajikistan’s civil society — from human rights activists to journalists and members of the opposition. Described by Steven Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch as the “worst political and religious crackdown since the end of the country’s civil war,” the Tajik government’s repressive campaign has turned into a full-fledged human rights crisis with the prospect of imprisonment and torture hanging over alleged government critics and their families.
Tajik Refugees Headed to the Polish Border
Since Tajiks can travel to Belarus and Russia without a visa, Poland is the closest EU member state within reach for those seeking to find protection as asylum seekers. A large number of Tajiks have made their way to the Brest/Terespol border crossing, where they attempt to cross into Poland by train, following in the footsteps of the much more numerous Chechen refugees. Most Tajiks try to claim asylum at the border as few have managed to obtain Schengen visas given the absence of a Polish embassy in Dushanbe and many had to leave the country in a hurry, often after receiving a court summons, the precursor to a possible arrest.
Once at the Polish border, however, most Tajik asylum seekers never get the chance to ask for asylum. According to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Tajik refugees have been systematically prevented from applying for asylum at the border by Polish border guards who send Tajik asylum seekers back to Belarus on a daily basis, in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention. As a result, Tajik asylum seekers try their luck multiple times, with some making upwards of 40-50 unsuccessful attempts to lodge their asylum claims at the border. A community of Tajik refugees has formed in the border town of Brest, staying in hotels and temporary apartments under the close watch of Belarusian security forces. Locals are profiting from their protracted stay at the border by renting out apartments at above-market prices.
Tajik refugees are anxious to leave Belarus, fearing the very real threat of being extradited back to Tajikistan. These fears are by no means unfounded: Shabnam Khudoydodova, a Tajik migrant living in Russia who made online posts critical of her country’s government, was detained for eight months in Belarus awaiting extradition to Tajikistan after being pushed back by Polish border guards. Her eventual release in February 2016 occurred as a result of international outcry, spearhead by major human rights organizations.
Tajiks fleeing persecution are wary of seeking protection in Russia and other CIS countries given the precedent of extra-judicial extraditions, the close cooperation between Russian and Tajik security services, and the high levels of xenophobia toward Tajiks in Russia. In November 2014, Maksud Ibragimov — the leader of the Russian-based “Youth of Tajikistan for Revival” organization — was stabbed outside his Moscow home before being arrested by Russian authorities and subsequently smuggled out of the country and back to Dushanbe in the baggage hold of an aircraft — all this despite him being a Russian citizen. In Tajikistan, Ibragimov was sentenced to 17 years in prison for extremist activities.
Persecution at Home, Barriers in Poland
Those who do manage to cross into Poland — on average just two to three Tajik asylum seekers are let in per day, according to Polish NGOs — find themselves in a difficult and precarious situation. Poland has a very poor track record of granting protection; out of more than 6,000 asylum applicants since the beginning of 2016, only 45 were granted refugee status by Polish authorities. Out of the 541 Tajik asylum applicants in 2015, just one individual managed to obtain asylum.
Judging by Polish asylum statistics, a vast majority of Tajiks move on to countries in Western Europe after filing their asylum applications at the border. In 2015, over 92 percent of all asylum applications filed by Tajik citizens were withdrawn due to the absence of the applicant, presumably due to the refugees having migrated onward to Germany. Though some are sent back to Poland on the basis of the EU Dublin Convention — which prescribes for asylum seekers to be sent back to the country where they first filed their application — most end up slipping through the cracks, living as undocumented refugees in other EU countries rather than remaining in Poland.
With the election of a right-wing government in Poland in late 2015 boasting an openly anti-migrant platform, things are looking increasingly bleak for Tajik refugees headed to Europe. While the Polish Border Guard insists that it is merely upholding Schengen regulations and “fighting illegal migration,” Polish NGOs and human rights organizations accuse the Polish authorities of engaging in illegal push-backs of Tajik asylum seekers in particular in the buffer zone between the Polish and Belarusian checkpoints, away from the eyes of UNHCR and other outside observers. In an open letter to the European Ombudsman and a number of international agencies, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights called on the international community to “pressure the Polish government to act in accordance with its international obligations” and allow asylum seekers to file their claims in accordance with the law.
Despite the dramatic increase in their numbers, the plight of Tajik asylum seekers on the Polish border remains on the margins of the broader European refugee crisis. Poland may be witnessing an unprecedented spike in arrivals, but the Tajik influx is overshadowed by the much larger flows fleeing violence and persecution in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. There is also little evidence to suggest that Tajik migration to Poland may turn into a broader exodus from Central Asia as the numbers of asylum seekers from neighboring countries has been close to zero. Should the type of political crackdown seen in Tajikistan emerge in other Central Asian countries, we could well see more Central Asian refugees making their way to the Polish border. For the time being, Tajik refugees are stuck in limbo between persecution from an authoritarian government at home and the unwillingness of Polish authorities to provide them the protection they are so desperately searching for.
Yan Matusevich is a migration researcher and analyst with an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. His work focuses on migrant rights in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.