“I had heard that I could reach the European Union through Belarus. I was supposed to find there the end of my suffering and the possibility of stabilisation. The decision was taken in haste. I decided to take this step, which I now regret. At present, I’m in the EU, where instead of freedom and peaceful life, there are prisons, soldiers and violence” – says Farid from Iraq. “Welcome to Guantánamo” – the refugees kept repeating. However, we are not talking about the infamous prison for people suspected of terrorist offences. We are talking about the Guarded Centers for Foreigners in Poland.
Kętrzyn, Białystok, Lesznowola, Biała Podlaska, Krosno Odrzańskie, Przemyśl. Six centres hold people who very often should not be there, according to Amnesty International in its report. For a while, it was also Wędrzyn and Czerwony Bór, two facilities that have already been closed. They are called “all-inclusive resorts”, because overnight hundreds of people moved to these types of places. Many of them experienced violence in their own homeland, then the same happened to them on the Polish-Belarusian border. They were just looking for safety and dignified life in Europe and they ended up in Guarded Centres for Foreigners. Refugees are kept in detention with a dozen or so people in one room. They cannot leave them of their will, they are cut off from the world.
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But what does the word detention actually mean? It means placing foreigners in closed centres of a prison nature. According to Polish law, men, women and children may stay in such places. However, refugees have a different definition of this term.
Sentenced to Guantánamo
As Amnesty International states in its report, certain people cannot be held in detention in Poland. They are people for whom such a stay could endanger their life or health, people who have been subjected to violence, children under the age of 15 who are staying in Poland without parental care, people with disabilities applying for international protection, and minors (regardless of age) who are staying in Poland without parental care. Moreover, detention of children is against international law, and therefore should be completely prohibited by Polish law.
In the centres in Poland, due to the lack of proper assessment of the situation and individual approach to people with refugee and migration experience, there are nevertheless those who often should not be there: families with children or victims of torture. Courts automatically accept applications of the Border Guard to place people in detention in closed centres.
Foreigners are deprived of their liberty due to the proceedings pending in their cases. They are waiting for a decision to grant them international protection. As it is reported by Amnesty International, in the light of international standards, sending people who cross the border in an unregulated manner to detention facilities should be an exceptional measure. In Poland, such situations are not exceptions. A significant number of people who reached the Polish border and were crossing the Podlasie forests in search of a safe life ended up in detention, as the organisation states.
The overcrowded centres allow for 2 square metres per person with dire living conditions, no access to a telephone and the Internet, limited contact with the world, including doctors, psychologists, and lawyers. Refugees have to put up with Border Guard officers’ racist comments, violence, and humiliating searches. They face constant uncertainty. Their only hope lies in the documents and the decisions resulting from the proceedings. However, the documents are often prepared only in Polish. “I was forced to sign them without a translation and an explanation of what was their content. I signed them in fear” – recalls Amir from Iraq, who found himself in the centre in Białystok.
A centre for foreigners, but actually a prison
People live up to two years in such conditions. The centre resembles a penitentiary facility surrounded by a fence with razor wire. After that, everything often ends with deportation. People who find themselves in Poland do not understand why they face such a fate.
Long-term confinement has an impact on the mental health of migrants and refugees. “Since we’ve been here, my wife has been depressed. She looks out the window all day, there is no contact with her, she does not react to me or our daughter” – says Ahmed from Iraqi Kurdistan, who was sent to the centre in Kętrzyn.
By the end of December 2021, there were 1,750 people held in this type of closed institutions. Today this number is lower: on the 2nd of June 2022 total of 694 people were placed there. However, there are still hundreds of refugees kept in the detention centres.
Refugees, you are not alone
As the situation is tragic, we must act together. It is crucial that as many people as possible could learn about the situation of the refugees kept in such institutions. Share this information, tell your friends about it, and let’s make it viral.
We regularly receive messages from people who stay in such places asking us for help. We treat every history of each refugee individually, we support them regardless of their origin, religion or skin colour. As Salam Lab, we run the SIM Card Project. The goal of the project is top up the phones of people held in detention centres. For refugees, it is often the only way to stay in touch with their relatives, a doctor or a lawyer. A working telephone is also invaluable when people regain their freedom. You can also help us to help by supporting our fundraising on zrzutka pl/SalamLab.
On the Amnesty International website, you can also write a message and send a word of solidarity to refugees who have found themselves in Polish guarded centres.
translated by Weronika Szczurko
Sources: Amnesty International, OKO.press, Krytyka Polityczna.