Governments have been using forced movements of large populations as part of hostile actions against rival states or groups of states for a long time. But in recent decades, this method of exerting pressure during interstate hostilities has become increasingly frequent. With stronger commitments from democratic countries to protect refugees and asylum seekers comes a greater risk that authoritarian and dictatorial states will use “weapons of mass migration,” to borrow political scientist Kelly M. Greenhill’s phrase, to challenge their adversaries economically, politically, and sometimes militarily.1
The conditions that force large groups of people to migrate in a very short time may or may not be a result of war or occupation. Sometimes, these conditions are caused by extreme, postconflict poverty or the deliberate withdrawal of assistance from a population badly affected by severe environmental challenges triggered by climate change. Regardless of the direct causes, forced migrations used as weapons have one thing in common: they are created or allowed to happen by governments that hope to use them for their benefit in conflicts with other countries.
Increasingly, civil society is caught up in this highly geopolitical trend. When forced migrations become part of the arsenal of hostile measures in interstate rivalry, humanitarian civil society organizations (CSOs) that assist migrants become involuntary actors in these confrontations. These organizations are forced to make difficult choices: To what extent do they cooperate with their national governments, which might decide to disregard human rights and stop people from crossing the border at all costs? How can CSOs explain their actions to a concerned general public? And what can they do in order not to serve the goals of states that use forced migration as a weapon?
Recently, a double crisis of forced migration in Poland—first at the border with Belarus, then as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—presented the civic sector with exactly this set of difficult choices. Although this crisis led to a large-scale humanitarian mobilization, the Polish government missed this opportunity not only to boost cooperation with the civic sector but also, and more significantly, to strengthen Poland’s resilience in the face of geopolitical rivalry based on weaponized forced migration.
The Origins of the Crisis
After the August 9, 2020, presidential election in Belarus, the country’s Central Election Commission announced that Alexander Lukashenko, an autocrat who has ruled the country since 1994, had won another term with 80 percent of the vote.2 In response, thousands of citizens took to the streets, accusing the incumbent and the commission of committing electoral fraud and of robbing Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the candidate of the united opposition, of her victory. Protesters had strong grounds for their claims, as many officials from polling stations across the country broke ranks and revealed blatant cases of falsified results.3 Lukashenko responded to the demonstrations with force, sending police troops to beat and arrest protesters. In the weeks and months to follow, Belarus would witness mass incarcerations, and all opposition leaders would find themselves either in jail or in exile.
The European Union (EU) strongly condemned the violations of human rights and the trampling of democratic standards by the Belarusian regime. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, announced as early as August 14 that the union would impose sanctions on officials responsible for electoral fraud and the suppression of protests. On October 2, the European Council imposed a first round of sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on forty key Belarusian officials. Four rounds of further restrictive measures followed, targeting 195 individuals and thirty-five entities.4
In May 2021, Lukashenko responded to the sanctions by indirectly announcing his intention to instrumentalize migrants for the purpose of exerting pressure on EU. “We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves,” he threatened.5 According to various sources, including Lithuanian Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė, who confirmed the move in the Lithuanian Parliament, Belarusian officials were involved in the organized transportation of illegal migrants.6 People looking for a way to enter the EU were flown to Minsk, mainly from Iran, Iraq, or Syria, and transported to Belarus’s Polish or Lithuanian border, where they could attempt to cross without being stopped by Belarusian border guards. In an interview on June 27, Bilotaitė stated that the number of people caught illegally entering Lithuania from Belarus in 2021 was already seven times higher than in 2020 and twelve times higher than in 2019.7
But the situation escalated further in fall 2021. Border guards reported dozens of illegal crossings between Belarus and Poland. On September 2, Polish President Andrzej Duda issued a decree imposing a state of emergency in the region, effectively banning all nonresidents—among them, humanitarian organizations and the media—from accessing the area. At the peak of the crisis, when the largest group of migrants marched toward a closed border checkpoint in the northeastern Polish village of Kuźnica, a Polish government spokesman estimated that there were 4,000 migrants in the region.8
CSOs as Hostages in a Hybrid War
Since the beginning of the crisis, numerous activists and local residents in Poland have organized help for people stranded in forests along the country’s border with Belarus. Unable to officially enter EU territory and pushed back by border guards on both sides, many forced migrants have tried to cross the frontier far from checkpoints. As stated in a 2021 report by Border Group, an informal association of organizations and activist groups that assist migrants at the border,
[The migrants] were stuck in a border zone as hostages in a political power play between Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, on one side, and Poland with the EU, on the other. On both sides, densely stationed functionaries catch them, transport them to the border, and push them to the other side. Belarusians do not let them return to Minsk or their countries of origin, and Poles deny them entry and the possibility to apply for international protection.9
Humanitarian organizations and activists who provide material and legal help to people stuck in border zones also found themselves taken hostage in an interstate conflict. When Poland declared the state of emergency, all nonresidents were effectively banned from the area. Local people had to deliver food and water, blankets, and warm clothes to those hiding in the forests. However, anyone who provided any kind of assistance to migrants attempting to cross the border and apply for international protection risked the criminal charges of assisting a person to acquire illegal residence in Poland or to illegally cross the border. Although under both Polish and international law, such assistance is punishable only when the person helping receives personal benefits, monetary or otherwise, the Polish authorities used a very broad definition of benefit to penalize any form of assistance to migrants.10
The Polish government not only unlawfully penalized activists who helped forced migrants but also publicly vilified them as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “useful idiots.” For example, Sebastian Kaleta, Poland’s vice minister of justice, tweeted,
In Poland, useful idiots like Maja Ostaszewska [a popular Polish actress engaged in helping forced migrants at the border] organize tear-jerking conferences that help Russian propaganda in creating the image of Poland as guilty of the crisis. Guilty, because it protects its borders and does not let in migrants, in a situation where the Kremlin conceived a plan to use migrants as a new kind of weapon in a hybrid war” (author’s translation).11
Kaleta was probably correct when he stated that the plan to pressure the EU by concentrating large groups of migrants at the border was conceived by—or, at least, coordinated with—Russia. In November 2021, when the humanitarian crisis escalated, Belarus and Russia signed a deal that effectively merged their gas and financial markets. After Lukashenko’s crackdown on the opposition and the European sanctions that followed, Belarus became increasingly economically, politically, and militarily dependent on Russia. But it is difficult to perceive Kaleta’s argument that admitting a couple of thousand forced migrants could destabilize or threaten Poland and the EU as anything more than a propaganda stunt. In fact, this argument was soon tested when Poland allowed millions of refugees from Ukraine to enter after the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022.
Two Classes of Refugee
According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, almost 5.3 million people crossed the border from Ukraine into Poland between February 24 and August 9, 2022.12 Nearly 1.3 million refugees registered for EU temporary protection or Polish national protection, and nearly as many obtained Polish identification numbers, which allow access to public education and healthcare as well as family benefits. Although the Polish authorities could have extended temporary protection to refugees on Poland’s border with Belarus and refugees from Ukraine without Ukrainian citizenship, they decided against it. This decision resulted in the creation of two categories of refugee: those who were granted temporary residence and access to public services and those who had to go through complicated and uncertain legal procedures to avoid deportation.
In the first weeks after the full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine, many thousands of people decided to seek shelter in Poland. At the peak of the crisis of migration forced by Russia’s military aggression, on March 6–7, 2022, more than 140,000 people crossed Ukraine’s border with Poland each day. In the following weeks, the numbers gradually dropped, but more than 20,000 continue to cross every day as of this writing.13
The arrival of so many people in need of shelter and assistance would have created a humanitarian crisis on a huge scale were it not for the quick and massive mobilization of CSOs, volunteers, activists, and citizens offering various forms of help to the refugees. Train stations and bus depots were turned into temporary shelters and food distribution centers. Thousands of Poles donated food, medical supplies, clothes, and other essentials. According to a 2022 report by the Polish Economic Institute, the material help provided to Ukrainian refugees by Poles was worth 10 billion zloty ($2.2 billion).14 Poles also offered refugees temporary accommodation in their own homes and apartments, averting the need to create large refugee camps.
Civil society undertook all of these humanitarian efforts with very little to no help from the government. State assistance came later and was much more limited in scope. For example, at the end of February 2022, the governmental National Freedom Institute–Center for Civil Society Development offered grants to CSOs that assist refugees, but the total amount given was only 1.5 million zloty ($331,800).15
Many organizations that helped Ukrainian refugees, for example the Border Group coalition, were also assisting forced migrants on Poland’s border with Belarus. However, these organizations’ situations were radically different depending on which category of migrants they were assisting. Helping refugees from Ukraine made them part of the national effort to aid victims of Putin’s war and earned them praise from the Polish government. Assisting forced migrants on the border with Belarus, meanwhile, was still perceived by the authorities as a criminal activity; restrictions on movement in the region were maintained until July 1, 2022.
The two crises of forced migration were also perceived differently by Polish public opinion. In a September 2021 poll by the Center for the Study of Public Opinion (CBOS), 52 percent of respondents declared that they were against allowing forced migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border to apply for asylum in Poland.16 Seventy-seven percent said they favored stronger control of the border. In April 2022, CBOS asked whether refugees from war zones in Ukraine should be admitted to Poland; 91 percent of respondents were in favor.17
The different social perceptions and legal ramifications of assisting forced migrants on the border with Belarus and refugees from Ukraine resulted in civil society providing a very different scale and form of help in each case. At the Belarusian border, local residents delivered essential goods like food and water to those in need, as CSOs were not allowed to enter the area because of the state of emergency. Organizations that provided legal assistance had to wait until the forced migrants had managed to enter Polish territory and submit an official application for international protection. Help was therefore limited and provided by either professional activists or compassionate locals. In the case of the refugees from Ukraine, by contrast, there was a national mobilization of the whole of civil society, from regular citizens to professionals. The 2022 study by the Polish Economic Institute showed that 77 percent of Poles have been engaged in helping Ukrainian refugees at different stages of war.18
Wasted Potential for Greater Resilience
The two crises of forced migration, on Poland’s Belarusian and Ukrainian borders, have presented Polish civil society with unprecedented challenges. When Lukashenko’s regime started to exert pressure on Poland and the EU by transporting migrants to the border zone, many organizations that had previously helped migrants and asylum seekers in their integration efforts had to channel some of their activities into providing humanitarian aid in a situation where all such efforts were potentially criminalized. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Polish civil society—both institutionalized and informal—mobilized on a massive scale to help numbers of refugees that Europe has not witnessed since World War II.
This mobilization could have been an impulse for new coordination mechanisms to improve cooperation between CSOs and the government, as it was civil society that prevented a humanitarian catastrophe. It was also thanks to civic efforts that Poland garnered praise as a “humanitarian superpower,” to use the phrase coined by U.S. Ambassador to Poland Mark Brzezinski.19 For a country that had been criticized for not accepting any migrants or asylum seekers during the European crisis of forced migration in 2015, civil society’s large-scale engagement in 2020–2022 could have been an opportunity to completely change global perceptions of Poland’s migration policies.
However, this opportunity did not become a reality. In a 2021 study, only 37 percent of Polish CSOs declared that they had any contact, even sporadic, with the central government. The funds allocated to the third sector by the government in 2020 constituted only 17 percent of the government’s budget, compared with 22 percent in 2017.20 Because of the double standards adopted by the central government toward Ukrainian refugees and forced migrants on the Belarusian border, many CSOs that helped anybody seeking refuge in Poland remained very skeptical about cooperating with the government.
For its part, the government focused mostly on financing access to public services and social security benefits for Ukrainian refugees under temporary protection; the Polish Economic Institute estimated the annual costs of this financing at 0.61 percent of Polish gross domestic product.21 The government also started a program of refunding citizens who provided shelter for refugees in their homes: citizens could apply for 40 zloty ($8.80) for each day that they hosted refugees, for up to 120 days.22 The cost of the program was estimated at 2 billion zloty ($440 million).23
Aside from the administrative problems that caused many delays with the payouts, the program ignored the fact that many Ukrainian refugees stayed with Ukrainian friends or relatives already living in Poland before February 24, 2022, and that many Ukrainians rented accommodation. More importantly, cash programs did not contribute to any new forms of cooperation between the government and civic partners with regard to integration policies or humanitarian assistance. The remarkable civic mobilization to help Ukrainian refugees remained an opportunity that was missed by the government.
The cost of this missed opportunity is not only wasted potential for better integration of migrants and refugees into Polish society but also weaker resilience against new forms of geopolitical rivalry, such as hybrid wars in which forced migration is used as a weapon. Russian disinformation campaigns quickly became part of the Polish media landscape after February 2022. Some of the tropes used by propagandists to advance Russian interests have included false information that issuing identification numbers to Ukrainian refugees means granting full citizenship or that the social security benefits available to refugees greatly exceed those available to Polish citizens.24
So far, these campaigns have been unsuccessful in turning Polish public opinion against helping Ukrainian refugees, but the number of Poles who are against accepting them is gradually growing, from 3 percent in March 2022 to 12 percent in June 2022.25 Prolonged war will unfortunately further diminish Poles’ readiness to help the refugees. At some point, Russian disinformation efforts might prove much more successful. And because of a lack of coordination between Poland’s government and CSOs, these efforts will be much more difficult to combat.
Paweł Marczewski is a sociologist and head of the Citizens research unit at ideaForum, the think tank of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw.
The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.
1 Karen M. Greenhill, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2010).
2 “Results of the Presidential Election in Belarus on August 9, 2020,” Statista, August 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1147363/belarus-presidential-election-results.
3 Kostya Manenkov and Daria Litvinova, “Belarus Poll Workers Describe Fraud in Aug. 9 Election,” AP News, September 1, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/international-news-ap-top-news-europe-72e43a8b9e4c56362d4c1d6393bd54fb.
4 “EU Restrictive Measures Against Belarus,” European Council, June 7, 2022, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/sanctions/restrictive-measures-against-belarus.
5 “Lukashenko Willing to Flood EU With Drugs and Migrants to Stop New Sanctions,” Times, May 28, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lukashenko-willing-to-flood-eu-with-drugs-and-migrants-to-stop-new-sanctions-vtrwndw82.
6 “Bilotaite: Belarusian Officers Possibly Contribute to Illegal Migration,” Delfi, June 2, 2021, https://www.delfi.lt/en/politics/bilotaite-belarusian-officers-possibly-contribute-to-illegal-migration.d?id=87362857.
7 “Lithuanian Minister Calls Migrant Flows From Belarus ‘Profitable, Well-Organized’ Plan,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 27, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/lithiania-migrants-belarus-profitable-organized-plan-minister-iraqis-syrian/31328758.html.
8 “Żaryn: według naszych szacunków na Białorusi może przebywać od 12 do 15 tys. migrantów” [Żaryn: According to Our Estimates, There Can Be From 12,000 to 15,000 Migrants in Belarus], Polskie Radio, November 9, 2021, https://polskieradio24.pl/130/5553/artykul/2844101,zaryn-wedlug-naszych-szacunkow-na-bialorusi-moze-przebywac-od-12-do-15-tys-migrantow.
9 Kryzys humanitarny napograniczu polsko-białoruskim [Humanitarian Crisis on the Polish-Belarusian Border], Border Group, December 1, 2021, 14, https://grupagranica.pl/files/Raport-GG-Kryzys-humanitarny-napograniczu-polsko-bialoruskim.pdf.
10 Witold Klaus, “Karanie za pomoc, czyli czy można pociągnąć do odpowiedzialności karnej osoby pomagające przymusowym migrantkom i migrantom na pograniczu” [Punishing for Help: Is It Possible to Penalize Assistance to Forced Migrants in the Border Zone?], in Witold Klaus, ed., Poza prawem. Prawna ocean działań państwa polskiego w reakcji na kryzys humanitarny na granicy polsko-białoruskiej [Lawless. Legal Assessment of Actions of the Polish State in Response to the Humanitarian Crisis at the Polish-Belarusian Border], Institute of Legal Sciences of the Polish Academy of Science, 2022, 29.
11 “Wiceminister sprawiedliwości atakuje Maję Ostaszewską za pomoc migrantom: pożyteczni idioci organizują łzawe konferencje” [Vice Minister of Justice Attacks Maja Ostaszewska for Helping Migrants: Useful Idiots Organize Tearful Conferences], Fakt, November 15, 2021, https://www.fakt.pl/plotki/granica-polsko-bialoruska-sebastian-kaleta-obraza-maje-ostaszewska/pshyv2z.
12 “Ukraine Refugee Situation | Poland,” Operational Data Portal, https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine/location/10781.
14 “Polacy mogli wydać nawet 10 mld PLN na pomoc udzielaną uchodźcom z Ukrainy w pierwszych miesiącach wojny” [Poles Could Spend up to 10 Billion Zloty on Helping Refugees From Ukraine in the First Months of the War], Polish Economic Institute, July 27, 2022, https://pie.net.pl/polacy-mogli-wydac-nawet-10-mld-pln-na-pomoc-udzielana-uchodzcom-z-ukrainy-w-pierwszych-miesiacach-wojny.
15 Edycja 2022 [2022 Edition], National Freedom Institute–Center for Civil Society Development, February 2022, https://niw.gov.pl/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/PROO_Regulamin-2022-1.pdf.
16 “Opinia publiczna wobec uchodźców i sytuacji migrantów na granicy z Białorusią” [Public Opinion Toward Refugees and the Situation of Migrants on the Border With Belarus], Center for the Study of Public Opinion, September 2021, https://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2021/K_111_21.PDF.
18 “Polacy mogli wydać,” Polish Economic Institute.
19 “U.S. Ambassador Calls Poland ‘Humanitarian Superpower’ for Response to Ukraine Crisis,” Notes From Poland, May 10, 2022, https://notesfrompoland.com/2022/05/10/us-ambassador-calls-poland-humanitarian-superpower-for-response-to-ukraine-crisis.
20 Beata Charycka, Marta Gumkowska, and Julia Bednarek, Kondycja organizacji pozarządowych 2021 [The Condition of Nongovernmental Organizations 2021], Klon/Jawor Association, May 2022, https://api.ngo.pl/media/get/183259?sid=4103dfc720b949f1a61c65bb587608ef.3058.
21 “Polacy mogli wydać,” Polish Economic Institute.
22 “Jak otrzymać świadczenie 40 zł za zakwaterowanie uchodźcy” [How to Obtain a Daily Benefit of 40 Zloty for Hosting a Refugee], Association for Legal Intervention, May 2022, https://ukraina.interwencjaprawna.pl/jak-otrzymac-swiadczenie-40-zl-za-zakwaterowanie-uchodzcy.
23 “Polacy mogli wydać,” Polish Economic Institute.
24 Maciej Bukowski and Maciej Duszczyk, eds., Gościnna Polska 2022+ [Hospitable Poland 2022+], WiseEuropa, June 2022, 125–126, https://wise-europa.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Raport-Goscinna-Polska-2022.pdf.
25 “Polacy w obliczu wojny na Ukrainie” [Poles in the Face of War in Ukraine], Center for the Study of Public Opinion, June 2022, https://cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2022/K_086_22.PDF.