The Polish authorities must relieve volunteers from the responsibility of receiving people fleeing from Ukraine and address the chaotic and dangerous situation in Poland to ensure that they do not face further suffering, said Amnesty International after the organisation concluded a 10-day visit to the country.
The number of people fleeing within Europe is unprecedented since World War Two, with Poland receiving the majority. The openness to assist them displayed by volunteers has been outstanding. This has been facilitated by the government’s much more open approach to people fleeing Ukraine, which is in contrast to the push back and lock up policies which they have been applying to people fleeing other conflicts and entering Poland through Belarus. The life-saving assistance that NGOs and volunteers are now providing to people fleeing Ukraine was previously obstructed and criminalized on the border with Belarus. Primary responsibility for assisting people fleeing Ukraine has largely fallen on ordinary citizens, non-governmental organisations and municipalities, resulting in enormous challenges.
“Solidarity shown by volunteers in Poland has been remarkable, but without central authorities taking responsibility and concerted action, people in need of protection and assistance risk falling through the cracks. People fleeing Ukraine are anxious to get reliable information about shelter, transportation and their legal status, but without coordination, people risk being deprived of such essentials, and being harassed or preyed upon by criminals. The Polish government must now step up to meet these challenges and keep people safe,” said Nils Muižnieks, Europe Regional Director at Amnesty International.
Volunteers have stepped up
Thousands of volunteers have provided assistance to people at the Polish borders with Ukraine and in train stations. This has included food, housing, interpretation, and offering free transport across Europe.
Volunteers were far more visible and active than government authorities in all the places Amnesty International visited, including the reception points in the immediate proximity of Medyka, the main border crossing point used by people fleeing Ukraine, and Korczowa (Hala Kijowska), and in reception centres and train stations in Przemysl and Warsaw.
However, it is not sustainable to rely on volunteers in the long term and the central government must act quickly to provide proper registration, longer-term accommodation, psycho-social support, transport and other assistance.
Despite the commendable efforts of volunteers, critical gaps remain, including the provision of information on people’s legal status. The lack of such information creates significant anxiety, particularly among non-Ukrainian nationals, and the government should provide information to all people fleeing Ukraine regarding their legal status in Poland or possibilities to move regularly to other EU countries.
“Many non-Ukrainian people, including those in need of international protection, are unsure of their status in Poland. Everyone fleeing the conflict must be treated with humanity and offered opportunities to carry on with their lives, regardless of their passport,” said Nils Muižnieks.
Protecting people fleeing Ukraine from predatory crimes and violence
A lack of state intervention also leaves those fleeing Ukraine open to violence and trafficking. Amnesty International visited several temporary reception facilities, including in Przemysl (“Tesco centre”) and Korczowa (Hala Kijowska), close to the borders with Ukraine. These were organised to facilitate further transportation as soon as possible, often relying on private individuals to offer such transport and/or accommodation.
Volunteers have struggled to register new arrivals. But without formal procedures to register and track them, women, men and children who have fled Ukraine – especially those who do not speak Polish or English – are potentially at risk of abuses by people or criminal gangs looking to exploit the chaotic situation.
The Amnesty International delegation observed first-hand how people arrived in Poland and immediately sought assistance from anyone willing to help. Emerging reports of gender-based violence against women and girls are of particular concern. It has been reported that the Wroclaw police arrested a 49-year old Polish man who allegedly sexually abused a Ukrainian woman whom he had offered to host in his apartment after she had fled Ukraine.
Polish human rights organisations also said that they are receiving reports of additional cases of sexual violence, which remain confidential. They are concerned that people fleeing Ukraine, including unaccompanied children, may become victims of trafficking.
“Children are entering Poland from Ukraine but authorities are not registering with whom many of them are staying. In some cases, parents send them to relatives in Poland. In one case, an 11-year old was travelling with her uncle, but the uncle was stopped at the border, so she travelled alone,” said Irena Dawid-Olczyk, President of NGO La Strada.
Karolina Wierzbińska from Homo Faber, reported to police that a woman was approaching women and children arriving at Lublin’s train station, offering money if they gave her their passports. Staff from her organisation also observed men in Lublin aggressively approaching women coming from Ukraine and offering them transport and accommodation.
Amnesty International is calling for the introduction of a standardised, institutional registration system of the whereabouts, family composition and destination of those fleeing, and the identities of the people offering them transport or accommodation.
Discrimination in Ukraine
Ukraine’s martial law prohibits men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving the country. People leaving Ukraine are therefore overwhelmingly women and children, as families are being separated.
These limitations have especially problematic effects on disabled men, and men with sole responsibility for their children. Some men with disabilities and in possession of certain documentation have been allowed to leave the country. However, in practice, this isn’t always happening.
“My son lost one arm and his hearing in the previous conflict area. We were in the same car with him and my husband, but Ukrainian border officers only let women through. My son is officially [recognized as] a person with disabilities caused by the war, he officially cannot work, still they didn’t let him through,” recounted Sofia, a hair-dresser from Dnipro. She and two women travelling with her also recounted seeing many other men being stopped by Ukrainian border guards. “One man was travelling with his two children, maybe about 5- and 1-year old, and was turned down. He looked like he didn’t have a wife, maybe he was a widower. The Ukrainian border guards said they [the border guards] could take the children, but not him.”
Amnesty International also spoke to 27 non-Ukrainian nationals who fled Ukraine following the Russian invasion, including many international students and people who had been living in Ukraine for up to 20 years. Racialized people, in particular Black people, reported suffering discrimination and violence by Ukrainian forces when trying to leave Ukraine.
Many reported discriminatory treatment both when trying to board trains or buses and near border check points, while some detailed physical and verbal aggressions by Ukrainian forces and volunteers.
Racialized people from a number of countries in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia recounted how Ukrainian forces and staff repeatedly prevented them from boarding trains towards Poland in Lviv train station. They were told that there was a need to give priority to women and children, but African and South Asian women were reportedly also not allowed to board trains in some instances.
“Some face racism, some don’t, it’s based on colour of skin and gender,” said Bilal, a 24-year old student from Pakistan. “My friend who is black faced racism… There is a line, if you are Ukrainian it’s easy to get across, if not, it takes a long time. The border guards used a stick on my friend, he was hurt.”
Protecting all people from discrimination in Poland
While Poland and other European countries have opened their borders to people from Ukraine, Poland has a dismal record in its treatment of people coming from other conflict areas, focusing on policies and infrastructure to deter and contain people at borders.
Foreigners have already been subjected to hatred and violence, as vividly demonstrated by an attack reported in Przemysl on 1 March, when a group of nationalist men assaulted three Indian students who had just arrived from Ukraine, in what appears to be a hatred-motivated attack.
“The Polish authorities must ensure that all people who have fled Ukraine are treated with the same level of respect to protect their human rights and dignity. Racism, hate speech and attacks must not be tolerated and perpetrators must he held accountable,” said Nils Muižnieks of Amnesty International.