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timesca: “For Tajikistan’s asylum seekers, Poland is a dead end”

For Tajikistan’s asylum seekers, Poland is a dead end

DUSHANBE (TCA) — The ban of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and subsequent persecution of the opposition party activists by Tajik authorities has forced many of them to seek political asylum in the European Union, where they often get unwelcome reception. We are republishing this article on the issue by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, originally published by Eurasianet:

Kalandar Sadurdinov, a 70-year-old from Tajikistan, is one of thousands wanted back home for his opposition activism. He spends much of his time these days getting treatment for an array of ailments, ranging from liver trouble to brain damage. His wife and six children wait for him at the refugee facility in Biała Podlaska, on the far eastern edge of Poland, where the whole family now lives.

And earlier this month, Polish authorities informed Sadurdinov, who is worn down by months of bureaucratic wrangling and has trouble speaking and can barely walk, that they have rejected his application for asylum.

Sadurdinov is among a growing number of Tajik political refugees to find Poland an unwelcoming haven.

He arrived in September 2017 through a border crossing near the Belarusian city of Brest. That crossing presents a natural approach point for Tajiks making their way across Russia and Belarus toward the relative safety of the European Union. Remaining in Russia, or even traveling to other once-secure locations like Turkey, leaves political figures open to murder and assaults at the hands of agents for the Tajik government. In some instances, governments in those countries have actively abetted Tajikistan in effecting extralegal extraditions – kidnapping, to all intents and purposes.

The wave of Tajik flight began in the fall of 2015, when Tajikistan summarily banned the Islamic Renaissance Party, or IRPT. The existence of the opposition group had long been warily tolerated, but President Emomali Rahmon’s regime brought that to an end with a spate of arrests and the decision to dub the IRPT a terrorist organization. No country in the West endorses that decision, which is almost universally accepted as being politically motivated.

In 2016, 882 Tajiks applied for asylum in Poland. With the exodus having attenuated, the number of applications is falling. Last year, only 154 Tajiks formally sought haven in the country.

The number of rejections, meanwhile, is rising. According to the Office for Foreigners, 153 Tajik citizens were denied asylum last year. That number was 109 in 2016.

Fleeing Poland

Around 100 or so IRPT members have received asylum in Poland. Another 25 cases are pending review following initial rejections. Prolonged waiting generates anxiety. Fear of potential deportation to Tajikistan, where IRPT members face imprisonment and possible torture, compels many to try their luck in other EU nations like Germany, Austria and France, before they complete the asylum-seeking procedure in Poland. It isn’t just the specter of deportation that informs this strategy.

“In other countries, like Germany, France and Austria, there are more migrants, people are used to different cultures and asylum seekers can meet people from their countries,” Muhamadjon Kabirov, an IRPT member who has been granted refugee status in Poland, told Eurasianet. “For Muslims, there are lots of mosques. And the economy is much better, the standard of living is higher.”

The problem with this solution, however, is that it is illegal.

EU law requires people fleeing their home nation to apply for asylum in their first port of entry. Under the bloc’s Dublin Convention, people improperly found to have wandered across the continent’s unfettered borders will be sent back to the country in which they first arrived. The thinking behind the convention was to avoid what has contentiously been dubbed “asylum tourism” – which describes concerns that some people may be roving around Europe lodging multiple applications.

In 2017, there were 189 Tajiks who filed for asylum in Poland only then to leave for another country and fall prey to this rule.

One such person was Jamshed Yorov, a lawyer and human rights activist, who was prosecuted in 2016 in Tajikistan on suspicion of abetting an extremist organization. The charge stemmed from his willingness to provide legal representation to jailed IRPT leaders. He was only released after a swell of international campaigns. His brother Buzurgmehr, also a lawyer for the IRPT, has been handed a series of prison sentences, currently totaling 28 years.

Jamshed Yorov says that when he left Poland for Germany, in March last year, it was because he had been receiving threats from Tajik authorities, who managed to discover his whereabouts.

“I felt it was dangerous to stay in Poland, to work and write. I received threats and I was afraid to stay. That is why I left,” Yorov told Eurasianet.

Such concerns are not unfounded. At least one prominent Tajik opposition leader has been murdered while in exile – in Istanbul.

No more support

There are many factors tempting Tajiks into the legal peril of skipping Poland. Language barriers and lack of employment make long-term settlement unappealing.

Marta Szczepanik, a migration expert with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, adds that another major issue is the Polish government’s anemic efforts to accommodate asylum seekers.

“The Polish government has frozen financing for the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund,” Szczepanik told Eurasianet. “The first tranche of funding ended in mid-2015, but some projects were extended till 2016. As a result, many initiatives organized in refugee centers, such as classes for children, language courses, workshops for women and legal services have been discontinued.”

Populist rhetorical claims of huge numbers of foreign nationals seeking to enter Poland has also added a political dimension to the problem. Anti-Islamic sentiments have also been brewing for years. The most recent expression of that trend was seen in November, when around 60,000 people, many of them from elsewhere in Europe, gathered in Warsaw for a far-right march that included Islam among its targets.

The rate of positive asylum decisions in Poland is considerably lower than in the rest of the EU. Around 40 percent of all asylum applications in the EU were successful in 2017, according the Malta-based European Asylum Support Office. In Poland, the rate was just 19 percent.

Dark side of the Polish asylum system

When an asylum seeker arrives at the border, with travel documents in hand, officers at the crossing should under international law grant them access. Polish border guards have repeatedly flouted such requirements.

In 2017, 34 complaints over perceived unjust decisions by the Polish border service were filed with the courts. Most of these appeals were organized by a group of lawyers who traveled to the Polish-Belarusian crossing in March that year to provide support to a group of 26 asylum seekers who were being denied entry to Poland. In 11 of the 34 cases, courts found in favor of the complainants.

On some occasions, the real trouble starts after asylum seekers enter Poland. The European Court of Human Rights is currently considering the case of one Tajik woman who was together with her family placed in a guarded detention center in the town of Przemyśl, across the border from Ukraine. The woman says Polish officials disregarded the bundle of documentation that she insists proves she had been previously subjected to torture. The law states that victims of violence may not be placed in guarded detention centers.

After ten months in detention, the woman, who has not been named, attempted suicide. It was only then that a Przemyśl district court ruled that the family should be transferred to an open refugee reception facility.

This case has consequential implications. If the European Court of Human Rights finds in the woman’s favor, some victims of violence may seek to use the precedent to argue in court that they should not be liable for deportation to Poland.

“The decision about leaving is often a survival strategy – an attempt to do something – when a person feels staying in Poland may not be possible,” Szczepanik said.

Written by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska


Tajikistan: Asylum Seekers Stranded in Limbo on Polish Border

By Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

On the 8.28 a.m. train to Terespol, a Polish town at the border with Belarus, Ali watches the barely changing landscape with indifference. This might be the twentieth time he has taken this train with his wife and three kids. Or maybe the twenty-first, he cannot quite remember.

Ali, a well-built young man with dark eyes and a doleful smile, is a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). He is also one of countless Tajiks forced to flee his homeland due to a wave of political repression, including a ban of the IRPT in September 2015.

Escape from Tajikistan has taken people like Ali through Belarus and up to the edge of the European Union, where they have found the door slammed in their face.

The unwritten rule for those without visas and hoping to claim asylum in Poland is to travel in the crowded final sleeper carriage. Some of the passengers chat in the dark, others are frozen, anxiously waiting. Maybe this will be the time they are allowed into Poland. Ali’s children play and misbehave. They have taken this route so often it has almost become a daily routine.

Ali and his family spend their days in Brest, a Belarusian city whose outskirts push up against the western Polish border. The kids do not play outside, nor do they go out much at all. For reasons of security, they live, play, sleep and eat in a hotel room rented out by their parents.

According to data provided by Poland’s Office for Foreigners, a growing number of Tajik nationals began claiming asylum toward the end of 2015, as the crackdown back home was picking up steam. Most chose the border crossing at Terespol, as it is easily accessed by train from Moscow or Minsk.

The number of claims peaked last May, when 129 individuals applied for international protection — compared with 18 the same month a year earlier. In recent months, the number has been declining. Only four asylum applications were registered in November. At the same time, according to data provided by the Polish Border Guard, between January and October 2016, 5,503 Tajik nationals were denied entry into Poland, a surge from 1,896 over the same period in 2015. The figure covering Russian nationals, mostly of Chechen origin, is even greater, standing at more than 68,000 in 2016.

Since the summer of 2016, Poland’s border with Belarus has been experiencing its own small-scale migration crisis. And while the right to seek refuge is a universal right provided under EU and Polish law, the Polish border agency began a large-scale refusal of entry for asylum seekers, claiming that they tried to enter the country without a valid visa, which is not required when applying for refugee status.

Marta Szczepanik, an immigration expert with the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said the number of people being turned away at the Polish border in 2016 reached unprecedented levels. Human Constanta, a Belarusian human rights organization that assists would-be asylum seekers in Brest, has said that during the peak months of drama in August and September, up to 3,000 people were living in the city hoping to be allowed into Poland.

As Russian citizens, Chechen migrants have been able to rent private accommodation and stay in Belarus without registration for up to 90 days. The situation for those from Tajikistan is more complicated. Tajiks are forced to stay in overpriced hotels that can officially register their stay in Belarus. After 90 days, they are no longer allowed to remain in the country. Tajiks can, in special circumstances, apply for a temporary residence in Belarus for up to one year, but few either know about the loophole or choose to avail themselves of it.

In December, Ali and his family were coming to the end of their allowed period. With one day left before their stay in Belarus legally expired, they were again turned back at the border with Poland, and denied the right to claim asylum.

The reasons why migrants are not allowed to claim asylum in Poland are unclear. According to Dariusz Sienicki, a spokesperson for the Border Guard, there were no instances of people being refused the opportunity to apply for refugee status. But human rights groups working with the migrants, as well as the asylum seekers themselves, contend otherwise.

Failure is sometimes the outcome of procedural errors.

According to the Terespol monitoring mission of the office of the Polish Ombudsmen for Human Rights, which is the only body allowed to observe the interview process at the border, the majority of migrants fail to directly request asylum in conversations with the border guards. A number of those who do ask are denied entry to Poland anyhow.

This constitutes a clear violation of international refugee law and the right to asylum, especially since Polish law dictates that the Office for Foreigners, and not the Border Guard, is responsible for handling asylum applications. The Border Guard, therefore, is making decisions outside its purview, while the Polish Office for Foreigners has no representatives at the border.

Szczepanik said denying that a migrant has expressed his or her will to claim asylum has become a common explanation used by authorities. Another problem, Szczepanik added, is methodological. “The questions asked by the border guards are often put in such a way to prove the preponderance of economic factors behind migration, while the part of the story suggesting persecution is usually not pursued,” she said.

As Anna Cieślewska, a Central Asia expert from the Jagiellonian University, explained, the persecution in Tajikistan of the IRPT and its supporters dates back several years, to around 2010, when the government sought to set strict rules on religious life under the pretext of combating Islamic extremism. Repression reached a new level of intensity in September 2015, after an alleged coup attempt by a disaffected deputy defense minister was linked to the party.

The Polish government’s reluctance to acknowledge this downturn has exasperated rights advocates.

Tajikistan’s human rights crackdown “requires the European Union, including Poland, to provide protection for those who have been persecuted on political grounds,” Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia researcher, told EurasiaNet.org. “It also requires that the right to asylum be protected and implemented consistent with Warsaw’s international obligations, rather than the blatant attempt to do an end-run around refugee law.”

There are multiple examples of Tajik authorities taking their hunt of the opposition beyond their own borders. Maksud Ibragimov, a young Russia-based opposition activist, was stabbed in Moscow in late 2014, and weeks later forcibly deported to Tajikistan, where he was charged with extremism and imprisoned for 17 years. In March 2015, the leader of the anti-government Group 24, Umarali Quvvatov, was assassinated in Istanbul after Turkish authorities refused his extradition to Tajikistan. Rights activists suspect Quvvatov’s killing was the handiwork of people working at the Tajik government’s behest.

Other times, the government in Dushanbe has used international extradition treaties to repatriate critics.

In June 2015, Polish authorities denied Shabnam Khudoydodova, who came to the attention of Tajik authorities for social media postings critical of the government, entry into Poland. Upon her return to Brest, Khudoydodova was stopped by Belarusian police and detained on terrorism charges. The Tajik government had placed her name on an Interpol wanted list, and requested her extradition. Khudoydodova claims that after her arrest she was visited in her cell by Tajik special services officers and beaten.

It took nine months of interventions from international human rights groups and the United States Embassy in Belarus to secure Khudoydodova’s release and passage into Poland, where she is now awaiting a decision on her asylum application.

Cieślewska said there are a few possible factors behind Poland’s hardline position on Tajik and other asylum seekers. One is a perception that large numbers of economic migrants have sought to ride the coattails of people subject to political repression. Economic decline in Russia has left its toll on conditions all across the former Soviet Union, including in Tajikistan. The economic fallout is compelling many would-be labor migrants to look further afield for places to live and work.

Also, Cieślewska noted that in 2015 around 90 percent of the 500 or so applications for asylum submitted by citizens of Tajikistan in Poland were withdrawn, most likely because the applicants moved onward to other western European countries, where salaries are higher and Tajik communities are more vibrant. Given that Berlin hosts the headquarters of the IRPT, the majority of political dissidents aspire to move to Germany.

The stricter admission policy adopted by the Polish authorities could be a response to pressure from within the EU, in particular from Germany, which is struggling to cope with its own massive influx of refugees. Many view Poland as merely a transit point on their way to other destinations, namely Germany. While experts have speculated on the possibility of behind-the-scenes diplomatic wrangling, there is no hard evidence to prove such a claim.

According to the data provided by Poland’s Office for Foreigners, in 2016, 13 Tajik nationals were granted refugee status or another form of international protection in Poland. Another 633 applications were discontinued, most of them due to the absence of the applicant. Six people were sent back to Tajikistan.

This is clearly bad news for Ali and fellow dissidents trying to reach Poland. While the number of families remaining in Brest is slowly declining, and it seems that the worst crisis is over, those escaping Tajikistan in search of international protection remain bereft of escape routes.

Editor’s note:

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist covering the post-Soviet space.


© Eurasianet