Poland illegally pushed back of a group of Afghan asylum seekers who were camped out on its border with Belarus in late August, according to Amnesty International.
In a digital investigation published on Thursday, the global rights group said that it used satellite imagery to determine that many of the 32-strong group, including a 15-year-old girl and four women, were located in Poland on August 18, having crossed into the country from Belarus.
However, one day later, they were back on the Belarusian side of the border.
This “could constitute evidence of an unlawful pushback”, Amnesty said, because it appeared to have taken place while armed Polish border guards surrounded a makeshift camp the group had set up.
Since the incident, the group has remained trapped between Polish and Belarusian borders guards, Amnesty said.
“Forcing people back who are trying to claim asylum without an individual assessment of their protection needs is against European and international law,” said Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.
On August 20, all 32 Afghans made applications for international protection in Poland, demonstrating they wished to remain in the country, Amnesty said.
Poland’s government was then instructed by the European Court of Human Rights to temporarily provide the group with assistance, including “adequate food, water, clothing, medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter”, it added.
Warsaw has to date failed to comply with the measures, Amnesty alleged.
The investigation was published before a meeting in Warsaw on Thursday between European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson and Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski, where they will discuss the border.
Amnesty’s findings shed new light on the situation there, which has been difficult for NGOs and media outlets to cover because Poland has imposed a state of emergency along its frontier with Belarus.
The measure, which limits observers accessing border areas, is expected to be extended by another 60 days starting on Thursday.
Warsaw has also introduced rules allowing people intercepted in border areas to be returned to the border with Belarus.
“The dire situation facing the Afghans on the border is one that the Polish government has created. The declaration of ‘the state of emergency’ is illegitimate and must be lifted. The situation at the country’s borders does not constitute a public emergency by European and international definitions,” said Geddie.
“Forcing back people who are trying to claim asylum without an individual assessment of their protection needs is contrary to international and EU law. The introduction of new laws and measures that attempt to legalise pushbacks do nothing to change that.”
Poland and fellow European Union states Lithuania and Latvia have reported sharp increases in migrants and refugees from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq trying to cross their borders from Belarus.
Warsaw and Brussels have said the situation amounts to a form of hybrid warfare waged by Minsk in response to the EU sanctions on the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Human rights groups have criticised Belarus and Poland for their treatment of migrants and refugees at the border.
There have been repeated accusations of multiple illegal pushbacks by Polish border forces, and a failure by authorities to provide medical support, adequate food and shelter.
Since September 19, five people have died in the border area, including as a result of hypothermia, Amnesty said.
Last week, the EU executive expressed concerns for those stuck on the Polish-Belarusian border and urged Warsaw to protect human lives and allow the bloc’s joint frontier force, Frontex, to provide assistance in the area.