Kuznica, Poland, on the border with Belarus—Mayor Pawel Miklasz remembers like it was yesterday when Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko—a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin—tried to funnel thousands of primarily Iraqi and Afghan immigrants into the European Union through his quiet farming town in 2021.
A “catastrophe” of chaos and violence broke out in and around the village, Mayor Miklasz recalled, when Poland’s conservative government ordered the military and Polish Border Guard to wage pitched battles, using water hoses, tear gas, and clubs, against the riotous mobs of illegal immigrants constantly mounting violent incursions to break through the Polish police lines.
The Polish forces staved off many thousands for months until a 116-mile steel wall, eighteen feet high and reinforced with barbed wire, electronic sensors, and cameras, finished construction in 2022. That structure, alongside crucial policy changes, restored quiet to the Belarusian forests, although frosty, Cold-War-like relations between the two countries remain.
But a recent shift from the political Right to Left in Poland’s national government now threatens those two-plus years of tranquility in Kuznica and all along Poland’s now-famed steel fence—widely credited as emblematic of how walls stop illegal immigration.
“I’m worried,” the mayor told me. “I can’t tell the future but if we allow these people to come in here freely and without consequence, it will lead to big problems.”
The mayor referred to the October 2023 national elections that swung Poland’s anti-immigration nationalist government toward the immigration-friendly, fence-hostile left. The election came at a time when Russia and Belarus are allied in their hostility toward Poland and the EU over their military assistance to Ukraine. They are no doubt aching to launch another immigration crisis in retaliation, as they recently have against Finland.
Russia and Belarus may be closer to putting the new left-wing Polish government to the test than anyone could have guessed: Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko chose the moment after Poland’s elections to reopen direct air routes from Istanbul, Turkey—a center of refugees and economic migrants—to Minsk, the Belarussian capital.
This is the very same air route Lukashenko used in 2021 to purposefully lure in thousands of migrants from Turkey to flood Kuznica in 2021 to strike at the EU. It should be noted that Minsk has never been known as a final destination tourist stop for refugees and immigrants.
“The new majority, the leftists, were part of the coalition behind that whole crisis,” Mayor Milsasz spat. “Obviously, we can’t help but be anxious about their next move because we know what’s at stake.”
One Policy Tweak from Catastrophe
On December 13, Poland swore in the new coalition government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a major political change after eight years of nationalist rule under the conservative Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The left-leaning Civic Coalition, New Left, and Third Way parties form Mr. Tusk’s governing coalition.
Central to what happens next is whether the new government will discontinue one particular PiS policy that bolstered Poland’s steel fence. When illegal immigrants cut through or laddered up and over Poland’s fence (or crossed through fenceless areas) and got caught, quick deportation followed for those who did not claim asylum. Those who did were detained for an unpalatable eighteen months.
“No wall is perfect,” one Polish Border Guard commander told me inside a command center just outside Kuznica. When I asked what they do with the illegal immigrants they catch in the military zone or Polish interior, he explained, “We feed them. Then we chit-chat with them. And then we send them back to where they came from.”
Poland’s policies ran contrary to EU regulations requiring members to accept and quickly release asylum claimants, earning the ire of the bloc’s governing bodies. But, combined with the fence, they worked so well that Turkish Airlines canceled Istanbul-to-Minsk flights in 2022, Polish Border Guard spokeswoman Major Katarzyna Zdanowicz told me. Apprehensions fell from 40,000 in 2021 to 15,700 in 2022, with most of the latter ending up on flights to home countries. Will Tusk end that policy?
During the recent political campaign, Tusk promised to do just that. He regards the pushbacks as “illegal practice” and has announced their reversal as the main part of what he describes as a strong but more “humane” border policy that will start accepting those who breach the border and claim asylum.
But like many government leaders, Tusk probably does not understand the basic dynamics of migrant thinking in deciding whether to stay or go. Even if he changes migration policy slightly out of “humanitarian” intention, he may blunder into a mass migration catastrophe that will make Vladimir Putin’s year.
Flicking the Switch
It is not difficult to imagine how migrants in Turkey might consider a flight to Minsk should word spread that Poland will catch and release them if they succeed in crossing. Such a change would require only Tusk’s signature, without major legislation or public debate. News of policy changes can quickly spread among aspiring migrants through digital communication and social media.
Millions from around the world have poured over the U.S.-Mexico border for three years upon learning that Biden administration policies virtually guaranteed that the majority would be quickly released into the interior on humanitarian protection claims.
While walls work well when backed by “detain and deport” policies like Poland’s, “catch-and-release” policies reduce the function of those walls to providing immigrants with some shade from the sun—or something to lean up against—as they wait for border agents to process them into the country.
Expect such scenes in Poland if Tusk hits that button.
Major Zdanowicz of the Polish Border Guard said her agency understands already that it will probably have to prepare itself for this.
“With Belarus opening a new flight from Turkey to Minsk, we’ll see more people try to cross the border,” she reluctantly acknowledged. “The Belarusians are unpredictable. They have their own program.”
Playing into Russia’s Hands
Should Tusk go this route, he’d be playing into the hands of Russia and Belarus, which remain keenly interested in weaponizing mass migration against the EU in response to the latter’s staunch support of Ukraine.
In recent months, for instance, Finland has accused Russia of transporting thousands of illegal immigrants from Muslim-majority countries to their shared 833-mile border, where asylum policy has forced the Nordic country to accept them.
Tensions have never been higher between Poland and its eastern neighbors since the Ukraine war broke out, Polish Border Guard officers tell me. All but a few rail line crossings between the two countries have been shuttered for eighteen months.
Polish and Belarusian border guards once communicated with one another through back channels. Now, all communications are shut down, as is even a cherished annual bike ride the two forces did together every spring for years.
Immigration flows are seeking new openings right now, too, and they’ll undoubtedly find this spigot if it’s opened. A massive new surge of illegal immigration into EU countries not seen since 2016 got underway in 2023, as I recently reported from the Balkan Route. Even with pushback policies still in place, some of that surge is already finding its way to the Poland-Belarus border.
Apprehensions in Poland rose from roughly 15,700 in 2022 to over 25,000 in 2023, Major Zdanowicz said. Smugglers get them by using wire cutters, ladders, and tunnels.
But the Polish share is still a fraction of the recorded total of 380,000 illegal crossings into the EU during 2023 because “they know if they stay and are declined for asylum they can actually be deported,” Major Zdanowicz said.
Taking Bets on Uncertain Odds
It is possible that Tusk will not, ultimately, blunder into this policy change.
“At the moment, despite the political regime change, there is still a broad social consensus in Poland on the importance of border fencing and the fight against illegal migration,” Róbert Gönczi, an analyst and Poland expert for the Migration Research Institute in Budapest, Hungary told me. “The main reason is that the Polish political elite treats the eastern border siege not as an illegal migration crisis, but as a hybrid warfare by Belarus using migration as a tool of political pressure against Poland. The entire Polish political elite agrees that Minsk’s policy is dangerous for Poland, so we cannot expect any real changes for the time being.”
Interested Europe-watchers should not look for any big announcements should Tusk make the change or to Polish media for any news. The new government has already replaced heads of state-run media outlets and shut down others.
The most reliable way to know if it were to happen is how the immigrants find out: by monitoring their own social media posts boasting of their releases into Poland and showing selfies of their smiling selves on buses to Germany.
Todd Bensman reported this dispatch as a Visiting Fellow for the Budapest-based Mathias Corvinus Collegium Migration Research Institute. He works full-time as the senior national security fellow for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. He is the investigative author of Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History and America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of America’s Effort to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration.