The Poland-Belarus Border: A Conversation with Marta Bivand Erdal

Saumya: Could you share a little about your research on migration?

Marta: I am a human geographer, and I am interested in emigration as well as immigration and transnational ties that result from people moving from one place to another, but who have family members and close people in other places around the world. An important part of my research is on migration, development and remittances. Regionally, I am very interested in South Asia and my PhD was about remittance sending to Pakistan. Currently, I’ve started working on a project focusing on the interactions between social mobility and spatial mobility. I am looking at middle classes in four Asian cities namely, Karachi, Mumbai, Hanoi and Manilla. I am interested to find out what kind of roles have migrations of different sorts played in families becoming middle classes today in these cities.

Another important part of my research is based on work which I have done with interviews, focus groups and survey data in Norway about immigration and migrant experiences of life in this society, on questions of social cohesion and migration related diversity, including the religious aspects of this, which often get subsumed within migration related diversity. Writ large, these are questions about nationhood and its plurality, and about what it means to be a citizen.

My research interests also include migration in the Polish case. The reason for that is a combination of several factors—I was born in Poland and moved to Norway when I was three years old, I speak Polish fluently, and after Poland joint the European Union in 2004 more emigration took place from Poland to other countries in the EU and in the European Economic Area, and Norway is part of that. So, suddenly there were more and more Polish people coming to Norway. There was also more societal and research interest in Polish migration, especially because these migrants mainly came to work, but as often is the case with migrants who work, they also have lives and often stay longer than perhaps even they themselves and the society they move to assumes at the beginning. After I completed my PhD I was part of a research project, which was looking at the possibilities and realities of return migration with a focus on migrants from Poland in Norway. Gradually, I also continued to work on different topics linked to migration from Poland, including external voting and diaspora political engagements. I appreciate being able to do research in Polish and reflect on the ways in which the insider-outsider roles as a migration researcher play out differently in different contexts. There are all sorts of questions about researcher positionality depending on identity and language and how these things are often less linear than we assume them to be.

Saumya: How would you describe the current Poland-Belarus border migrant “crisis” or the humanitarian crisis?

Marta: This is sadly, a relevant and timely question. First, I would like to take a step back—how we use the word crisis in relation to migration is something we need to think about. Like you say, this is a crisis at the border. It is interesting to reflect on how in different countries and close to different borders, the border crossing of people is frequently described as a crisis. When these events are described as a migrant crisis or immigration crisis, migrants are directly associated with this word. I am concerned about the ways in which the word provokes ideas of migrants somehow being responsible for the crisis and also that it suggests that it’s a state of exception.

Instead, what I’d say is that what we see, time and again, is that crises at borders are border management or control crises. So, there is a crisis and it’s about how the state is trying to control the border and that is what is being put to test. As you also said, this becomes a humanitarian crisis because there are people involved. In this particular context, there are people on the Poland-Belarus border who have been dying and many more suffering at the border, on both sides of it.

It is also worth mentioning that this is not unique. The scenes which have been unfolding along this particular border, are familiar, in the sense that we have been seeing walls and fences, and people trying to traverse them, with border guards trying to hinder that, in different places, over the past few decades. One might consider the border between the US and Mexico, the Channel between France and the UK, as well as of course the Mediterranean Sea with the many different countries which surround it. These are well-known contexts where people have been dying while trying to cross into states that have not wanted to accept these border crossings, and who have in different ways effectively been stopping people from crossing in. This has caused both deaths and human suffering.

I think it is important to reflect on how this came about. My perspective as a migration researcher is that the “crisis” is a symptom of a bigger problem concerning overall migration management. Here, a clear responsibility lies with those managing the provision of legal pathways of migration. The Global Compact for Migration, which came from the United Nations in 2018, and which was finally endorsed also by the US, in late 2021, emphasizes legal and safe pathways to migration. Simultaneously, there is a critical need for real options to seek asylum for the people who are fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution and who are entitled to protection as refugees, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which as we know, is quite narrow and does not fit the reality of many people who we might in an everyday sense see as fleeing for their lives. But there are people who do fit the 1951 convention definition, and still even they do not have a safe way of accessing the opportunity to ask for international protection.

So, while it is possible to gain asylum in Europe, or to work here, and over time become regularized in some countries, when you have actually entered in an irregular fashion, it is hard to square that with the official position that irregular border crossing is both impossible and unwanted. Essentially, there is a degree of speaking with two tongues here, if you will, and I think in this sense it is fair to say that European states are engaging in the mismanagement of migration. That is what I would describe as the crisis in the European context. Not only do we have a legal and moral obligation to offer sanctuary to refugees, we also need the work effort of so many of those people who are at the moment risking their lives in order to come to European countries. Poland, for example, has been one of the top countries in the EU granting work permits to people coming from outside the EU, in recent years. While these legal migration pathways do exist, for those who die at Europe’s borders, it seems the approach to managing safe and legal pathways is developing too slowly, and for some people ultimately, too late.

Saumya: What do you think is the historical and geopolitical context of the Poland-Belarus border “crisis”?

Marta: We are now speaking in late January 2022, and this unfolding situation on the Poland-Belarus border has been going on since the summer of 2021. It’s interesting to look at some existing materials, for instance a double webinar with researchers offering analysis and commentary on this coming from journalists and scholars who are  based in Poland, not least at the Centre for Migration Research at the University of Warsaw. At the moment, in terms of the global political scene, the Poland-Belarus situation is not high up on the agenda. However, struggles for migrants persist: the NGOs that are working in the area are reporting that in the first three weeks of 2022 there are several hundred migrants in the border areas, on the Polish side, who have been asking for support and medical help, including at least 50 children who they have been offering support to. So, this situation at the Poland-Belarus border has not ended, and that is perhaps an important recognition, months on from when this issue first was in international news headlines.

From the Polish government’s perspective, a short-term goal is to build a wall along this border. Different types of fencing have been in place along this border, throughout the second half of 2021. However, now the Polish government is starting to build a wall, which is causing a lot of debate and concern in Poland, and for very different reasons. One dimension here is that this border region is in a part of Europe where the borders are really not naturally formed, but politically and historically constructed, which of course is not unique to this corner of the world at all. Many people who live in these border regions are communities that have been interconnected historically. It’s worth remembering that a border is in essence something that should be understood as a mechanism of both separation and connection, as an interface.

Another set of issues relates to how major constructions are expected to happen in a democratic society. Normally, there should be some kind of feasibility study, considering what kind of impacts a major infrastructure intervention, such as a huge wall along a border, would or might have on livelihoods, existing infrastructure, on the people who live there, nature and wildlife, and so on.

So, something that has come up is that this wall will in effect divide the vast and ancient Białowieża Forest, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with nature and wildlife that need protection. Imagine what constructing this huge wall might mean in this context? Since this has been projected as an exceptional “crisis” mode, things have not been properly investigated in this regard. That’s a huge concern and illustrates why these things are deeply problematic under the rubric of an exceptional frame.

Furthermore, there are serious concerns being raised by the political opposition in Poland about the ways in which the contracts to build these walls are being given to particular actors. Of course, we know that in countries where governments are democratically elected and accountable to the electorate, there is a requirement for transparency in terms of how public funds are used and there must be processes for these types of acquisitions. Now if these rules are not followed, due to “crisis” mode, where is the transparency and how can one trust the process through which this happens?

There are also protests around the wall being constructed in the villages in the border region, and a politicized debate around, not just the wall, but even about these protests: how many protestors were there, who funds them and why did they really want to protest. This degree of politicization illustrates not only how contentious this wall is but also reflects the polarized nature of Polish political debate and the public sphere, in many ways. However, the situation in Poland is also not just binary; within the government the Ombudsman for human rights has had access to the border areas which have been restricted for NGOs and the media, for instance. And there are indeed NGOs who have been trying to monitor the situation, and provide assistance, also legal activists and lawyers who are trying to mobilize and assist migrants in need of legal assistance. There is also independent media in Poland who are consistently reporting on the situation, even if the media is restricted from a prohibited area along the border itself.

To return to the point of departure of your question here, on the geopolitical aspects. While we may assume this is well-known, the bizarre way in which this crisis of border control was caused, it is worth reiterating. Much has been said about the weaponization of migrants – in this case, where migrants have been flying to Minsk, from various airports (such as from Bagdad, but also from airports in Turkey) with entry permission into Belarus. Paying a lot for their airfare and entry too. Thereafter people have been transported in various ways to the Belarus border, both with Lithuania and Poland. Clearly, the geopolitical backdrop here is particular, and deeply troubling, but as other researchers have pointed out, the focus on weaponization of migrants is at the same time also a convenient way of detracting attention from the fact that legal options for entering Europe in order to apply for asylum in reality are meagre.

Saumya: As a researcher where do you place yourself with respect to the method and positionality in understanding the current situation on the Poland-Belarus border?

Marta: So, I haven’t done research in Poland on the situation unfolding at the border, I have been following it as a migration researcher though and following it as also someone who speaks Polish and understands the Polish context quite well. I guess it’s also relevant that the lens through which I’ve been reading and listening to the reports here, is also as someone who is concerned about the political developments in Poland, but also often frustrated with what I perceive as frequently one-sided and quite superficial media coverage pertaining to Central and Eastern Europe, in Western media, including in Norway. I think it’s important to understand what people on ground have to say about what is happening in the border area, and the media reports that have included locals in the border area, for instance, really help shed light on the unfolding reality there. There are a couple of methodological and ethical reflections that come out of this, which I could share.

First, who do you listen to and whose voices do you have access to? In relation to situations where migrants are central, do we only speak to migrants, or to those who speak about migrants? There is an increasing acknowledgement that we need to include other voices that are present—relatives of migrants back home, state actors, civil society, or other people living in the border area. So, in this context, I’ve tried to follow news reports of journalists on radio who have been speaking with people in the border region. Of course, the border guards on the Polish side live in these same local areas, it is their friends and families who have also been among those who have been lighting lights to signal to migrants that its safe for them to come to their house for food or a shower. I think there is a methodological reflection in this which is quite basic: to care for nuances, subtleties and the very banal fact that humanity exists within these types of contexts. We need to understand that there are humans on the Belarus side too, and we may not know why they are doing what they are doing exactly, who is organizing or paying exactly, but we do know that Belarus is not a free country. So, we can use our imagination a little bit to understand that those human beings also have their stories, their families, and probably their own reflections about what it is they are being a part of here. The humanizing aspect can and often ought to be brought in to overcome simplistic binary narratives.

A second methodological point is related to proximity and distance. So, how does this border crisis compare to other situations described in similar terms? I am thinking about the US- Mexico border, and what is happening in the Channel between France and UK, and the measures and pushbacks implemented there and what kind of responses that have entailed. And around the Mediterranean, countries like Turkey, Libya, Greece, Italy and Spain have been part of similar situations. So, what kind of angle should we have as researchers in terms of proximity and distance?  When should one bring out the particularities or uniqueness of the context of a given situation, and when should one generalize? There is a balancing act here, in terms of exactly this sort of proximity and distance; about essentializing and generalizing, and when generalizing might slip into trying to make narratives fit a frame which we would like them to. I have this sort of slight worry about the ways in which we approach and write about these things, both when we are very close, and when we are perhaps too far away.

A third and last methodological point relates to the role we have as researchers. There have been these longstanding conversations within the field of humanitarianism, but also refugee studies and migration studies, about how research and activism do or do not go together, how they should or should not go together. I think this is about power, positionality, and questions of co-producing knowledge. In this particular context, there are many rich reflections on these issues from research colleagues in Poland, who have gone to the border areas and have tried to help. It then becomes a real and existential question of who you are, not just as a migration researcher, but also as a person. It brings home dilemmas and questions that for many migration scholars who are far away from the borders they might study most of the time, are not as present in their everyday lives, as has been the case in the past half year or so in the Polish context.

I do think there are a lot of dilemmas here, around which roles we take, how we take them and what we do. I also think there is an ethical responsibility for researchers to take those dilemmas seriously and make the choices that we have to make based on where we are, the values we hold, the type of research we engage in, and of course also knowing that as researchers, we are very differently positioned in terms of whether we have permanent contracts or not, seniority levels, gender, and many other aspects that define what we have the space and freedom to do. The way in which Polish researchers are engaging I think illustrates the dilemmas, but also offers lessons that perhaps we as researchers elsewhere might have much to learn from as well.

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