A team of Belarusian lawyers and activists works to defend the rights of compatriots who have adopted Poland as home.
A recent survey of Belarusian emigres found that many living in Poland say they have encountered discrimination and xenophobia.
A third of the 1,880 Belarusians polled said they had been unable to open a bank account, while 17 percent felt they had been denied a job because of their origin, according to the study, sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, of the experiences of Belarusian emigrants in Poland, Lithuania, and Georgia in the wake of the mass protests that rocked Belarus in 2020 and the Minsk-backed Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“This was an online survey with snowball recruiting. It’s important to understand that we sociologists might have missed, and very probably did, a lot of Belarusians who didn’t join the diaspora after 2020. They just came to earn some money, for example,” said Philip Bikanau, an independent Belarusian sociologist who co-authored the study together with Oleg Alampiev.
Bikanau believes that the main reason for discrimination and xenophobia against Belarusians is the start of the war in Ukraine and Belarus’ participation as an aggressor country.
“It is quite possible, hypothetically, that Belarusians face discrimination because they occupy the jobs of Poles. But our research does not allow us to draw such a conclusion. The war is much more important now,” Bikanau added.
There are national institutions in Poland to counteract discrimination and xenophobia. But not all Belarusians know how to use these tools, or even realize that they exist at all. One organization that helps Belarusians push back against discrimination, the Center for Belarusian Solidarity, was founded in August 2020, the same month that saw an influx of Belarusians into Poland amid the brutal crackdown on anyone seen as a threat to the authoritarian government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who was declared the winner of that month’s disputed presidential election.
The center, usually known as CBS, estimates that more than 52,000 Belarusian citizens live in Poland. In addition, according to a source close to the office of Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, about 5,000 Belarusians have come from Ukraine since the war began almost one year ago.
Problems With Banks, Schools, and Landlords
The center, based in Warsaw, collects information from Belarusians who say they have faced discrimination. The center also runs Polish language courses and other activities to help Belarusian new arrivals get settled in.
Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, CBS sent out a call on its social network pages, asking for anyone who had encountered discrimination to tell their stories. Anton Zhukov, a spokesman for the center, has been collecting cases. He says he received 452 messages in the first few days, telling of incidents ranging from rejected bank accounts to bullying at school.
When someone is the victim of discrimination from an individual or even physical violence, the organization’s options are limited, Zhukov admits. At most, the victim is advised to file a complaint with the police or given contacts to other NGOs that have experience in this area.
He recalls one such incident.
“A Belarusian was beaten by Poles for speaking Russian. The issue was resolved with the police and a criminal case was filed against the Poles. But it is easier for us, CBS, to resolve the situation if a legal entity, not a private one, discriminates against a person,” he says.
A more promising approach is to work through the office of the Commissioner for Human Rights. This independent ombudsman can be addressed by any citizen of Poland, as well as refugees. The Belarusian solidarity center sends reports of discrimination against Belarusians on the part of legal entities – such as banks – to the ombudsman.
CBS received more than 200 complaints from people who were unable to open a bank account with a Belarusian passport. All were resolved in a positive way after the ombudsman intervened, Zhukov says.
“Through our social networks we collect stories, then document them, translate them into Polish and send them to the ombudsman. It is the ombudsman’s function to deal with such cases,” Zhukov says.
He explains that CBS has no expertise in mounting legal challenges against discrimination or xenophobic acts by individuals, nor influence with the authorities.
“We pass information to those who can influence the situation,” he says. The center also advises on which organizations in Poland can help and help victims draw up a police report.
Belarusians are now able to apply for humanitarian visas directly in Poland through the visa centers operated by a private company, VFS Global, in Warsaw, Poznan, and Lublin. This option was made available in September to those who cannot return to Belarus due to persecution or threat of reprisals if they entered Poland from Ukraine after the outbreak of the war, or if they were legally in Poland on the basis of a previously issued and still valid humanitarian visa.
Now, according to CBS, Belarusians face difficulties in obtaining national visas in Poland, including for humanitarian reasons. A major problem is that the visa centers usually do not issue an official visa refusal, which makes it impossible to appeal against the decision. Whenever possible, lawyers from the center go to the centers to advise Belarusians on the spot when they run into difficulties with their paperwork.
Alexander is a Belarusian who left the country after the crackdown on dissent in 2020. He first went to live in Ukraine, but after the outbreak of war he was forced to move to Poland.
When he applied for a humanitarian visa, Polish authorities advised him to wait until the law on obtaining such documents on Polish territory came into effect, he said. Once the law was on the books, last October Alexander applied for a humanitarian visa. His documents were not accepted, because, he was told, his passport did not have enough pages for a visa.
“This is not true, I still have room. And the law on visas says nothing about how many pages a passport must have. I immediately called the lawyers at the CBS, and they came to my aid,” he continued. While he is under consideration for international protection, he isn’t allowed to leave Poland.
Two CBS lawyers visited the visa facility, where they spoke to staff and requested a written document explaining the refusal of Alexander’s application. Such a written document is needed in order to apply to the Commissioner for Human Rights. According to Alexander, the visa center flatly refused to issue such a document “and called the police on us.” At that point, his prospects started looking brighter, when the police agreed with the lawyers’ interpretation of the law. The lawyers stayed in the visa center until closing, trying to resolve the problem through the Polish Foreign Ministry.
However, there has been no response from the ministry so far, Zhukov admits, adding that the Belarusian center has successfully helped several people receive visas on appeal.
The Ugly Side of Discrimination
The Center for Belarusian Solidarity is the only initiative so far that has developed working tools to combat discrimination by official bodies or businesses against Belarusian emigres in Poland and has established direct links with national human rights institutions.
In their study, co-authors Bikanau and Alampiev acknowledge that situations such as being denied housing or employment “are ambiguous and can easily be misinterpreted,” although they state that most of the incidents described by Belarusian emigres in the study likely did involve actual discrimination.
Belarusians have also faced numerous incidents of xenophobic behavior. In such cases, the solidarity center recommends they turn to the Monitoring Center for Racist and Xenophobic Behavior, an NGO which keeps police informed about possible hate crimes and assists victims of these crimes.
When Belarusian journalist Alexei Khudanov narrowly escaped a beating from Poles in Warsaw, the monitoring center helped him write a police statement and notified Polish journalists about the incident.
The dispute began last fall when a Polish couple started berating some Belarusians and Ukrainians for using a nearby football field, saying they should leave so children could play there, Khudanov said.
Several weeks later, the husband of the couple and a friend clad in combat gear arrived at the field and tried to forcibly evict the players, as his wife warned the Belarusians and Ukrainians not to provoke Poles, or else “faces will be smashed.”
Khudanov and his friends filmed most of the incident on their phones, he said, and then approached the racism monitoring center. When police got involved, criminal charges were filed against the couple and their friend. They were put under police surveillance and ordered to stay at least 100 meters from the complainants.
Evgeniya Dolgaya is a Belarusian journalist specializing in social issues. She is the creator of Politvyazynka, a platform for the stories of female political prisoners in Belarus.