Polish government spurns Archbishop in refugees row

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Poland has refused to allow Médecins sans Frontières to help refugees stranded on the eastern border with Belarus.  André Quillien / Alamy

Polish government spurns Archbishop in refugees row

Poland has refused to allow Médecins sans Frontières to help refugees stranded on the eastern border with Belarus. 
André Quillien / AlamyThe Polish government has rejected a meditation offer by the country’s Catholic Primate, after it refused to allow the international charity Médecins sans Frontières to help refugees stranded on the eastern border with Belarus.  “The minister in question sees no possibility of co-operating with medics acting in non-governmental organisations,” said Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno. “Once again, however, I declare that the Church and I are ready to support all mechanisms for helping the refugees. I am certain that, acting in solidarity in the name of humanity and a spirit of goodwill, we could help those who life and health are threatened without undermining the security of our borders.” 

The 56-year-old archbishop was relaying the response of Mariusz Kaminski, Poland’s Interior Minister, to his mid-October appeal for doctors from the Paris-based charity to be allowed to offer aid to the stranded refugees. He said help was already being given by the Polish Church’s Caritas organisation, as well as by priests and parishes from the country’s Bialystok Archdiocese. However, he added that local villagers were also ready to assist the refugees, while many police, soldiers and border guards were sympathetic “to the tragedy and misfortune of people cheated into becoming victims of disgraceful political games”.

 Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, declared a state of emergency on the border in September, after claims by Polish and European Union officials that President Alexander Lukashenko’s discredited government in Belarus had transported migrants, mostly from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, to the area to pressure Poland in retaliation for Western sanctions.  However, aid agencies have also accused Poland of blocking proper asylum procedures and contributing to at least eight refugee deaths from hypothermia and exhaustion, after it deployed 10,000 troops with razor wire and barred aid workers and observers from a three-kilometre frontier strip. 

On 29 October, Polish parliamentarians defied a summer appeal by the United Nations and approved plans for a 65-mile border wall, costed at 353 million euros, after reports of 15,000 attempted crossings in one month, although the European Commission has refused a request for help in funding the project.  In his letter to Kaminski, Archbishop Polak appealed for “concrete and urgent talks” on allowing Médecins sans Frontières to gain access to the wooded border zone, adding that he was personally ready to help ensure “common arrangements to facilitate necessary humanitarian actions”.   However, in his reply, the minister said the region would remain closed, by government order, to anyone not resident there, even for those “with full medical preparedness and a sincere readiness to offer unconditional help”. The dispute is the latest between Poland’s nationalist government, headed by the Law and Justice party, and Catholic Church leaders, who bitterly criticised its lockdown restrictions as a violation of the constitution and a 1993 Vatican concordat, and have also accused premier Mateusz Morawiecki of failing to consult the Church over a planned tightening of tax and national insurance rules.   

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