Like a Rollercoaster. Detention Centres for Foreigners in Poland

Gawel Walczak, Global Education MagazineGawel Walczak

Project Coordinator at Polish Migration Forum Foundation 


Abstract: In October 2012 a group of foreigners located in detention centres in Poland started a hunger strike. Many of them were asylum seekers who awaited decisions regarding their status behind the bars and barbed wire. They demanded better conditions of staying in those places. It was the first time when Polish media got interested in this topic, introducing it into the public discourse. People could read about it in the press, watch special programmes on TV and listen to broadcasts on the radio. They could familiarize themselves with statements made by various nongovernmental organizations and governmental institutions. During the whole debate, many stories were told and many people were involved. In this article I would like to analyse four of them: the one of refuge, the one of protection, the one of prison and one of a gap. They constitute the core of the main story, which is about the situation of foreigners in the Polish detention centres.

Keywordsdetention centre, refugees, irregular migration, Poland, public discourse


Como montaña rusa. Centros de Internamiento para Extranjeros en Polonia


Resumen: En Octubre de 2012 el grupo de extranjeros alojados en los Centros de Internamiento para Extranjeros en Polonia empezó la huelga de hambre. Muchos de ellos fueron solicitantes de asilo esperando las decisiones sobre sus estatutos detrás de alambre de puas y rejas. Lo que demandaban fueron mejores condiciones de esperar. Ha sido la primera vez que los medios de comunicación se interesaron en el tema, introduciéndolo al discurso público. Por primera vez la gente ha podido leer artículos sobre este tema en la prensa, ver y escuchar programas especiales en la televisión o en la radio. Han podido conocer declaraciones de varias ONGs y opiniones de instituciones gubernamentales. Durante todo el debate público muchas historias han sido contadas y mucha gente ha sido involucrada. El objetivo de este artículo es el análisis de cuatro historias: del refugiado, de la protección, de la prisión y la última del hueco que formarán el eje central de la historia sobre la situación de los extranjeros en los Centros de Internamiento en Polonia.

Palabras clave: Centro de detección, refugiados, migración irregular, Polonia, discurso público.



The year 2012 and especially its second half, could be named as a time of detention centres for foreigners in Poland. This topic was introduced into the public debate by a set of articles launched in October by Gazeta Wyborcza (, one of the Polish biggest and most influential newspapers. The articles were related to the hunger strike undertaken by a group of foreigners in all six Polish detention centres. The strike started in the middle of October and lasted one week. From 391 foreigners located in these institutions, 73 participated in the protest. They demanded improvement of detention’s conditions and warranting of their rights.

The debate about detention centres covered at least four stories. First of them was related to refugees – most of the people located in centres are asylum seekers. Second one concerned protection – state officials claimed that foreigners had to be located in the detention centres to protect them from the dangers of the illegal migration to other European countries. Third story regarded prison – many commentators stated that the conditions prevailing in these institutions are more similar to jail rules than to human rights protection. And finally, fourth story was about the gap – foreigners who were allowed to speak said that they felt like they were living outside the society, and some commentators stated that the centres’ regime was an effect of the lack of legislation governing their functioning.

In this essay I will present all four stories and their narrators revealing that the detention centres in Poland are not only places where foreigners are located to prevent them to leave Poland illegally.

I work in a Polish NGO called Polish Migration Forum Foundation and our main area of interests are refugees and asylum seekers. Thus, the methodology used to conduct the research about detention centres was primarily based on unstructured interviews with my colleagues from other organizations and participant observation during conferences and meetings related to this topic. I also used Desk Research method to investigate public discourse about these centres, especially articles published by Polish media and also reports and announcements made by NGO and state institutions.


One of the main issues raised during the debate about the detention centres was that the foreigners who stayed there were asylum seekers. For many commentators, journalists or NGO workers, it was unacceptable that people who had to flee their countries because of war or persecution had to be situated in a closed centre guarded by officers in military uniforms1. What was missing in most news and statements were the reasons why the people who seek asylum in Poland were located in such a place.

There were 391 foreigners situated in Polish detention centres in October 2012. Almost two third of them (258 persons) were asylum seekers. Most of them claimed asylum before entering the centre (Klaus, Rusilowicz, 2012). They had tried to cross the border without documents or they had claimed asylum in Poland and left the country for another European country without waiting for a final decision. These numbers, compared tothe total amount of people who submitted a refugee status application were small2. Nevertheless, the situation of asylum seekers located in detention centres demonstrated that in order to obtain a refugee status in the European Union, people needed something more than to escape from persecution and travel to Europe.

First, they needed their documents, especially passports with European visas. That allowed them to cross the border in a legal way and ask for asylum. They could deposit their documents with the Polish authorities and begin the asylum procedure. If a foreigner did not have her/his passport, when she/he asked for asylum at the border she/he was arrested by the Polish Border Guard. Then she/he had to wait in the detention centre for a court decision regarding his further stay in Poland. If a judge decided that there was no danger of a foreigner departing Poland without waiting for the resolution of the her/his case by the Office for Foreigners3, the asylum seeker could leave the centre. If a judge stated that foreigner was likely to go abroad, she/he had to stay in the centre until the authorities checked her/his application.

Secondly, once arrived in Poland, a foreigner had to apply for asylum in this country. If she/he applied there, she/he could not go to other European country before the Office for Foreigners made the decision in her/his case. This situation was related to the so called Dublin Regulation (Regulation 2003/343/CE) – the agreement between European Union Member States which stated that the country receiving the asylum seeker was responsible for the resolution for her/his case.

Thus, crossing the Polish border, which is also the largest European Union’s land border, was not tauntamount with entering Europe, a safe and peaceful zone with good prospects for someone’s future. It meant entering a new, bureaucratic world, with Poland as a first and – for many – the last European country to see4. If a foreigner seeking asylum in Poland knew the procedures ruling this world, and many did because of their social ties with European societies, she/he could switch on that bureaucratic world. If foreigner did not know the rules or broke them, she/he was located in the detention centre.


According to the state officials, asylum seekers were located in the detention centres to protect them from the risk related to illegal migration. Preventing them from travelling illegally to other European countries was meant to be a tool for separatingforeigners from human traffickers. Nevertheless, in the draft project of Polish Migration Policy5 there is no information about such cause for detaining foreigners in such centres. According to this document, the three main reasons for locating people in detention centres are: illegal border crossing, illegal stay in Poland and expulsion order. Detention centres are part of borders’ management system, more of an exit than entry for people arriving from the outside of the European Union. This system is one of the tools for fighting against illegal migration, which constitutes one of the main tasks of Poland as a EU Member State and a country withthe longest European land frontier.

Combating illegal migration to protect people using this way of entering Europe is one of the pillars of European Union’s migration policy (COM 2006). It is based on nine policy priorities: cooperation with migrants’ countries of origin, integrated management of external borders, fight against human trafficking, secure travel and ID documents, regularisations, tackling illegal employment, return policy, exchange of information and carriers’ liability. At the European Union level, detention centres are strictly related to return policy – foreigners who stay without permission on the EU territory have to be deported to their countries of origin. And the first phase of their deportation is to locate them in the detention centres.

Thus, at both national and European level, detention centres as a part of border control or return programs are much more related to migration policy based on migration flows’ management than to protection or care for humans. Moreover, lack of such protection is one of the reproaches towards Polish Border Guard, the institution which is responsible for administrating of these centres. Nongovernmental organizations especially highlight the situation of possible victims of torture and trauma, pregnant women and children in these centres.

There are no procedures for determining if a foreigner could be a victim of torture and trauma while entering the centre. At the same time, most of people staying in the centres are asylum seekers who are highly exposed to such occurrences. Pregnant women are another vulnerable group whose special situationis not something considered by the authorities. Moreover, there is no lower limit of foreigners’ age which means that children also can be forced to stay in the detention centres. These are not prepared for children’s presence which can lead to minors’ psychological disturbances or trauma.

For Polish authorities, people located in the detention centres are mostly possible fugitives. Their special personal situation, as asylum seekers, as pregnant women, as victims of torture and trauma or as children, is not a subject of concecrn because the rules applied in these centers are first of all those of migration policy.


From the eight postulates given by those protesting in detention centres, five were related to conditions there. The protesters demanded the right to healthcare, respect of children rights, improvement of social conditions, end of abuse and end of criminalizing. They enumerated elements of prison regime which are present in the centres such as: barred windows, barbed wires, tall walls and limited time and space for walking6. These precautions were used in places dedicated not to people who had committed a crime, but whose “location had to be controlled”7.

Besides, they spoke about violence and sexual harassment against them carried out by the guards. These information were not confirmed by special commissions constituted by the Ministry of Interior officials and NGO representatives. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that another form of abuse was revealed and it was related to mobbing used against female guards working in the detention centres by their superiors8.

The elements of prison regime described above were affecting all the people living in the centre, especially children. Furthermore, the character of such place, a closed institution with no possibility to leave it before the resolution of somebody’s case, prevented minors from going to school. The centres’ directors together with local authorities organized some courses for children, but it could not replace a proper education. Thus, while staying at the centre, minors were precluded from one of their fundamental right, which was the right to education. Once again, the migration policy stayed above other policies based on international agreement. In this case, it was the European Convention on Human Rights and Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The foreigners request for right to healthcare was related to access to specialized examinations and psychological help. Although there were psychologists working in every centre, they were contracted by the Polish Border Guard or they were simply guards with psychological education. They were not treated as trustworthy and people did not want to talk to them. Moreover, some of the medical and psychological examinations were conducted without interpreter’s presence. In many cases other foreigners with basic knowledge of Polish served as interpreters. There was also an example highlighted by one of the NGO of using Google Translator during psychological examinations which aimed to confirm the testimony of one of the asylum seekers detained in the centre.

The conditions found in detention centres are in many aspects similar to those found in prison. Although according to the Polish legislature, foreigners residing in the centres are not there as punishment for commiting a crime, the appearance and atmosphere of these places can provoke such feelings. Along with such a feeling a very clear message is sent, a message of control. Regardless of the way of finding themselves in the centre, by crossing illegally the border or by detaining by authorities while staying irregularly in Polish territory, they realize that the order is put on place. If foreigners are returned to their country of origin, this message goes with them. If they are granted the refugee status, they leave the centre and start their new life in the new place with this message: Polish land, and more broadly speaking, European land, is controlled. And such control is in hands of the state.


The protesting foreigners claimed that they felt like <<second-class citizens, pushed away on the margins of Polish society by the migration regulations, deprived of rights guaranteed for every human>> (Chojnowski 2012). Both those who enter or leave Poland without proper documents and those who stay there without permission, become irregular immigrants according to the Polish legislation. Even if they apply for asylum, it does not change their situation – while waiting for a decision of the Office for Foreigners in the detention centre, they are treated as undocumented migrants who can try to go to other European countries without visa.

As Leo Chavez stressed: <<As “illegal aliens” they are not legitimate members of the community. The “illegal” component of this term underscores the fact that they exist outside the “legal” system that constitutes society.>> (1991). To enter the legal system is the first step to become a part of the community. For those foreigners who stay in Poland without documents there are two ways of achieving it: regularization and return programme. During last fifteen years there were three regularizations for undocumented immigrant: in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Regarding return programmes, foreigners can choose the Assisted Voluntary Returns programme managed by International Organization for Migration with cooperation of Polish Ministry of Interior. If they prefer to stay without documents and are detained by authorities, they are located in the detention centre and deported to their country of origin. There, after one or three years9, they can apply for Polish visa and enter Poland legally.

Those foreigners who were returned from another European country because of Dublin Convention, could become a part of community, but that community would be Polish. If they received asylum in Poland they could apply for a visa to other EU member states. Finally, foreigners who asked for international protection at the Polish border but did not have documents were sent to the detention centres and were not even allowed to contact the community10. They could do so when they received the decision granting them asylum or releasing them from the centre. In the last case, they waited for the resolution of their case in the open centre for foreigners.

Thus, asylum seekers located in the detention centre were trapped in a social gap. They were nor undocumented immigrants, because they had asked for asylum, nor asylum seekers, because they had no documents. Staying in the centre, they were meant for deportation to their countries of origin, but, at the same time, asking for asylum, they could not be returned.

They were trapped in another gap as well, the informative one. The protesters claimed lack of access to information. They demanded the interpreters’ presence in the centres, because many of the foreigners had difficulty communicating with guards or professionals working with them, e.g. doctors or psychologists. They also did not understand documents given to them. For example, the instructions and decisions were written in languages understandable to foreigners, but the decisions’ argumentations were not. The protesters also wanted a telephone and Internet access , because they could not communicate with their families and/or representatives of nongovernmental organizations.

Finally, the very detention centres were put into the legislative gap. Some of the regulations prevailing in them were defined by the Act of 13 of June 2003 on foreigners. All other issues had to be determined according to the Polish Penal Code. And the Penal Code was not created for regulating the detention centres for foreigners.


Polish detention centres are presented by both authorities and their critics as places of order. For officials they are institutions where irregular situation of foreigners residing or entering Poland is managed – they are kept under surveillance until their cases are resolved by deporting them, giving them asylum or releasing from the centre by the judge. For critics, detention centres are places of severe order comparable or similar to prison regime. They are well described in the space as well, with high walls, barbed wire and bars separating them from the outside world.

Nevertheless, the rhetorical and spatial determination of those institutions is not relevant to the situation of people located there. Their situation is blurred. On the rhetorical level, those asylum seekers who enter Poland illegally are granted protection in the detention centres not from persecutors from their countries of origin, but from people that they were supposed to pay for the journey. They are treated as possible fugitives, but not from their countries, but from Poland. They do not become a part of the host society, separated from them by walls of the detention centre, but instead they are a part of a bureaucratic reality in which they exist not as persons but as files. Moreover, their legal situation is not clear either. They are neither undocumented immigrants nor asylum seekers – or they are both at the same time.

The foreigners’ situation and future is unknown, because it depends on the decision made by Polish authorities. At the same time, they receive a clear message from the same authorities: all the things happening here are controlled. It has to be a special surveillance, because what is controlled is a gap.


1. Detention centres in Poland are administered by the Polish Border Guards. Although it is an independent government service, its rules and procedures are very similar to those in the military.

2. The total amount of foreigners who applied for refugee status in Poland in 2012 was 10753.

3. Polish office which is dedicated to all the issues regarding foreigners staying in Poland, including asylum procedures.

4. For most foreigners, including asylum seekers, Poland is still only a pass-through country in their travel to other European countries such as Germany, Belgium or France.

5. For English summarise of Polish Migration Policy see:

6. In some centres people could walk once a day during an hour at the appointed place. This rule was applied to all the foreigners, regardless of their age, including children.

7. All the information regarding the protest can be seen at the special blog dedicated to it:

8. It is also worth mentioning that from over fifty articles and statements about protest in Polish detention centres only one was dedicated to mobbing of female guards.

9. The period of time in which foreigners cannot apply for Polish visa depends on the decision of the Polish Border Guard regarding their deportation. Nevertheless, once in their country of origin, they can appeal against this decision to the Head of the Office for Foreigners.

10. Asylum seekers who have their passports may stay in the open centres for foreigners managed by the Office for Foreigners or rent a flat with allowance granted by the Office.


Chavez L. (1991). Outside the Imagined Community: Undocumented Settlers and Experiences of Incorporation. American Ethnologist, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 257-278

Chojnowski T. (2012). Piekło cudzoziemców w Polsce moze trwac dłużej. Gazeta Wyborcza. 31.10.2012

COM(2006) Communication from the Commission on Policy priorities in the fight against illegal immigration of third-country nationals. 19th of July, Brussels.

European Commission (2003). COUNCIL REGULATION (EC), 18th February 2003 establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national. No 343/2003. Retrieved in:

Klaus, W., Rusilowicz, K. (Eds.). (2012). Migracja to nie zbrodnia. Raport z monitoringu strzeżonych ośrodków dla cudzoziemców. Warszawa. Helsińska Fundacja Praw Człowieka, Stowarzyszenie Interwencji Prawnej.

This article was published on June 20th: World Refugee Day in Global Education Magazine.

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