At the end of 1997, Poland hosted about 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection, according to UNHCR. These included 1,085 asylum seekers awaiting a decision by the Department of Migration and Refugee Affairs (DMRA) and 139 refugees granted status during the year. During 1997, 3,533 persons filed asylum applications in Poland, a slight increase from the 3,205 in 1996. The largest number of asylum seekers in 1997 came from Sri Lanka (853), followed by Afghanistan (632), Armenia (464), Bangladesh (229), and Iraq (198). Of the 3,875 persons whose cases were considered during 1997, some 81 percent (3,148 persons), were closed, in most cases because the applicant abandoned the application. During the year, the DMRA granted refugee status to 139 persons and denied the applications of 588 individuals, a 19 percent approval rate. Nationals of Somalia and Iraq accounted for most of the approvals. The Polish government contends that the high number of abandoned applications in recent years indicates that most asylum seekers only filed applications as a stop-gap measure to bide time in their attempts to reach points farther west. Delays in the determination procedure, coupled with limited prospects for integration for recognized refugees, have also caused many asylum seekers to abandon their claims and leave Poland. Asylum Procedure After more than two years of preparation and debate, the Polish parliament enacted a new aliens law in June 1997. The law, effective on December 27, includes guidelines to regulate the asylum procedure, inspired, in part, by Poland's desire to conform with European Union (EU) guidelines, in preparation for Poland's possibly joining the EU. The new law contains provisions for asylum seekers arriving from "safe third countries" and "safe countries of origin" as well as a procedure for handling "manifestly unfounded" claims. Under the law, asylum seekers must request asylum at the border when crossing into Poland. Applicants who can demonstrate that threats to their health or security prevented them from applying at the border may lodge an application with the DMRA within 14 days. The legislation also provides for the creation of a Council for Refugees to decide appeals. While UNHCR said that the new aliens law generally conforms to international standards, it expressed concern regarding some provisions. Certain provisions, it said‹including the requirement that applicants apply for asylum at the border and a clause that imposes penalties on asylum seekers entering illegally (in conflict with Article 31 of the Refugee Convention)‹may prevent asylum seekers from gaining access to the refugee status determination procedure. Also cause for concern, said UNHCR, were provisions on carrier sanctions and a bar on asylum seekers applying with the help of a proxy. Because the new aliens law only became effective on December 27, refugee matters during most of the year were governed by the old aliens law, as amended in September 1991, and the administrative procedure code. In contrast to the new legislation, the old aliens law permitted asylum applicants to lodge their claims either at the border or with the DMRA in Warsaw. Border applicants had to fill out an initial application, which the Polish Border Police then forwarded to the DMRA. Obstacles to Asylum Polish press reports in July regarding a group of 17 asylum seekers refused entry to Germany on safe third country grounds and returned to Poland raised concerns about access to the Polish asylum procedure. According to the reports, the asylum seekers were immediately bused to the Polish-Ukrainian border, allegedly to prevent them from applying for asylum in Poland and to ensure that Ukraine would readmit them before the 48-hour time limit for their readmission expired. Their trip reportedly ended when the bus carrying the asylum seekers overturned near the Ukrainian border, killing at least one of the passengers. In a September 8, 1997 letter to the Polish government, USCR expressed concern that the asylum seekers may have been refused the chance to file for asylum in Poland. "If they were not given that chance," USCR said, "their summary removal to Ukraine, not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, may have placed certain individuals in the group with legitimate claims to refugee status at risk of onward deportation to places where their lives would be in danger." In June 1997, UNHCR expressed concern that language barriers kept some asylum seekers from requesting information about asylum or articulating asylum requests. Other barriers included a pattern in which the DMRA has discouraged certain asylum applicants from applying in Poland without reviewing their cases comprehensively. Because access to social assistance at Polish refugee reception centers is linked to filing an asylum application, those who cannot file are also effectively barred from social assistance. Without food and shelter, their chances to remain in Warsaw to file an application at some later date are poor. However, both UNHCR and the Helsinki Foundation added that when they have intervened on behalf of applicants, the DMRA usually has been responsive. Humanitarian organizations also criticized the DMRA for denying housing and support to applicants after a denial in the first instance. Even more problematic, humanitarian practitioners charged, was the lack of an effective right to appeal. The deficit in due process was particularly evident at Warsaw International Airport, where asylum seekers were prevented from filing appeals and immediately deported following first-instance denials. Until the new aliens law became effective on December 27, the DMRA, responsible for making first-instance decisions, also continued to review appeals (the new aliens law established an independent Council for Refugees to review appeals cases). Although negative decisions in the second instance may be appealed to the High Administrative Court, few asylum seekers managed to do so during 1997, as in previous years. Recognized refugees receive residence permits, permission to work, and, in some cases, have access to limited social assistance. Despite these rights and Polish government efforts to promote refugee integration and self-sufficiency, barriers to integration for recognized refugees remained in 1997. Readmission Agreements Poland has concluded readmission agreements with Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Moldova, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. These agreements address issues solely related to the return of nationals of the contracting states and third-country nationals who enter the contracting states illegally. In June 1997, UNHCR recommended that governments returning asylum seekers to Poland on safe third country grounds seek assurances that the Polish authorities will readmit the asylum seekers in question and allow them to enter a fair and effective determination procedure.

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