Friday, June 14, 2002

The article below appeared a few years ago. Since the publication of this article, the border has been fortified and fewer people get across. This summer,(2002) unemployed locals were hired to clear grass off the border region.


All Along the Watchtower
Under-staffed and under-equipped, Poland's Border Guards are no match for smugglers and illegal immigrants.

Poland's eastern border may soon become a barrier impossible to cross-all that's needed to make it immigrant and smuggler-proof are hundreds of millions of European Currency Units (ECU) and three years of work. The eastern border-especially the section separating Poland from Lithuania-is a net full of holes, where a handful of guards chase crowds of illegal emigrants moving west.

The detention jail at the Wiżajny Border Guard outpost has two rooms. Lieutenant Wiesław Dębowski opens the door to one of them and points to a small room with barred windows. Two cots with gray blankets stand inside. "According to regulations, we can keep two people here. When a whole group is detained, we have to fit 10 or even 15 people. If there are mothers with children among them, we have to put more mattresses in the canteen," says Dębowski.

Dębowski's 39 officers keep watch on a short stretch of Poland's border with Lithuania. They have three motorcycles, two Land Rovers, a police dog and 15 km of forests, lakes and marshes to guard.

A strip of plowed land should stretch along the border to show footsteps of illegal entrants. Today, it is overgrown with grass. For a year now, official funding was too scarce to hire a farmer with a horse and a plow. The guards wander in knee-high grass, playing detective and searching for footprints.

Their efforts are well rewarded. This year alone they have caught 40 illegal immigrants from the Far East. Last year, the detention center hosted 150 unwelcome guests, including 63 South Asian.

"There isn't a single spot on the border which hasn't been crossed illegally," says Dębowski, though once groups are spotted, they rarely escape the dedicated border guards-only three groups escaped pursuit in the past two years.

Even if illegal emigrants manage to escape the guards' attention, they can still be spotted by the local community. Locals don't like strangers, and call the border guard office to tell them that "some dark-skins are wandering around the neighborhood." Local residents are eager to cooperate as the Border Guard budget provides for "operational activities" and pays out rewards. Useful information can fetch up to zl.50. This kind of money is not to be disregarded in a region where over 50 percent of the adult population is unemployed.

Only those who make a living off illegal immigrant transports are not interested in the rewards. "We know them, and it's only a few families. We make life difficult for them but we can't prosecute due to a lack of evidence," explains Lieutenant Bogusław Jakubowski from the Dubienniki border outpost.

After each tip, Dębowski summons a patrol with a dog and drives a car down to block the road-the curse of this border section. There are dozens of roads running across fields and forests. They all lead to border posts, and every large car is suspect. Last year, the guards detained the leaders of an illegal immigrant transport group and found police scanners capable of picking up border guard transmissions.

Guards from Wiżajny suspect that some of the leaders of immigrant transport groups could be Lithuanian border officers, and while they haven't caught any of them red-handed, they notice that Lithuanian border outposts never inform Polish officers of footprints detected on their side of the border, while Russian and Belarussian guards report these without fail.

Border guards 20 km west of Wiżajny don't have any illegal crossing problems. In that region, Poland borders the Kaliningrad region, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. On the Russian side, the 198-km-long border is guarded by over 10,000 soldiers. Their work is made easier by a system of plowed land strips, electric fences and observation towers left from the days of the Soviet Union.

"The number of our men posted there is seven times smaller [than in other sections]. But [the Russians] guard the border like they did back in the 1960s-by force. And nobody dares cross it," says Lieutenant Stanisław Mika, commander of the Warmińsko-Mazurski Border Guard Office.

While there are no illegal border crossings into or out of Kaliningrad, smuggling operations flourish. Mika says that traders make a net profit of zl.5 on a carton of cigarettes smuggled from Russia, and double that for a bottle of vodka. Customs officers and guards in the biggest border crossing in northern Poland-Bezledy-Bagrationnovsk-fish contraband from car radiators, ventilation ducts, backpacks and under seats daily-smugglers' imagination knows no bounds.

Gangs transporting stolen cars to the east try to bribe border officers. In 1996, an investigation was started against 14 Border Guard officers in the Budziska crossing suspected of accepting regular payments from smugglers. Rumor has it that bribe negotiations start from $2,000, a heady sum for Border Guard Privates making a basic monthly salary of zl.600.

"Even shift commanders took bribes there," said General Andrzej Anklewicz, Commander of the Border Guard. He admitted that more detailed internal audits which reveal crimes committed years ago are being conducted only now. "I would be very happy if other Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration units also took anti-corruption operations seriously," says the general.

In his opinion, Poland needs three years and ECU 150 million to make the eastern border impenetrable. Last year, 2,000 additional jobs were created in the Border Guard, and this year will see five patrol planes purchased-which won't leave any money for thermal imaging cameras. Polish patrols may receive PHARE grants next year. "We have to concentrate on the east. It's practically the first border that separates Europe from Asia," Anklewicz points out.

Story by Konrad Niklewicz