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‘Tolerated Stay’: A Tolerable Policy?


Adam Borowski has no air conditioning in his car.  During these sweltering summer days in Warsaw, when pedestrians leave footprints in melted asphalt and the towering silhouette of the Palace of Culture is made opaque by muggy haze, it seems less than reasonable for a man his age.  And yet although an aging Borowski could well afford a newer, better, more comfortable car – one with automatic windows and powerful AC vents – he chooses to spend his money elsewhere. 

“A new car? For what?” he says, “When I publish, when I make money, I much prefer to spend it on all this.” As he speaks he gestures to a series of stomach-turning photos of bloodied faces, children with severed limbs, and carcasses mutilated beyond recognition. They are all captioned with names, dates and places – they are all images of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Chechnya. Borowski, former freedom fighter with Solidarność, head of Volumen publishing company and recently-named Honorary Polish Consul for the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria by President Abdul-Halim Sadulajew (who has since been assassinated, June 2006) already presented this display in Copenhagen and, in the coming months, plans to take it to London and Brussels. Today the photos are displayed in a small tent in Agrycola Park in Warsaw – one of several such awareness-raising exhibitions set up for Refugee Day. 

An annual ‘festival’ of sorts, Refugee Day features a variety of multicultural events, including dance groups from Sudan, music concerts from Vietnam and a fashion show of different garments worn around the world.  With help from sponsors like the UNHCR, Polish Humanitarian Action and the European Refugee Fund, the event takes place for the eleventh time in Warsaw on Sunday, 25 June 2006.  The scene is striking for a place reputed to be as ‘mono-ethnic’ as Poland: families of Sri Lankans, Sudanese and Vietnamese are seen and heard engaging in eloquent Polish conversations with native Poles and their children. They enthusiastically discuss the hot weather, the spectacles presented on the main stage or the cotton candy machine.  But there is a general reluctance, it seems, to discuss their painful pasts or stressful presents. Even if they are borne in silence, the former traumas of most of these people are written clearly across their faces: the deep scars on youthful faces and the etched creases on older ones are unmistakable indicators that each individual is still coping with his or her reason for having had to leave home. 

Among these faces, decidedly the most numerous group is that of the Chechens. Dark-skinned and with captivating eyes, they appear most frequently onstage and most abundantly populate the applauding audience members.  But the light-heartedness of Chechen children’s singing groups and dancing troupes is not untainted by an element of sadness: the charm of their presentations is diminished by the half-moon knife wounds recently healed on on-looking fathers’ faces, the reticent sadness clouding mothers’ water-coloured eyes.  And yet, though it seems strange to admit, most of them should not be featured in Refugee Day: most of them are not officially refugees. 

Indeed, even though the vast majority of persons seeking refugee status in Poland is Chechen – Chechens comprised 89 percent of all status-seekers in 2004, 90 percent in 2005 – an overwhelming number does not receive it.  Instead, most Chechens receive what is called ‘tolerated stay’ status, a subsidiary form of protection introduced in Poland in 2003 as preparations were made for its accession to the European Union. Between 2003 and 2005 alone, more than 2600 persons in Poland received ‘tolerated stay’ status – and they were almost exclusively Chechen.  Since its introduction in 2003, when only 24 tolerated stay permits were issued, the number skyrocketed to 846 in 2004, and 1,283 in the first half of 2005.  This trend is only expected to increase in the coming years. 

Refugee Status and the ‘Tolerated Stay’ Permit

A Brief Policy Background

But what is ‘tolerated stay’ status, and how does it differ from refugee status? Poland’s accession to the Geneva Convention   in 1991 and its subsequent implementation of the EU acquis communautaire until May 2004 meant that the development and evolution of Poland’s refugee law progressed largely in accordance with Western standards. For a country with as little immigration as Poland, this should mean that it is particularly well-equipped, legislatively, to receive and process these individuals. And indeed, the Tolerated Stay permit, the policy-making result of various EU directives and two Alien Acts passed in Poland, is issued on terms   as clearly delineated as those that determine refugee status. Its aim is to offer basic protection to those persons not fulfilling the Geneva Convention criteria but who cannot be returned to their country of origin for humanitarian reasons.  The major difference lies, though, not as much in the term’s legal definition as in the social services and support it entails – or, as is the currently the case in Poland, lacks entirely.

Entitled but Unable

Indeed, those individuals that receive refugee status are entitled to a comparatively extensive program of integration assistance, which comprises financial support for food and clothing, housing advice, access to medical care, free Polish language classes, free-of-charge education in public higher education schools and a so-called Geneva passport allowing them to move outside of Poland’s borders. While services provided to refugees make for a stay that is far from comfortable – indeed, there is a shortage of just about everything, from cash allowances to personnel to the time allotted to the programs (12 months) – they are at least a minimal means of easing the great difficulties that forced displacement into a foreign country involves. 

Although persons obtaining tolerated stay permits technically have, like those with refugee status, a right to stay in Poland, seek employment, attend schools and acquire health insurance, they are often powerless to exercise most of the ‘rights’ to which they are legally entitled. They suffer from two gross disadvantages as compared to refugees. For one thing, they lack the social assistance programs normally provided to individuals with refugee status, which means that learning the language, finding housing or employment, gaining access to schools and medical care – simply surviving, ostensibly – is extremely difficult. The second largest problem they face involves leaving Poland. Individuals with tolerated stay permits are not issued the same travel documents as persons recognised as refugees. They are instead issued a Polish travel document that allows them to reside within but precludes them from travelling beyond Poland’s borders. This means that, even if they could conceivably find better conditions elsewhere, once they are declared ‘tolerated’ persons they are legally obliged to remain in Poland – with or without food, work, housing or medical care – or else risk imprisonment for attempting illegal migration.   

Refugees in the Context of Dublin II

The situation – both for refugees and tolerated stay persons – is much complicated by the introduction of Dublin II, an EU regulation that entered into force in September of 2003. According to the regulation, only one Member State is responsible for examining an application for refugee status, and an applicant can only receive refugee status in the nation in which he or she first applies.  It operates in all EU Member States and is meant to discourage refugee status “shopping” – that is, individuals applying for status in several nations in order to score the best policy package.  Understandably, those countries best-equipped to receive and support refugees were, particularly in the last decade, inundated with applicants. Poorer nations, on the other hand – especially those in close proximity to unstable, non-EU countries – had difficulty keeping track of individuals who filed applications but left before the state even returned a decision on their status.  Using Eurodac, a computerised system that identifies and traces individuals by fingerprint data, Dublin II is meant to reduce these sorts of inequities in and logistical difficulties of tracking current migratory trends.

The system, though, still has many problems – practically as well as theoretically. The functioning of the Regulation presupposes that the practices and policies of evaluating refugee applications in each Member State are based on common standards.  This is, however, far from true, and in fact only a minimal level of policy harmonization has been achieved across all Member States.  As a result, refugee status-seekers encounter different practices and varying treatment throughout the EU.  In Poland’s case, even though those individuals with ‘tolerated stay’ status cannot travel outside national borders, they often do – attempting to join family members in other states or to seek out better living conditions for themselves.  Last year, 356 individuals – mainly Chechens – were returned to Poland from Germany, Austria, Belgium and France.  Those that are caught are usually deemed illegal immigrants, and are often prosecuted.

A Refugee Speaks

Tragedy after Tragedy

Such was the case for Iakha Aboubakarova’s brother. He is currently in a Polish prison, picked up last year at the Polish border for having tried to immigrate illegally to join his sister in France.  “I am helpless to do anything,” Aboubakarova says tearfully. “In order to update his passport to get out legally, he would have had to go to Russia – and we all know that Chechens rarely return from Russia once they go there.” 

This is not the only family misfortune with which she currently copes. She recounts in a shaky voice, her eyes still glistening with tears, “My 73-year-old mother came to Poland last year and applied for refugee status. She did not get it. A 73-year-old woman got a ‘tolerated stay’ permit. She buried almost our entire family in Chechnya. But because she did not fight in the war, they told her, she could not get refugee status.” In fact, out of a family of 13 – her parents, six brothers and four sisters – Iakha was the only one to receive refugee status in Poland.  Her father and three brothers were murdered in the war; two siblings moved on to obtain refugee status in Austria and France, and the rest remained in Chechnya. Today they are still awaiting funds to help them escape. 

Yet financial help may be a long time in coming. Passports to leave Chechnya are bought for about 500 euro, and bribes for border guards usually amount to several hundred more.  And although Aboubakarova was a doctor in Chechnya, working for the International Red Cross and even running her own hospital during the war, the only jobs she could get in Poland were ironing clothes in a second-hand clothing shop and as a cleaning lady. Between the two, she made 100 złoty per month – and had nothing more to spend. “I came here from Grozny in 2000 and waited to get refugee status for two years – that’s how long it took, not two to six months like they tell you. When I got it I was given 1300 złoty per month for myself and my brother’s daughter, whom I brought with me from Chechnya. 1000 went for rent, 200 went for taxes, and the other 200 for whatever food and clothing I could afford to buy.” 

Hers was a best-case scenario. Aboubakarova now works as a translator with the Via Foundation, an organization that aids Chechen refugees in finding work and learning Polish, and says she knows of dozens of much less fortunate cases. “The tolerated stay policy is a tragedy, really a tragedy. Because of Dublin II we can’t go anywhere but Poland. And even refugee status here is a tragedy: the women and children coming here are traumatized … They need psychologists and doctors … they have no homes, they need jobs and money.  Women with tolerated stay permits live with the homeless people and the drug addicts in the streets.” 

Oddly enough, it does not appear that the problems are due to a shortage of funding. Iakha also expresses complete bewilderment as to where all the EU funds – which are allegedly abundant, if a bureaucratic hassle to obtain – that refugee centres are provided with get dispersed. “In the refugee centres families of seven or eight live in one room… there is no medicine, no sanitary products. But Poland could hire five workers – 1500 people – for every refugee it has. So where does it all go?” 

Still, since Poland is the only safe country to which Chechens can get – Belarus and Ukraine require visas and offer only dubious levels of security – they still make the trip, and are becoming more numerous with each passing year.  “People no longer know what to do. My sister is coming soon, with two children. But I am positive she will get ‘tolerated stay,’ like my mother. I don’t know what to do. I am helpless in the face of it all…”

The Rationale

State and Non-State Perspectives

The question, then, begs asking: whoever thought that issuing tolerated stay permits would be a sound policy plan? 

Anna Kosowicz, a representative of the Warsaw branch of the UNHCR, actually expressed relative contentment that it was created. “The UNHCR is, on the whole, quite pleased that tolerated stay permits came about. Earlier we had a different problem: Chechen refugees simply remained in Poland illegally. This means that, because they lacked any documents legitimizing their stay, they could be arrested right on the street. This is a positive policy development, one that reduces the fear of persons who would otherwise have had to reside here illegally.”  

Echoing this statement was Sławomir Łodzinski, a sociologist at Warsaw University who indicated that, “We must keep in mind that refugees from Chechnya come largely for political reasons.  Especially earlier, it was predominantly young men – political suspects, conceivably – that came here and remained illegally.  This policy is positive for them because it legalizes their stay.” Reflecting briefly, he continued. “Then again, nowadays there is a different trend emerging.  More women and children are coming than before – and this must be tracked.”  Indeed, in 2005, nearly half of all refugee status seekers in Poland were less than 18, and one out of five were younger than five. Though some children come with extended families, a large number arrives unaccompanied. Most of them need psychologists to help them deal with what they have seen; all of them need language lessons, proper schooling and integration help.  

Not a problem, says Eliza Przetak, a representative from the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy’s Department  for Social Assistance and Integration . “When Poland was preparing for accession to the EU,” she says matter-of-factly, “we were afraid of being inundated with refugees, but it turns out we have not been, although the numbers are still rising. We are not like the West, and are not facing the same problems. Since we are not inundated with these persons, it is easy for us to adjust to their needs…” 

On the contrary, maintains Paweł Kaczmarczyk, an expert on migration at Warsaw University’s Centre of Migration Research. “We are repeating the mistakes of Germany and France, where first there was a large influx of migrants and then they brought their families over.  Since no coherent integration policy existed, this all occurred without them having been properly integrated into society or the labor market. We are only going to have more and more refugees.  Doesn’t it seem sensible to learn from others’ mistakes and create a sound ‘integration path’? Or will we simply wake up one day and say, “Gee, we have two million immigrants … Now what do we do with them?”

“The problem is not so grave,” says Przetak, and provides a glimmer of hope. The state has promised that change is on the horizon for both ‘tolerated persons’ and refugees, though how and by how much circumstances will be improved is still quite vague: “It is difficult to say at the moment how it will look, but an integration assistance is being formulated for people on tolerated stay permits… and the integration program for refugees is also going to be reformulated ,” said Przetak. When asked if there was enough money to meet the needs of these individuals she affirmed, “The financial resources for integration programs come from the Polish State budget and are sufficient to cover all the needs. Only about 300-400 persons are granted a refugee status and are entitled to get integration help every year, so there is enough to go around…”

The Middle Ground

But if the Polish government is so generous in its funding, then why do so few individuals obtain refugee status – and so many obtain tolerated stay permits?  Says Radosław Wróbel, a representative from Poland’s main state organ for all matters related to migration, the Office for Repatriation and Aliens: “We try to adhere to the criteria as they are listed in the 1951 Geneva Convention, because different people write down different reasons for their departure. If they write, ‘There was no food,’ or ‘There were no jobs,’ then they are ineligible to receive refugee status: they simply do not meet the criteria.”  

This is, perhaps, a somewhat foreseeable response.  The UNHCR’s representative Kosowicz indicated, “There are various viewpoints: if you talk to state representatives, they say that refugees are only those people that were themselves attacked because of being Chechen. When you talk to the Helsinki Foundation, they believe any Chechen today deserves refugee status, no matter what.” When pressed for the UN’s opinion, she responded that, “Our perspective is a middle ground: we don’t believe that everyone who comes from there should get refugee status, because some individuals do just come in search of a better life, from un-terrorized situations – and we are not here to automatically give out aid.”

 “However we also have witnessed cases,” she continued, “when the state did not give refugees their proper status and had to be overturned in court cases.  Many state organs make mistakes… but the ‘good will’ of most administrators and politicians is apparent… there is just much to do in terms of bringing this issue to the foreground and securing adequate resources. ”

The Flat-Out Rejection

Zero Tolerance for Tolerated Stay

For people like Adam Borowski, and Iakha Aboubakarova, however, there is no middle ground, no room for mistakes, and no time to waste in bringing about change.  Both of them share the opinion that the tolerated stay permit is an absolute travesty and must be done away with immediately. As a member, like Aboubakarova, of the Via Foundation, Borowski says “Not giving Chechens refugee status greatly complicates things for our organization. We do everything in our power to help these people, but can only get funding for those officially recognized as refugees.” From this stems his decision to spend his own earnings on awareness-raising campaigns and on privately assisting refugees throughout their difficult beginnings in Poland. “Western civilization has begrudged these people even refugee status: EU directives have made it more difficult to obtain.  Politicians have their mouths full of ‘human rights, humanity, freedom,’ … but ignore the disgusting violations of this beautiful people’s very right to life… And why? Because Russia has oil and gas, and nobody wants to meddle in its internal affairs.” 

Says Aboubakarova, “Other countries recognize all Chechens as refugees, but Poland requires all kinds of documentation and proof that people are at risk.  But whenever Chechens leave, they are afraid to take any documents with them, they are afraid to provide the names of their persecutors because it would put them and their families at risk…” 

Although the Polish government has promised policy changes, neither Borowski nor Aboubakarova is convinced that the situation – either in Poland or in Chechnya – will meet with any swift resolution. “I’m just sad for those people who can’t go home, and just have tolerated stay. But this is life. You can’t change it. The truth is sad,” Iahka concludes softly. 

A more defiant, but clearly wearied Borowski says solemnly, “I can only publish documents, make these albums and displays, spread awareness. I can only talk about what I know. As the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote, “’Trzeba dać świadectwo’…You must bear witness.” 

It certainly looks as if, for us, this message rang loud and clear.




Academic Works

Grzymała-Kazłowska, Aleksandra and Okólski, Marek. (2003). Influx and Integration of Migrants in Poland 

in the Early XXI Century. Prace Migracyjne, no. 50, Institute for Social Studies, Warsaw University.

Iglicka, Krystyna et. al. (2004). Podsumowanie dyskusji panelowej pt. „Uchodźcy z Czeczenii w Polsce: 

Przystanek czy nowy raj utracony?”, która odbyła się w dniu 1 października 2004 r. w Warszawie w Centrum Stosunków Międzynarodowych.

Kępinska, Ewa. (2005) Recent Trends in International Migration: The 2005 SOPEMI Report for Poland. 

Centre of Migration Research; No. 2/60; December 2005.

Kicinger, Anna. (2005) Between Polish Interests and the EU Influence: Polish migration policy development 

1989 – 2004. Central European Forum for Migration Research (CEFMR) Working Paper, 9/2005.

Mikołajczyk, Barbara (2002) “The Central Link: Poland” in New Asylum Countries? Migration Control and 

Refugee Protection in an Enlarged European Union, in: Rosemary Byrne, Gregor Noll and Jens Vedsted-Hansen (eds), Kluwer Law International, The Hague 2002. 

Okólski, Marek. (1999) Poland’s migration: Growing Diversity of Flows and People. Prace Migracyjne, no. 

29, Institute for Social Studies, Warsaw University.

In-person Interviews

21.06.06: Ms. Anna Kicinger, Central European Forum for Migration Research.

22.06.06: Ms. Izabela Koryś, Central European Forum for Migration Research

23.06.06. Representative from the Proxenia Organization

  Mr. Paweł Kaczmarczyk, Centre of Migration Research, Warsaw University

25.06.06: Mr. Adam Borowski, Polish Honorary Consul for Chechnya

26.06.06: Ms. Eliza Przetak, Ministry for Labor and Social Policy, Social Integration Programmes for 


   Mr. Sławomir Łodzinski, Centre for Sociology, Warsaw University

27. 06.06: Ms. Agnieszka Kosowicz, UNHCR representative, Warsaw Branch

  Mr. Adam Borowski, Polish Honorary Consul for Chechnya

28.06.06:  Mr. Radosław Wróbel, Office for Repatriation and Aliens

  Ms. Anna Kühn, Via Foundation

  Ms. Iakha Aboubakarova, Chechen Refugee 

Other Publications and Sources

UNHCR, Z Obcej Ziemi, No. 21, ISSN 1429-1622, Warsaw, June 2004

UNHCR, Z Obcej Ziemi, No. 23, ISSN 1428-1622, Warsaw, September 2005

UNHCR, Z Obcej Ziemi, No. 24, ISSN 1429-1622, Warsaw, May 2006



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