Belarusian border crisis hits local Polish business

MINSK (DW): The standoff over migrants entering the EU between Minks and Warsaw has hit local Polish businesses near the border, many reliant on tourism. With the winter coming and no end in sight to the crisis, DW visited the area.

Some businesses in Budy have shut up shop as the migrant crisis hits tourist numbers© Jo Harper/DW Some businesses in Budy have shut up shop as the migrant crisis hits tourist numbers

Few realize there is an ancient Muslim community living in Poland. Earning a living mainly from tourism, this community of Tartars, with their two mosques in the far northeast of Poland near the border with Belarus, has suffered due to the state of emergency imposed by Warsaw.

Poland has extended a 30-day state of emergency imposed in early September in a 3-kilometer wide strip along the border with Belarus for another 60 days. Nonresident civilians are now prohibited from visiting the area. The Polish government said the move is aimed at curbing the number of “irregular crossings” – that is migrants mainly from the Middle East sent over the border by Belarusian authorities.

“It is an irony of this cruel situation at the border that many of the people entering Poland are also Muslims,” says Artem Graban, a specialist in migration issues in the think tank Polityka Insight in Warsaw.

One of the mosques, in the vilage Kruszyniany, is in the no-go zone created by the Polish government in an attempt to stem the rising number of migrants crossing the border from Belarus. The village of traditional wooden houses set against an idyllic rural backdrop is effectively cut off from the rest of Poland.

“Tourists can’t come here and revenues from them are seriously impairing the local people’s means of survival,” says Graban.

At the other mosque, in the village of Bohoniki, a few kilometers from Kruszyniany, tourism is still nominally open for business, but things are slow. A local restaurant owner DW spoke to on a visit there on October 4 said his takings were down 75% since the state of emergency was declared in September. “We are collecting things for these poor people, clothes and food, blankets, but we are also suffering financially due to fewer tourists,” he told DW.

Dorota Kowalska is another local businesswoman. She runs the Siosa Budy guesthouse and restaurant in the small village of Budy about five kilometers from the no-go area. She says many tourists from Western Europe have canceled their bookings.

“I have another business in Warsaw, so can cover some of these losses, but many other people here don’t,” she says.

Budy, a long village made up largely of traditional wooden houses, is empty, its three eateries and guest houses closed. A local man tells us the season is ending, but he’s never seen it this quiet, particularly as the weather is unseasonably warm.

“Agritourism has been hit very hard,” Jarmila Ry­bic­ka, an activist working on the edge of the border zone, tells DW. “Many local farmers and agritourism business people want to help the migrants, mainly because these are good people, but also because what has happened here is bad for business,” she says.

“The borderland area is unusually quiet,” Graban says. “After COVID, now this. It has made cross-border trade hard and driven tourism to standstill,” he adds.

Compensation too little

On Friday, September 17, the Polish parliament passed an act on compensation for businesses in places where the state of emergency is in force. It covers companies from the tourism and catering industry, as well as people running agritourism farms.

Businesses will be able to claim compensation of 65% of the average monthly income they achieved in the three months preceding the state of emergency, that isJune, July and August. Earlier, the parliamentary economy committee had recommended increasing this support to 80%.

“The authorities did not care about 3 million zlotys ($800,000, €730,000) to pay out a fair 80% compensation for all victims. But thanks to our pressure, this law is better than the government proposed,” Robert Tyszkiewicz, an MP from the opposition Civic Coalition (KO), told reporters in Warsaw.

Furthermore, proposals for compensation to companies in the transport of tourists, grocery and souvenir shops were dropped, as was support for companies from the culture, entertainment and recreation sectors. The Three Cultures Festival in Wlodawa and the Pop-Up City festival in Terespol have both had to be canceled.

“I will be difficult for entrepreneurs operating in the state of emergency to recover from the state compensation for losses caused by this regime,” says Graban.

Closed borders hurt business

Research by Arkadiusz Malkowski from the West Pomeranian University of Technology in Szczecin shows that as many as 83.6% of Belarusians crossing the border indicated shopping as the purpose of their visit.

As many as 30% of businesses from border towns in Poland questioned by Malkowski said that foreigners constituted up to 40% of their clients and 89% of border area local governments said border trade and border tourism were the most important for them.

By far the largest percentage of expenditure in the border area came from Belarusian citizens. In the zone up to 50 kilometers from the border, Malkowski’s research showed that border trade with Belarus was worth over 2.3 billion zlotys a year to Polish businesses.

Jacek Danieluk, the mayor of Terespol, a town near the border with Belarus, told DW. that the absence of cross-border visitors from Belarus was hurting local businesses. “Numbers are down to about 10% of what it was before the crisis. But we have great friends on the other side of the border and they will come back, I am sure.” he said, addihg that he didn’t believe the people at the border were refugees, but what he called “economic migrants.”