Poland-Belarus border: EU sidelined in escalating humanitarian conflict

Poland-Belarus border: EU sidelined in escalating humanitarian conflict
Asylum-seekers and migrants are transiting through Belarus in order to reach the EU, credit: UNDP

The European Commission issued on Monday evening a strong warning to Belarus to stop putting people's lives at risk in by misusing migrants to put pressure on the EU.

“The instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes by Belarus is unacceptable,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the statement, following an escalation in recent days at the border between Poland and Belarus, where thousands of irregular migrants have been pushed by the regime in Minsk and the situation risks deteriorating into a humanitarian crisis.

Figures about the number of migrants at the border are difficult to verify but according to a Commission spokesperson at yesterday’s press briefing in Brussels (9 November), the Polish authorities have estimated the number to about 2 000.

Poland has closed off the region on its side of the border for journalists and humanitarian organisations. Despite appeals from the Commission to avail itself of support, Poland has until now declined to request support from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to manage and protect the border, including registration and screening of migrants who apply for asylum.

Poland and Lithuania have amended their legislation on asylum procedures in a way that deprives migrants, who often lack documents, of any practical way to apply for asylum. According to the Commission, it is still analysing the changes to verify if they are compatible with international and EU law on asylum.

Asked by The Brussels Times whether the Commission has received any explanation from Poland as to why it has declined to ask for Frontex support, the spokesperson referred to the Polish authorities. Poland has apparently no interest in EU support to register asylum seekers and claims that it is capable of handling the border situation without Frontex support.

In her statement, von der Leyen wrote that she has spoken to the prime ministers of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to express the EU's solidarity and discuss with them the measures the EU can take to support them in their efforts to deal with this crisis.

In particular, these countries might need support to handle an evolving humanitarian crisis at their borders. The Commission and EU member states could deploy the European Civil Protection Mechanism, which can be triggered rapidly, for civilian humanitarian operations.

The Polish authorities are in the “driving seat” when it comes to deploying the mechanism, according to a Commission spokesperson. However, there is no answer from the Commission as to how the mechanism could be deployed in Belarus where the migrants are stranded.

The Commission will also explore with the UN and its specialised agencies how to prevent a humanitarian crisis from unfolding and to ensure that migrants can be safely returned to their country of origin, with the support of their national authorities.

As a first response to the escalation at the border, Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, in coordination with High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell, will travel in the coming days to the main countries of origin and of transit of the migrants to ensure that they act to “prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities”.

The migrants have been lured by Belarus to embark on a dangerous journey to enter the EU in an irregular way, according to the Commission. Iraq was the first country to which the Commission reached out to, to make it suspend flights which were misused to transport irregular migrants on false pretences that they could enter the EU easily.

In fact, the Commission has reached out to a number of countries to convince them that it is not in their interest to enable the misuse of the own nationals, a spokesperson explained.

At least 10 countries are on the Commission’s radar, the majority of them in North Africa and the Middle East, but also Russia. The Commission is monitoring flights from several more countries and is exploring measures against airline companies.

The Commission President also called on member states to finally approve the extended sanctions regime on the Belarusian authorities responsible for the “hybrid attack”. According to the Commission spokesperson, the sanction regime does work and the desperate “gangster-like” behaviour of the Belarusian regime is proof of this.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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