Last week the European Commission published a proposal that essentially gives EU member states bordering Belarus permission to ignore their legal responsibilities to people trying to cross the border. Under the proposals, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania will be allowed to disregard certain established EU asylum laws that lay down minimum standards for the treatment of people seeking sanctuary.
Charities and NGOs have been raising the alarm about rights violations on the Belarus border for months, following a rise in the numbers of people trying to cross and a reactionary response from the Polish authorities. In the autumn, thousands of people found themselves trapped in forest on the Polish-Belarus border, with little to no humanitarian assistance as the authorities clamped down on NGOs’ access. Those trying to cross have reportedly faced pushbacks and beatings by police and other authorities, and at least 11 people have died attempting to reach safety.
Yet in the face of clear and compelling evidence of human rights abuses on the border, the EU Commission has opted to legitimise the actions of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia by weakening the rules they must abide by. Rather than holding these countries to account, the Commission’s proposal actually condones and excuses their behaviour.
As explained in a recent editorial by the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), the proposal will allow the three countries to “delay registration of applicants for up to four weeks [and] to house people in centres at the border with only basic needs met for sixteen weeks (likely to be detention, although this is not specified).” Alarmingly, the proposals do not include any of the usual exemptions for vulnerable groups, not even children.
The Commission insists that weakening existing asylum rules is the only solution given the exceptional circumstances, and argues that the measures will only be of a temporary nature (currently proposed for six months). But the Commission’s own stats raise doubts about this claim. Around 8,000 people have crossed from Belarus into the EU in 2021, a tiny figure when compared to the 248,000 asylum applications made across the EU in the first 6 months of 2021. The relatively small numbers of people seeking asylum via this route are manageable, in no way does the situation justify such a hardline response.
Like many others, Europe Must Act is deeply concerned by the inhumane and extreme stance of the EU Commission and Member States. We’ve put together a short briefing setting out some of the most problematic parts of the Commission’s new proposals, for activists and campaigners who would like some key rebuttal points to challenge this inhumane approach. You can find the briefing in English and Polish below.
Before the proposals enter into force they’ll be voted on by the EU Council, where at least 15 of the 27 Member States will need to vote in favour. The chances of this are high and the signs from recent Council meetings are not promising - in recent months Council ministers have called for the legalisation of pushbacks, refused pleas for relocations and chosen security above humanitarianism when it comes to Afghan refugees. It is difficult not to conclude that the situation on the Belarus-EU border is being used as a pretext to weaken EU asylum rights in Europe, a point that has been consistently made by groups including ECRE, Amnesty International and political bodies within the European Parliament. Indeed, even before the proposals were published, human rights activists have been mobilising to raise the alarm about violations on the border.
One such action is the upcoming Green Light initiative, organised by a group of asylum lawyers in the Netherlands. Following the lead of locals in Poland, who put a green light in their window to know they are able to help people on the move, Green Light is asking people across Europe to show their solidarity by putting a green light in their window during International Human Rights Day on 10th December.
Europe Must Act is taking part in Green Light, and we encourage all our supporters to join on 10th December and show your support for people seeking sanctuary. If you have any questions please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.