On the 25th and 26th of October, together with my S&D colleague Thijs Reuten, I visited the EU external borders with Belarus. The trip was organised in light of the grave humanitarian situation that developed over the past few months for asylum seekers who are trying to cross these borders. One day in Poland, one day in Lithuania, trying to take stock of the situation on how migrants and asylum seekers are treated at the border. In order to do so, we met with several human rights organisations, such as the Red Cross, UNHCR, Helsinki Foundation, lawyers, academics, and the Lithuanian Ombudsman.
Unfortunately, the first day in Poland we were not allowed to go to the border area due to the declared state of emergency. No one except for the Polish authorities are allowed there, which is one of the problems the organisations we met with are facing. Access to the Lithuanian border area is also restricted, but we were allowed to visit parts of it. We were accompanied by the Vice-Minister of Justice and were able to talk with border guards and asylum seekers. In both countries we met with Frontex and the recently deployed fundamental rights monitors.
The problematic situation at the border started this summer, when the illegal regime of Lukashenko started to use migrants as a tool in an attempt to destabilise the EU as punishment for the sanctions upon Lukashenko. Specifically Lithuania and Poland were targeted, as they offered refuge to the Belarussian opposition politicians that fled the country after the fraudulent election in 2020, when Lukashenko falsely claimed victory.
Lukashenko started to recruit migrants and fly them to Minsk, from there busses bring them to the European border. First mainly to Lithuania, but later on more and more to the borders with Poland. The situation portrays the cruelty of the Lukashenko regime, which does not only oppress and torture its own citizens, but now also uses people as a tool in a self-created geopolitical conflict with the EU.
It goes without saying that this should be stopped as soon as possible, so we must do everything we can to reduce the number of flights from different third countries. However, as I see it, the best way to put a hold on the human rights crisis in Belarus is to increase pressure on Lukashenko to give up his unlawful authority and pave the way to democracy and the rule of law. The EU is currently making its fifth sanctions package, which is due to be adopted in November. But to be honest: the EU could and should respond firmer and faster. With diplomatic influence the EU could convince the entire international community to apply sanctions to Lukashenko. The way I see it, this would be the only way to impose new, free and fair elections.
In the meantime it is of crucial importance that we, as the EU, uphold human rights at our external borders. If we fail to do so: we enforce Lukashenko’s strategy. We should not take part in making migrants a victim by utilising them as a tool in this conflict.
Yet this is happening at the moment. The asylum seekers are that are being pushed into European territory, are simply pushed back by Polish and Lithuanian authorities, without any procedure or individual assessment. As soldiers and border guards refuse to let them move back or forward, they are stuck on a strip of land, sometimes even completely surrounded by border guards from both sides for weeks. The exact figures are unknown, but estimations say thousands of asylum seekers are presently stuck at the border area. Poland undertakes 500 to 600 pushbacks a day, without even making exceptions for children or vulnerable people. The migrants are thus forced to live in a densely wooded forest, and with temperatures vastly dropping the situation is reaching a horrible pinnacle. At least eight people have died so far and everyone we spoke to expects many more casualties during the upcoming winter. Poland refuses to let humanitarian organisations bring people food and water. Orders from the European Court of Human Rights to immediately offer basic needs and shelter, have been denied.
Both sides of the geopolitical conflict are refusing to give in, at the cost of lives, and European states are currently contributing. In our conflict with Belarus, we cannot afford to sacrifice our own values and rights. Yet, Lithuania, Poland and Latvia have amended their legislation, by which they have de facto ‘legalised’ these pushbacks. It means that people are deprived from the possibility to ask for protection and to have an individual assessment. This is the core safeguard of our EU asylum law, but also of the Refugee Convention. Before sending asylum seekers back, states have the clear obligation to check whether the conditions are save enough to return to.
Obviously, leaving people to die is not in line with our core values. The legalisation of pushbacks, which we have seen in Hungary previously, is a very dangerous precedent and a direct threat to our common European asylum system. The European Commission has to take firm measures to stop pushbacks immediately and revise this legislation, ultimately by going to court, and by making funding for border control conditional upon respect for human rights.
Given the immoral practices at the Lithuanian border, where pushbacks are conducted as a daily practice, it is extremely worrisome that Frontex is taking part in the operations. Frontex is clearly aware of the human rights breaches. Article 46 of the Frontex Regulation is very clear: Frontex should suspend operations immediately if human rights violations take place in the hosting country. Yet, the executive director seems to doubt if pushbacks are illegal. This is not only outrageous, but also unacceptable. The European Agency that is responsible for fundamental rights compliance at the border, denies that refusing access to asylum procedures is a clear violation of these fundamental rights.
During our visit, we also took note that Frontex’ Fundamental Rights Monitors, which have finally been recruited after a delay of two years and huge pressure from the Commission and Parliament, are not allowed to join Frontex patrols at the border. For them to fulfil their main task, to make sure that operations do not breach human right law, unconditional access to all spots and information is an absolute necessity. We learned that it is actually the Agency itself that refuses the monitors to work in the area where the pushbacks take place. This is yet another attempt to undermine the safeguards that should ensure that Frontex complies with fundamental rights.
At the same time, we need to support Lithuania and Poland to host and process the asylum seekers in a humane and fair way. The countries should be supported by EU Agencies and other EU member states taking over some of the asylum procedures. We need a fair, quick and efficient asylum process at the border. If too many people need protection, other Member States should be ready to step in with relocation. If an asylum request is rejected, migrants should be returned as soon as possible. This could show migrants that choosing the Belarus pathway does not bring any perspective.
We also need to improve the situation of migrants who entered Lithuania before 2 August, when the new law came into force. There are approximately 4000 migrants in the country, of those 3000 have applied for asylum. Currently a thousand asylum seekers’ claims are being processed, of which only two have received protection. They all stay in detention, including families and children. Detaining people without individual grounds that justify this detention, is a serious breach of European asylum law. The circumstances have improved with a transition from cold tents in the mud, to heated cabins, but the spaces are still very small, circumstances very sober and similar to being detained. Due to the lack of interpreters, legal assistance and provided information, people feel very uncertain about their futures. The right to appeal before the court is very limited. Lithuania, which has hardly any experience with processing asylum requests and hosting asylum seekers, has undertaken many efforts to catch up. It is up to the EU Agencies and Member States to fill the gap.
I see these attacks by Lukashenko as a provocation of the EU as a whole, which we should respond to in a firm and united, but responsible way. We therefore gave to offer full support to Lithuania and Poland, but also ensure that the treatment of migrants is in line with EU and international law.