Migrants at the Belarus border (BBC News)

New Commission proposal on migrants at EU-Belarus border sets dangerous precedent

EuroMed Rights press release ahead of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council of Ministers of 9 and 10 December 2021.

Ahead of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council of Ministers of 9 and 10 December 2021, EuroMed Rights expresses concern at the EU’s current approach and response to the protection needs of migrants and refugees currently stuck at the EU-Belarus border. On 1 December 2021, the European Commission put forward a proposal for a Council Decision on provisional emergency measures for the benefit of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The proposal raises several concerns in terms of reduced access to asylum, increased accelerated border procedures with reduced rights guaranteed, increased detention and basic reception conditions. At the time of writing, at least 13 people had already died at the EU-Belarus border, including children, babies and women. Hundreds more are currently living in the woods, under freezing temperatures with neither food nor water. They are also facing continuous violence and abuses from border forces.   

EU’s response to this humanitarian catastrophe is unacceptable 

The European Commission and EU Member States are trying to implement some provisions contained in the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum before the Pact is actually adopted. For example, derogations to the timeframe to lodge asylum applications at borders, as foreseen in the Pact’s Crisis Regulation, are included in the new Commission’s proposal.  

“There is also a strong risk that these measures could be implemented at the other EU’s external borders. The emergency and temporary character of the measures suggested in the Commission’s proposal could actually be prolonged and become the norm, with a general reduction of rights guaranteed and access to asylum. All these set a dangerous precedent,” stated Wadih Al-Asmar, President of EuroMed Rights. 

Reduced access to asylum, accelerated border procedures and increased detention 

First of all, asking people to lodge an asylum application at official border crossing points is impossible. Currently these border crossing points are not accessible from the Belarus border. Migrants and refugees are stranded in the forests in Belarus amid freezing temperatures. They have no access to any humanitarian organisations, lawyers or journalists, and are often misled by Belarus police officers about which direction to take in order to reach an official crossing point. In this context, the risk of increased pushbacks is real.   

Secondly, once people have reached an official border crossing point, the timeframe to access asylum will be extended to four weeks. People will remain in limbo much longer with no access to protection and at risk of violations. This is similar to what happened in Greece in March 2020 when the right to access asylum was de facto suspended for a month. It creates a precedent for other border situations as the EU could redeploy the same solutions it currently proposes. 

Thirdly, once people are registered, they have to be granted access to the territory. By accelerating the asylum border procedure and suggesting a maximum duration of sixteen weeks, the EU’s proposal creates more issues than solutions. During those sixteen weeks, asylum seekers are in de facto detention camps at the border. The proposal actually reads that “the extension will help the member state to apply the fiction of non-entry for a longer period,” as also suggested in the EU Pact. As repeatedly denounced by several human rights group, including EuroMed Rights, the accelerated border procedure does not allow to process the asylum applications accurately, including for instance the assessment of a person’s vulnerability.  

Basic reception conditions and lack of “solidarity” 

For asylum seekers held in detention during the sixteen weeks, the EU only proposes “basic reception conditions,” which cover right to food, water, clothing, and medical care. There is no mention of other rights such as legal aid, psycho-social support or education. 

The proposal aims at “operationalising the Union’s solidarity with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland” but it does not mention any relocation efforts. There is no “solidarity” in terms of relocation. As stated by Human Rights Watch, Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) was first used during the 2015 migration “crisis” to get EU countries to help Italy and Greece by sharing responsibility for asylum-seekers, through a fair and balanced distribution system. It is now being used de facto to strengthen border security, allow for the detention of asylum seekers, and provide a tool of deterrence.   

“Instead of reducing access to asylum and reception, and undermining fundamental rights and guarantees at their borders, the EU and its Member States should open legal pathways, grant safe access to territory and asylum, and increase resettlement and relocation efforts among Member States,” concluded Rasmus Alenius Boserup, EuroMed Rights Executive Director. 

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