Lithuania passed a law legalising pushbacks despite critique. 43 people have died on the Polish side of the Belarus-Poland border since the beginning of the Humanitarian crisis. Human Rights Watch urged Pope Francis to call out Hungary’s abusive practices towards people on the move and stress equal treatment of refugees during his visit to the country.
The Lithuanian parliament adopted amendments to the Law on the State Border and Protection by 86 votes in favour, eight against, and 20 abstentions to be enforced during a “state-level extreme situation regime or a state of emergency”. The legislation includes provisions whereby migrants attempting to cross the country irregularly can be pushed back on the decision of the local border guard chief, without the possibility of an appeal while “ensuring safeguards for vulnerable persons”. The passing of these amendments is a step further to consolidate the existing practice of pushbacks at the border, which was initially introduced on the basis of the interior minister’s order issued in 2021 and was later formalised by a government resolution. The legislation had long received critique from EU politicians and rights organisations including Amnesty International which said that the law would “green-light torture”. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, in a statement, pointed out the “consistent worrying reports of patterns of violence and other human rights violations committed against migrants, including in the context of pushbacks at Lithuania’s border with Belarus” and urged the parliament to stop these violations and ensure an independent and effective human rights monitoring at borders. Under international law, pushbacks are prohibited, and people have the right to cross borders to seek asylum. However, “In this geopolitical context, we don’t have an alternative: we must protect ourselves, and we need tools for that,” interior minister Agne Bilotaite said. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that the agency is “concerned” about the amendments that “may continue to put persons in need of international protection at risk of being pushed back at the border”.
A total of 43 people lost their lives on the Polish side of the Belarus-Poland border since the start of the humanitarian crisis in September 2021. On 18 April, a body was found in a forest near the town of Janowa near Narewka River. On 22 April, another body was reportedly found by tourists in the vicinity of the village Istok near the border of the Bialowieska Forest. On 23 April, the 58-year-old Syrian man, who was struggling for his life after tumbling off the five-metre high, 186km long wall built last year by Polish authorities, passed away. “It’s another death at the border. Another shock – says Piotr Czaban from the Podlaskie Voluntary Humanitarian Emergency Service, adding that there are many more deaths than those discovered on the Polish and Belarussian sides. Czaban also said that the bodies his organisation find often died from hypothermia. “Nobody would want to see something like that. But it is happening and very close to each of us”. Czaban blamed the Polish government for the ongoing and yet avoidable deaths at the border. He said that the policies put in place including pushbacks and deportation are what “condemn people to death”. “The only solution is to respect the Geneva Convention and certainly not to throw these people into the forest”, Czaban underlined. ECRE member Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) stated: “Migrants are most often forced to return to Belarus through gates for animals in the built dam, through swampy areas and border rivers. The very lay of the land on the Polish-Belarusian border and the weather conditions, especially in winter and autumn, pose a threat to the life and health of people returned in this way”. HRHR together with other organisations in a statement called on the individual member states, their agents and EU institutions to stop actions resulting in cases of disappearance and death of migrants at the borders. Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has communicated to the Polish authorities further cases concerning the situation on the Polish-Belarussian border. One case concerns the repeated expulsion of a family with a disabled 10-year-old boy from Poland. As a result of these actions, the family had been nomadic for weeks in the forest, in the snow, with temperatures falling below zero degrees. Besides, ECRE member Association for Legal Intervention is demanding compensation for an Iraqi citizen who experienced violence from the border guard officers and stayed unlawfully for 185 days in an overcrowded guarded center for foreigners lacking basic infrastructure and hygiene.
Hungarian Minister Péter Szijjártó whose country severely hinders access to the asylum procedure ‘had just 44 asylum applications in 2022 said that improving the quality of life within the borders of African countries is a better option for tackling migration from there rather than working only on the management of irregular migration to Europe. “Since EU policies inspire one migration wave after the other, cooperation has become a priority with African countries willing and able to keep young citizens home, who are also of key importance for the future of their homeland,” Minister Szijjártó pointed out. Meanwhile, ECRE member Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) published an assessment of compliance by Hungary with conditions to access EU funds concluding that out of the 27 super milestones, 13 have been achieved, 7 have been achieved only partly, and 7 have not been achieved. HHC underlined that no steps have been taken to stop the “embassy system” and, on the contrary, the government has prolonged it continuously as a “temporary substitute” for the regular asylum procedure. 17 statements of intent were lodged as part of the embassy procedure in 2022 and only 4 Iraqi nationals were granted entry authorisations. The organisation further called on the Hungarian authorities to revert to its “regular” asylum system by repealing the asylum-related provisions of the Transitional Act and ending the so-called “state of crisis due to mass migration”. Human Rights Watch urged Pope Francis who is visiting the country from 28-30 April to call out “Hungary’s abusive practices towards refugees and urge respect for those fleeing persecution”, adding that “Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has left no stone unturned in making Hungary a hostile place for people seeking safety. The government has effectively dismantled the asylum system and engages in unlawful, sometimes violent pushbacks at Hungary’s border with Serbia. Those who do reach Hungary face a barrage of government-funded anti-migrant propaganda.”
For further information:
- ECRE, EU Eastern Borders: Hungary Top Country in Carrying Out Pushbacks, Austrian Chancellor Seeks Nordic Cooperating to Fight “illegal migration”, More Corpses Found at Belarus-Poland Border as Lithuania Aims to Hold Belarus Accountable for Facilitating “Hybrid Threat”, April 2023
- ECRE, EU Eastern Borders: More Deaths at Poland Belarus Border as Reports of Pushbacks, Detention and Crack-down on Solidarity Continue, Council of Europe Concerned over Pushbacks and Criminalisation in Latvia, February 2023