As the EU’s border and coast guard agency, Frontex, tallies 8,000 “illegal border crossings” into the EU from Belarus in 2021, rights groups continue to document violence, torture, abuse and freezing temperatures faced by people on the move at the border. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have been forced to leave the border zone and a Polish organisation has reported arrests and intimidation of staff in an ongoing crackdown on aid groups attempting to help migrants. While the Lithuanian state of emergency – in place since November – has been lifted, well-documented pushbacks and ill-treatment in reception centres remain uninvestigated.

In 2021, attempts by the Belarusian regime to harness asylum seekers as a political threat led to almost 8,000 detected crossings of the EU’s eastern borders, Frontex has said. This is 13 times the number detected on this route in 2020, and 12 times that of 2019. According to the agency, the main nationalities recorded were Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian. Systematic pushbacks – enabled by the manipulation of Polish, Lithuanian and Latvia laws to contravene international standards – have prevented many more crossings. Of those few who managed to enter the EU, many did so to seek asylum, often in Germany. German federal police registered a total of 11,213 entries from Poland alone in 2021. Germany received 28 per cent of the EU’s asylum seekers in 2021 – 53 per cent of the asylum seekers registered in the key EU member state in first 11 months of 2021 were not listed in EURODAC, the database that establishes an asylum seeker’s first state of entry.

New testimonies of abuse and pushbacks by Belarus and Poland show the disregard of both states for human dignity at the border. According to an Amnesty International investigation, asylum seekers are subject to “hunger, exposure and shocking levels of brutality from Belarusian forces repeatedly forcing them into Poland where they are systematically pushed back by Polish officers”. Belarus has applied torture and other serious ill-treatment, extortion and theft, as well as deprivation of food, water, shelter and sanitation. Poland meanwhile continues brutal pushbacks in violation of international and European human rights law, and people seeking to evade such treatment face life-threatening temperatures in the forest. The evidence for the report was gathered from 75 people from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan who represented a wider group of 192 people including the friends and family they travelled with.

The situation has been further exacerbated by Polish government attempts to hinder NGOs in providing humanitarian aid. Three months after the dispatch of an emergency team, MSF has been forced to conclude its intervention in Poland after being repeatedly denied access to the border zone. The organisation said the policy of restricting access was a factor in the 21 deaths recorded in the border zone in 2021 and provided “another example of the EU deliberately creating unsafe conditions for people to seek asylum at its borders”. Grassroots refugee advocate Ruhi Loren Akhtar described her experience trying to access the border: “It seemed like a warzone, with tanks, checkpoints, and military professionals wherever we turned in Poland… The ‘no go’ red zone meant that it was not possible for anyone to fully understand the magnitude of this crisis, let alone be a witness or document the violations against humans happening there”. On 11 January, authorities arrested staff and seized medical equipment from the Polish NGO Fundacja Ocalenie, in an incident described as “harassment” aimed at intimidating aid actors. NGOs have been banned from accessing the border zone under a state of emergency imposed since September 2021, though a new IPSOS survey shows that 72 per cent of Poles are support the provision of humanitarian aid at the border. Nonetheless, a parallel survey from September 2021 found 52 per cent to be in support of the Polish “strategy” of pushbacks. UN representatives sent to assess the situation at the start of December said they were denied access to Belarus, but able to speak with Polish officials, local civic groups and 31 migrants about the “appalling situation”.

Since 10 November, Lithuania has enacted a similar state of emergency, allowing border guards to use “mental coercion” and “proportional physical violence” against migrants. Lithuania has been conducting violent pushbacks – justified via the adaptation of the domestic legal framework or via reclassification as “rejection at the border” – almost 4,200 people have been identified as successfully entering the EU state. On 5 January however the Lithuanian government decided against extending the state of emergency. After authorities returned 98 people to Iraq on 2 January in a first chartered flight, the country’s president Gitanas Nauseda said he believed the problem was “solved for now”. Until 20 January, Lithuania is offering a one-off 1,000 euro payment to “voluntary” returnees, and other charter return flights are reportedly planned. Yet, only 537 people have been deported, and 3,166 remain in five reception camps in Lithuania. The camps were given in dismal review by the ombudsman in October, who said that restrictions on migrants’ freedom lasted for an average of 40 days without adequate provision of material reception conditions, hygiene, weather-appropriate clothing, footwear and the right to privacy. These conditions amount to inhuman or degrading treatment prohibited under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a widely-ratified international treaty that forms part of international human rights law. The ombudsman called on authorities to act to ensure the treatment of foreigners complies with European and international law.

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Photo: (cc) Kancelaria Premiera, 11 November 2021

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.