The situation at the border with Belarus remains deadly for people on the move, with 21 lives recorded as being lost: the actual number is likely much higher. Syrians are calling on Minsk to offer them protection, leave to remain or resettlement, saying they face life-threatening dangers if they are returned. Many of those caught up in the manufactured border crisis are Iraqis fleeing insecurity and a dearth of opportunities. Lithuania has increased the cash incentive offered to asylum seekers with a negative decision who agree to return home. A Europe-wide campaign for Human Rights Day has taken inspiration from Polish locals using green lights to signal their support for refugees.

While the number of attempted entries to the EU has dropped in recent weeks, aid groups remain alarmed about the perils facing those remaining in the sub-zero border forests. Polish authorities say they rescued four Syrians and Iraqis from a swamp in a life-or-death operation on 14 December and continue to report daily attempts to cross the border. It is unclear how many people are in the area, especially since humanitarian access on the Polish side is blockaded by a long-term state of emergency. Indeed, aid workers themselves face intimidation by police: on 15 December, a humanitarian aid station was searched and volunteers from NGO Grupa Granica were interrogated by police on suspicion of “organising illegal border crossings”.  In Facebook updates, Poland’s border guard said on 12 December “88 people tried to cross the border illegally” and “group of 60 aggressive people forcibly forced the border”: another a group of 40 was reported as trying to cross on 15 December. Poland says that 9,000 attempted crossings took place in November and 838 in the first 12 days of December. Many of those previously camped at the border are now housed in a logistics warehouse by Belarus. A 25 year-old Iraqi told media on 13 December that “there are still 900 to 1,000 of us, including many children” in the warehouse. On 6 December, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko said he was still “waiting for the EU’s answer” to his request to resettle 2,000 people from the warehouse.

22 at-risk Syrians in Belarus have published an open letter to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Belarusian authorities asking for either protection and legal grounds to stay in Belarus or resettlement in a safe third country. If returned to Syria, they say they would face: “torture and immeasurable suffering. We would face forced enrolment in the Syrian Arab Army, an act of revenge from multiple and chaotic militia groups that constantly enact horror, atrocity, fear, discrimination, and persecution”. The appeal comes after around 100 Syrians were flown to Damascus from Minsk on 8 December, despite facing threats upon return. According to media, 54 of the returnees “lives would be in danger” under the al-Assad regime. Syrians say they have been issued an ultimatum by Belarus: either cross the EU border irregularly or be deported. This policy raises serious refoulement concerns. Further, poverty rates in Syria now top 90 per cent and food insecurity has rocketed. Many of the Syrians at Europe’s eastern frontier arrived from Lebanon, a country to which one-third of 470 Syrians surveyed in Belarus said they were unable to return to as they had been issued a re-entry ban.

Iraqis are thought make up a significant proportion of those remaining at the Belarus border, though credible statistics are lacking. New data on the nationalities of first-time asylum applicants in Lithuania and Latvia show that two-thirds and three-quarters respectively are Iraqi nationals. This group are often fleeing poor economic conditions and persistently high unemployment in the war-torn country. Among Iraqi Kurds aged 15-29, unemployment is 24% for men and 69% for women. Young people in Iraq describe a “hotbed of discontent” with insufficient government support and opportunities. Many of this generation were born into violence: 200,000 civilians in the country have been killed by war and unrest over the last 18 years.  Since the start of the border stand-off in August, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry says it has returned more than 3,500 of its nationals on nine flights.

As Belarus and Iraq continue to cooperate on returns, EU states along the border are using their own strategies to enact a maximum of deportations. Lithuania is now offering 1,000 euro to each migrant who “voluntarily” opts to be send back to their country, along with a plane ticket home. The country’s interior minister, Agne Bilotaite, insists that most asylum claims are rejected and so people must be swiftly returned. On 9 December, Lithuania announced it had “finished processing the asylum requests that had been submitted so far by migrants who crossed the border illegally”. Of these, only 54 out of 3,272 were granted. The fairness of the country’s asylum system has been called into question, with employees saying earlier in the year they were pressed to conduct sham interviews.

Since October, residents on the Polish side of the border with Belarus have been putting green lights outside their homes to show people on the move that they can offer food, a chance to warm up, or a place to charge their phone. The ad-hoc initiative was launched by local lawyer Kamil Syller who witnessed the desperate humanitarian situation facing migrants within the state of emergency zone. NGO Migreat have taken inspiration from the grassroots mobilisation to call on people across Europe to put a green light in their window for Human Rights Day. On 10 December, more than 500 buildings in 117 countries were lit up with a green light, now a symbol of solidarity with people on the move.

On 15 December, the European Parliament debated the proposed Council decision on provisional emergency measures for the external border with Belarus based on article 78(3) TFEU. The proposal – which expands border detention, accelerates deportations, extends processing deadlines and reduces rights guarantees – was decried by representatives of various political groups, especially the Greens (EFA) and Socialist & Democratic (S&D). Greens MEP Tineke Strik said: “This summer, the Polish and Lithuanian governments changed their laws to allow border guards to push back people. The Commission stayed completely silent on this structural violation of the right to apply for asylum. And instead of forcing the countries to reverse their legislation, the Commission is now proposing to legalise these pushbacks”. In its Comments on proposal, ECRE emphasises that the measures proposed “will have an adverse effect on the right to asylum without adequately responding to the situation at the EU’s borders”. Further, the weakening of asylum rights poses a real threat to human dignity. The bloc’s response to the “instrumentalisation” of migrants by Belarus was also on the agenda for the European Council meeting on 16 December.

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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.