A humanitarian catastrophe unfolding at the EU’s eastern border for almost three months now has provoked more protests. Poland is raising the number of troops deployed at the border to 10,000 while Lithuania continues to deny people asylum. The European Commission has reaffirmed that the EU will not fund border fencing as requested by the bloc’s eastern states. In response to increased numbers of people arriving to Germany from Poland, German far-right groups have conducted armed vigilante patrols of the border.  

Since August, people on the move have been caught in the crossfire of “hybrid warfare” between Belarus and the EU’s eastern states. Many groups have been located in the borderland forest between Poland and Belarus, including one group of 17 that was left for 32 hours without food and water. Medycy na granicy, a volunteer paramedic team working on the edges of the state of emergency zone, report that: “without exception, the patients are freezing… the situation is worsening”. On 22 October, Polish authorities announced the ninth recorded death in the forest region that is off-limits to journalists, aid workers, legal counsellors and all other visitors. Feminist organisations have organised a march in Michałowo under the label “Mothers at the Border” to demand an end to the three-month state of emergency and allow aid workers to help stranded people. Two former Polish first ladies, Anna Komorowska and Jolanta Kwasniewska, attended, with the latter telling demonstrators: “We, Polish women and mothers, can’t agree to be put in the position of just observing the drama that’s unfolding before our eyes”. A local mayor also called on the government to allow humanitarian access to the zone, and an international petition is now open for signatures.  

Poland is yet to heed these calls for medical access, and instead continues to further militarise the border. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on 25 October that the number of soliders deployed would be increased from 6,000 to “about 10,000”. The government continues to refuse Frontex border management assistance, but has asked the agency to help with return and readmission. On 22 October, Poland reported arresting 14 people over the previous 24 hours upon suspicion that they were assisting crossings from Belarus. A total of 160 alleged people smugglers have been arrested. The Polish border guard has also used tear gas on groups of people attempting to breach the border. 

Lithuania meanwhile has recorded 4,000 irregular entries to its territory so far in 2021, compared with just 74 in 2020. Of 2,800 people who have applied for asylum in the country however, not one has been granted protection. So far 320 claims have been rejected, while an additional 325 have been “discontinued”. Interior minister Agnė Bilotaitė justifies this on the basis that people arriving are “economic migrants” and not refugees. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) however has expressed concern over this rhetoric and the legal amendments it has generated. According to UNHCR and ECRE analysis, the Lithuanian approach amounts to a denial of asylum proceedings and prolonged detention in violation of international law. Meanwhile, Lithuanian authorities continues to disclose data on daily pushbacks: on 23 October, 183 asylum seekers were pushed back to Belarus, a record number for a single day.  

UNHCR has published its observations on Latvia’s legal amendments made in response to the border situation. The agency notes that the changes prevent people who attempt to or manage to cross the border from seeking asylum, and allow state authorities to return such people using “all means at their disposal”. UNHCR accordingly reiterates its position: “that a State which is presented with an asylum request at its borders is required to provide admission at least on a temporary basis to examine the asylum claim, as the right to seek asylum and the non-refoulement principle would otherwise be rendered meaningless”.  

The European Commission has stated that the EU will not fund “barbed wire and walls” as requested by the eastern border states and others. At the EU leaders’ summit, Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said: “The people used by Lukashenko are victims, we must help them”. Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson adopted a critical tone when discussing the actions of states at the border, saying: “pushbacks should never be normalised; pushbacks should never be legalised”, and criticised a Polish law adopted on 22 October to this effect. The EU however has been accused of not doing enough to ensure that people located on EU territory and at borders can exercise their rights, despite appeals from UNHCR and rights groups for protection to be upheld.  

Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany all claim that more people are arriving daily as a result of Belarus extending visa-free travel to 76 countries. According to the Polish border guard, there were 24,500 attempts to illegally cross the eastern border with Poland this year, 12,800 of them in October alone. On 25 October, German police said 4,246 people had entered the country irregularly from Poland since the start of October. In response, Germany has increased controls on the German-Polish border and deployed 800 police. On 23 October, police arrested a suspected smuggler after finding 31 Iraqi migrants in a van near the border. Far-right groups have nonetheless decided to take matters into their own hands, with one neo-Nazi associated party calling for its members to prevent people from entering the country. Police stopped more than 50 vigilantes who were patrolling the Germany-Poland border and seized their weapons, which included machetes, bayonets and pepper spray. Locals then held a vigil to oppose the far-right action, at which the organisers stated: “we want to send a signal that asylum is and remains a human right”. 

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 Photo by Tiago Costa on Unsplash  

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