Belarus calls on the EU to take in 2,000 asylum seekers amassed at the border, saying it will return 5,000 others to their countries. After visiting the border, the Council of Europe (CoE) commissioner for human rights condemns Polish pushbacks and calls for rights monitors and UN agencies to be permitted access to the border zone. Humanitarian aid has been supplied on the Belarusian side of the border by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Belarus and the EU. Locals in the Polish border zone face reprisals for their efforts to alleviate the suffering of refugees and migrants.

Thousands of refugees and migrants remain stuck at the Belarus-Poland border in plummeting temperatures without food and water. At least 11 people have died on both sides of the border since the crisis began in the summer. The funeral for a 19-year-old Syrian who died near the border was held this week. The man, Ahmad Al Hasan, fled Homs in 2014 and spent the last seven years in a refugee camp in Jordan before hoping to reach safety in Europe via Belarus. On 18 November, Polish medical workers said a one-year-old Syrian child had died in the forest. According to Belarus, there are 200 children and 600 women among an estimated 2,000 people massed along the Bruzgi-Kuznica border. Poland has barred journalists and international observers from entering the border region, making it difficult to assess the situation on the Polish side of the fence. On 16 November, Polish border forces used tear gas and water cannons against refugees allegedly in a response to stone throwing. Belarusian authorities said they provided medical aid to 20 or more migrants who sustained injuries during the incident.

The Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans at the border were allegedly lured by Belarusian promises of crossing to Europe. Some report being beaten and pushed over the border by Belarus. “They had walkies-talkies, it was clear that they were Belarusian soldiers who had changed into civilian clothes. They knew the timing of Polish patrols on the other side (…) The only thing they said was “go to Poland!” reported one man. Those who make it across the border and are caught are often deported even if they claim asylum, a practice ‘legalised’ by Poland last month although it runs contrary to international law. On 18 November, the Polish Defense Ministry said around 100 migrants had been detained after crossing the border. Council of Europe human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, who visited areas near the border on the Polish side, said the situation was “extremely dangerous”. ECRE members the International Rescue Committee and ProAsyl are urging the EU to prevent Poland from illegally forcing people back to Belarus and uphold the right to seek asylum.

On 17 November, the European Commission confirmed that “technical talks” regarding returns of people at the border are underway with Belarus. Coordinated by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and Belarus, the first flight of “voluntary” returns to Iraq left on 18 November with 374 passengers aboard. The next day, Belarus’ spokesperson said the EU must create a humanitarian corridor for 2,000 refugees camped at the border. “We’re fulfilling our promises, while the EU has not yet fulfilled a single obligation,” the spokesperson said. “There is no question of negotiating with the Lukashenko regime,” the Commission spokesperson said in response. The EU appears to have ruled out allowing people entry to the bloc, and instead has focused on imposing sanctions on airlines and other actors transporting people to Belarus. EU officials have also held numerous meetings with third countries to pressure them to do the same. Turkish aviation authorities announced on 12 November that Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi nationals will be prevented from boarding planes to Belarus. Belavia, the national carrier of Belarus, said it would bar citizens from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan from flights leaving from Dubai to Minsk.

Following a four-day visit to the Polish side of the border, CoE human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatović has decried a “narrative dominated by security” that puts rights at risk. The access ban on areas adjacent to the border prevents international organisations and civil society from monitoring and responding to abuses, the commissioner said. A bill adopted by Poland’s parliament on 17 November risks making this situation permanent. Mijatović also underscored that: “Poland’s current legislation on access to territory and international protection, which allows for immediate returns to the border of persons who entered the territory outside of official border crossings, undermines the right to seek asylum and the crucial safeguards associated with it, including the right to effective remedies”.

After weeks of restrictions, Belarus has allowed workers from UNHCR and IOM to access the region on the Belarus side. At one border point, IOM and UNHCR distributed emergency aid and food to about 2,000 asylum seekers, including children and pregnant women. The agency’s chief, Filippo Grandi, said his priorities were to prevent loss of life and to move people to safer locations in Belarus. “We appreciate the access,” he wrote on Twitter, “and are ready to assist in finding solutions.” The Belarus Red Cross said on 17 November that some 1,000 migrants were being put up in a “logistical centre” close to the Bruzgi-Kuznica checkpoint. The Belarusian health ministry said it had hospitalised six people from the camp. The EU too announced it will send 700,000 euro worth of food, blankets and other aid to the border.

Meanwhile, locals and NGOs who seek to assist refugees and migrants at the border face threats and intimidation from authorities and hostile groups. Volunteer medic group Medycy na Granicy said five of their vehicles have been damaged in an attempt to restrict their work. One woman has been charged by Polish police with “disturbing the peace” for trying to assist an asylum seeker brought to a Polish hospital in making an asylum request. Many people living near the border said they had faced the threat of being charged as smugglers for providing food and shelter to migrants.  “There is a palpable atmosphere of hate and fear that surrounds the provision of humanitarian help to migrants and refugees”, said commissioner Mijatović. A rally in solidarity with people at the border took place in Berlin on 14 November.

For further information:

Photo: (cc) Kancelaria Premiera, 11 November 2021

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