At a meeting of European interior ministers to discuss border security and asylum rules, politicians advocated for firmer measures to “protect” external borders. Lithuania has fined medics from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for entering the emergency zone near the border to provide life-saving aid. Poland’s Supreme Court has found a ban on access to the border to be illegal, ruling that the national Red Cross society must be permitted to provide humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the Polish Ombudsman has denounced conditions in the Wędrzyn reception centre.

On 21 January, ministers from EU member states Austria, France, Greece, Italy and Poland, as well as from Norway and Switzerland, met in Vilinus.  The states, joined by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), Europol, and EU representatives, discussed action to “strengthen and protect the European Union’s external borders” following the 2021 situation at the bloc’s eastern borders. European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson toed the line between border security and human rights, saying: “we must protect our borders from aggression and we need to protect our people”, but simultaneously insisted: “pushbacks are clearly illegal. People have the right to apply for asylum”. Yet, the Commission didn’t clarify the alleged threat against EU populations and has taken no action against systematic and violent pushbacks conducted by Poland, Latvia and Lithuania and indeed many other member states. In response to arrivals at their borders orchestrated by Belarus, the three eastern member states have implemented laws that effectively legalise pushbacks, contravening EU and international law. In Lithuania, authorities say they have denied entry to 8,200 people: aid groups say this amounts to the euphemistic pushback reporting.

Poland and Lithuania have made clear they expect the EU to favour “border protection” over the rights of asylum seekers. Lithuanian minister Agne Bilotaite supported the changes to EU law currently under discussion, stating: “to protect ourselves effectively, we need to develop a new standard for border protection”. Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri appeared to back this stance, saying “legal clarification” was needed on “how to strike the balance between prohibiting illegal crossing while maintaining access to international protection”. ECRE finds the EU’s legislative proposal for “Emergency Measures” response to the “crisis” to “have an adverse effect on the right to asylum without adequately responding to the situation at the EU’s borders”. Poland is rumoured to want to restrict rights even further by dismissing the applications of those arriving irregularly and deeming regime controlled Belarus – notorious for human rights violations and sanctioned by EU – as a safe third country. The “instrumentalisation crisis” has also led the European Commission to draft a legislative proposal on “situations of instrumentalisation in the field of migration and asylum”. ECRE has published critical Comments that describe the proposal as undermining the right to asylum in Europe by expanding and normalising derogation from EU law.

At the meeting, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Greece, inter alia, repeated their calls for EU funding for border walls. Commissioner Johannsson ruled this out, saying: “If member states would like to build fences, they can do so, but it is a longstanding position from the Commission not to finance walls or barbed-wire fences”. Poland this week begun work on a heavily-mediatised barrier at the border with Belarus that will cost 366 million euro.

On Christmas Eve, Lithuania fined medics from MSF for entering the emergency zone near the border. The group of medics and volunteers responded to a video they received of a Syrian man in a dire medical condition. Upon arrival, they determined he needed urgent assistance and called an ambulance. Though the man is temporarily protected from expulsion from Lithuania by European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) interim measures, the medics were each fined 100 euro. When questioned by media, deputy interior minister Kęstutis Lančinskas said the actions of volunteers at the border are “anti-state and anti-border guards”. Lithuania meanwhile continues to push for the more than 4,000 people who entered the territory since August 2021 to return to their country of origin. Despite announcing that the government would give each person returning voluntarily 1,000 euro and a plane ticket, only 482 people have accepted voluntary return. According to the interior minister, quoted by Liberation: “only 87 foreigners who illegally crossed the Lithuanian-Belarusian border” have been granted asylum since the start of the crisis.

On 18 January, Poland’s Supreme Court ruled on the legality on the country’s “state of emergency” legislation that has for five months banned journalists, aid workers, and human rights observers from the border zone. The judicial challenge found that the emergency measures go beyond what is permitted by Polish law. Not only did the judgment uphold the constitutional right of journalists to move freely in the territory, it stated that the Red Cross must be allowed to provide humanitarian assistance at the border. Notably, a 1964 national law enshrines the right of the Polish Red Cross “to provide humanitarian aid on the territory of the country (without any restrictions)”. Thus, the court concluded, “such activity cannot be considered illegal”. Though the ruling did not include specific measures to be applied in the case of the Red Cross, the NGO said they hoped the decision would allow them to expand their activities to support refugees.

After making a third visit to the Wędrzyn reception centre, located near the German border, Poland’s Ombudsman has concluded that the centre “does not uphold the basic guarantees that prevent inhuman and degrading treatment of persons deprived of liberty”. Investigators from the national human rights watchdog said there had been no improvement in the poor conditions in the centre over several months. Overcrowding was a key concern: though the government committed allowing two square metres per person, the Ombudsman highlights that four square metres is the minimum standard set by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). A range of recommendations were handed down to authorities on 24 January.

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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.