Activists warn of dropping temperatures along Belarus-Poland border as the Polish border guard extends its internal border control with Slovakia. Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán launches a new anti-EU national consultation. Finland and Estonia accuse Russia of migrant instrumentalisation amid a surge of arrivals on shared borders.

The humanitarian group Grupa Grancia said that they met a group of Syrian refugees suffering from frostbite due to long exposure to wet and freezing conditions risking limp amputation as temperatures started to drop below zero at the border between Belarus and Poland, The group of refugees they met told the volunteers that “a lot of people trapped in the ‘sistema’ (an area fenced and guarded by Belarusian soldiers on the border with Poland).”Women and children were among those trapped”, they said. The volunteers of Grupa Grancia called on the Polish authorities to provide urgent medical assistance to vulnerable migrants and stop pushbacks. Meanwhile, people continue attempting crossings from Belarus to Poland. According to Polish border guards, on 21 November, 7 people tried to cross into the Polish territories but “turned back” after “seeing the service patrols” while 40 people tried to cross the border on 20 November. At the beginning of November, a Polish soldier shot at a 22-year-old man while he attempted to cross the Belarus-Poland border – the youth reportedly had to undergo surgery. The Polish prosecutor’s office said an investigation had been opened into the incident, but that it appeared to have been an “unfortunate accident”. Activist and journalist Piotr Czaban wrote on 4 November, that “The Syrian we had been looking for for a week was found dead. Our team arrived at the site today. Nature researchers found it right before us. The police are already here” (translated). On a positive note, the court in Siemiatycze ruled that violating the ban on staying on the border road and transferring items across the border with Belarus cannot be punished under the Code of Petty Offenses and therefore acquitted four humanitarians who were represented by ECRE member Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. “Since the beginning of the crisis, Polish services have been trying to convict us of providing humanitarian aid to refugees in Polish forests. Fortunately, the courts prevent these attempts at criminalization”, one of the acquitted people said.

Meanwhile, the Polish border guards announced the extension of the internal controls along borders with Slovakia until 3 December in an attempt to “prevent illegal migration from the Balkan route. Reportedly, Slovakia has turned into “Central Europe’s new migration hub” for different reasons including the country’s “humane approach” to migrants compared to its neighbours. “Slovakia may not offer that many services for migrants, but no one is pushing them back and there is no need to hide in the forests,” Marian Cehelnik of the Slovak NGO People in Need said. “Some of the migrants know that and they come here because of our government’s approach.” Cehelnik, however, is unsure how long this approach will last as Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, appointed on October 25, said the authorities should forcefully prevent the entry of migrants to its territories and deport all those already in the country. Fico and Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok also announced on 30 October the government will start deploying police and soldiers on the border with Hungary, with the deployment set to start later that evening.

The populist Viktor Orbán’s government issued a new “national consultation” closing on 10 January 2024 asking nationals to vote on “deeply divisive” issues such as migration, LGBTQ+ rights and support for Ukraine. It’s not the first time that the government has launched such consultations since it came into power. These surveys have been often criticised as a “propaganda tool” and “anti-EU” that encourages voters to pick the government’s “preferred answers”. One of the questions included in the latest survey says the EU “wants to create migrant ghettos in Hungary” and asks whether respondents think Hungary should “accept Brussels’ migration plans,” or prevent the creation of migrant ghettos. The Commission President, Ursula Von der Leyen, has been personally targeted in Orban’s new campaign by placing billboards across the country’s streets featuring the Commission President standing next to Alexander Soros, the 38-year-old son of billionaire George Soros and current chair of the Open Society Foundations (OSF), with a capitalised text that reads: “Let’s not dance to the tune they whistle!”. The chief spokesman of the Commission, Eric Mamer, said that von der Leyen was “completely unfazed” by the images, adding that the president “has full trust in the capacity of the Hungarian public to make up its own mind based on objective, factual information as to what we do”. Mamer also called the statements of the consultation “untrue”, adding “Quite frankly, we have no interest in losing time with that sort of issue in the current international context”. Meanwhile, ECRE member Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) and other NGOs released joint statement assessing Hungary’s compliance with conditions to access EU funds. “Certain legislative and administrative steps were taken by the Hungarian government and governing majority. However, the implementation of the reforms falls short of expectations, also lacking both pace and genuine commitment, and the effectiveness and sustainability of the already adopted changes remain largely to be seen”, the statement underlined. Concerning the right to asylum and principle of non- refoulement, the organisations state that the pre-procedure system or the so-called “embassy system” remains in force and no information available on any upcoming changes despite the judgement by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruling that the system is in breach of EU law.

Finland announced on 22 November that it will close all but one of its border crossings with Russia after a rise in the arrivals of refugees and migrants whom the government claims Moscow is intentionally pushing to the country’s frontiers. Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen later added: “We have already taken measures to close border crossing points, and if need be, we will be doing further closings”, referring to the complete closure of Finnish-Russian borders. More than 600 asylum seekers, mostly from Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq, have reportedly entered Finland via Russia in November, compared with only a few dozen in September and October. As a result, asylum seekers now have to lodge their asylum applications 300km north of the Arctic Circle, at the remote Raja-Jooseppi border post. The Finnish Refugee Council expressed concern as this development is happening in “Finnish winter time”. “I think our biggest concern was that if the whole eastern border would have been closed for asylum seekers”, Annu Lehtinen, executive director of the Finnish Refugee Council, On 20 November, the Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, appealed to EU member states to work together to find a solution to the situation. “One concrete measure … might be to raise the discussion once again at the European Union level, because the question is of EU borders, not only Polish, Finnish or national borders,” he said. The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, said the situation along Finland’s eastern border was caused by a “Russian hybrid operation,” and expressed his country’s readiness to help Finland manage the situation. Besides, the Commission President described Russia’s instrumentalisation of migrants as “shameful” as EU spokesman Christian Wigand said that “they are closely following the situation. We are in contact with the Finnish authorities and Finnish border guards,” adding “Member states have an obligation to protect the external borders, and they are the ones best place to define how to do this in practice in full compliance with fundamental rights”. European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that Finland has asked for 60 officers from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency to support the Finnish borders, and compared the ongoing events at Finland’s eastern border with the migrant crisis in 2021 on the Belarus border with Poland and Lithuania. On 23 November, Frontex stated in a press release that the agency plans to deploy a total number of 50 officers to bolster Finland’s borders and the first group of officers including border surveillance officers, support for registering migrants, document experts and interpreters will be deployed on 29 November.

Additionally, Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets also accused Russia of extending its “proactive measure” of allowing undocumented migrants to reach shared borders, originally aimed at Finland, to Estonia. “Russia lets them pass without any reason, which means that these persons reach us and we have to deal with their concerns,” he said, adding “Since they have no basis for entering the European Union, it is obviously an organized and deliberate activity to burden the activities at the borders”. Reportedly, last summer, the Estonian government passed a legislation to allow collective pushbacks which has been criticized by ECRE member Estonian Refugee Council “of course against the European Convention on Human Rights but also the European Union’s asylum aquis”.

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