Estonia updates temporary protection application process for Ukrainians, UNHCR publishes observations on proposed amendments of the law on Legal Status of Aliens in Lithuania. Commission defends ‘legalisation’ of pushbacks in Latvia and Lithuania in front of MEPs. Polish government in storm over visa corruption scheme in run up to elections as detainees initiate protests and hunger strike in detention centres. Frontex continues expansion of operations beyond EU soil in new agreement with Albania.

Estonian authorities are updating the application process for temporary protection for Ukrainian refugees. As of 10 September, Estonia is granting temporary protection to war refugees from Ukraine through March 2025, including both first-time applicants and applicants renewing temporary protection. Following the invoking of the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) by the European Commission in March 2022, member states have implemented it in different ways and while some granted protection for a three-year period, Estonia granted protection for a one-year period to be extended on an annual basis. According to Marina Põldma, superintended of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Identity and Status Bureau: “This change will save time for both refugees and the PPA, as continuing with the current practice would mean we should extend the temporary protection status of refugees staying here for a few months next winter”. Eurostat recently published figures on Ukrainians granted temporary protection in Europe revealing that “At the end of May 2023, more than 4 million non-EU citizens who fled Ukraine as a consequence of Russia’s invasion, were under temporary protection in the EU. Germany (28% of the total), Poland (25%) and Czechia (8%) were the main hosts of beneficiaries of temporary protection”.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) published on 11 September its comments to the proposed amendments to the law of the Republic of Lithuania on Legal Status of Aliens. The agency: “expresses support for the intention of the Lithuanian Government to enhance the quality of the reception conditions and services for people seeking asylum” and “welcomes the objective to provide uniform reception standards across accommodation sites by establishing the Reception Agency” but also “recommends reviewing elements of the law proposal, related to detention and family reunification”. Meanwhile, the European Commission defended the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania in front of MEPs in the civil liberties committee (LIBE) against ongoing critique over ‘legalising’ pushbacks along their respective borders with Belarus. “Those two countries are doing their best to protect the EU border,” Monique Pariat, a senior EU commission official stated, adding that Latvia and Lithuania are facing unprecedented “illegal border crossings” since 2021 and insisting that “serious evidence” must be brought to light that the right to asylum has been violated before launching possible measures against the two member states. Both Latvia and Lithuania have introduced emergency measures suspending the right to asylum and de facto ‘legalized’ pushbacks (considered illegal under both international and EU law) under the pretext of a “hybrid threat” from Belarus and been heavily criticized by rights actors including the UNHCR, Amnesty International  and Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic. In June 2020, the European Court of Justice (CJEU) found Lithuanian legislation allowing mass detention and preventing asylum requests for irregular arrivals in violation of EU law. The number of attempts to cross the border from Belarus to the EU is reportedly up 62 per cent compared to 2022. Poland alone has seen some 17,000 attempts. “Poland recorded a sevenfold increase compared to the same period last year,” Pariat said.

The Belarusian regime accuses Polish border guards of “firing warning shots and using tear gas and physical force to push back migrants trying to enter the European Union through their volatile border”. Over the last two years, at least 48 bodies have been recovered and an unknown number of people have died at Poland’s border with Belarus. At the same time, the Polish government under the Law and Justice (PiS) party is facing political headwind and public critique in the run-up to the general election on 15 October after reports that hundreds of thousands of temporary work visas have been issued by the country’s consulates in return for bribes. “Do you know who in Europe brings in the most Muslim immigrants? The government that frightens with them. The PiS government,” Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council and leader of the opposition Civic Coalition party, stated. According to investigations from local media, the “corruption-prone” scheme allowed non-EU citizens in developing countries to jump the queue at Polish consulates at the price of $5,000. An investigation has been launched by Poland’s anti-corruption police, the CBA – reportedly only after other EU member states alarmed by the number of visas issued by Poland applied pressure. Meanwhile, prolonged detention and poor living conditions have sparked protests by migrants in centres across Poland. Moreover, on 5 September, detainees at the detention centre at Przemysl, in southeast Poland dubbed Poland’s ‘Guantanamo’, initiated a hunger strike. According to Grupa Granica the largest of its kind with more than 70 detainees involved demanding ““respect for their rights and dignity and to stop the use of mental and physical violence against them”. “This is about freedom, not about the quality of the food in the canteen – not that the food is adequate either,” one of the hunger strikers told BIRN over the phone from Przemysl. “It is about us being detained here, without having any idea when we will be released, or what will happen to us in future. Some of the people have already had two birthdays since they are closed here”. “Even criminals in prisons know when they will be released,” the man added. According to detainees, they are not informed properly and not in a language they understand and see their detention extended at short notice without reasoning. “If there are any rules this place is run by, then no one is explaining them to us. This is absolute lawlessness,” a detainee told BIRN. Seebrücke International reported of the violent response by prison guards with “masked men” storming into the cells and “beating people with sticks”. On 11 September, Grupa Granica stated: “The biggest strike so far in guarded centers for foreigners in Poland has been suspended. Protesters say they were threatened. Protests are still ongoing in Krosno Odrzański and Kętrzyn”.

Slovakian Prime Minister Ludovit Odor announced on 6 September the deployment of up to 500 soldiers at the country’s border with Hungary to assist border police. Reportedly, Slovakia has seen a recent increase in people arriving via Hungary after crossing from Serbia to reach the EU. Prior to the upcoming election on 30 September, PM Oder, stated he: “would like to assure citizens that we are still talking about transit migration”. According to Slovakia’s interior ministry, the number of irregular migrants detained in the country has reached 27,000 in 2023, marking a ninefold increase. The government has proposed ending registration of asylum seekers to avoid obligations under the Dublin agreement. Slovenia has seen an increase of more than 150 per cent in irregular arrivals compared to last year. Afghans continue to top the list of nationalities with an increase in arrivals from 1,592 to 5,385. Authorities have increased patrolling and surveillance along the border with Croatia, the main entry point for irregular migrants, accounting for 25,431 of the intercepted cases compared to 8,330 in the same period of 2022. Meanwhile, ECRE member the Hungarian Helsinki Committee put out a statement on 14 September on a ruling by The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) finding: “the detention of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s two asylum seeker clients unlawful in today’s judgement against Hungary. The young men, from Afghanistan and Algeria, were in asylum detention for five and two months, which was not justified for even a single day”. Barbara Pohárnok, staff attorney of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, who represented the applicants in the Strasbourg proceedings, stated: “We hope that today’s judgments – along with various previous ones in the European Court of Human Rights – will lead to positive changes in the jurisprudence of domestic authorities and courts. We have been fighting for many years to ensure that the minimum standards of fundamental rights set out in the judgments are respected and used as a benchmark in Hungary. In addition, special respect is due to both our clients who have been waiting for today’s judgments for nearly 9 and 7 years respectively”.

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) continues expanding its presence beyond EU soil. On 8 September, the Council of the EU: “adopted a decision to sign an agreement with Albania on operational activities carried out by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). The agreement will allow the organisation of joint operations and the deployment of Frontex border management teams in Albania. The deployment of Frontex teams will be subject to the country’s agreement”. Acting Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, stated on behalf of the Spanish presidency of the Council: “Cross-border crime and immigration management are important challenges both for EU countries and our closest neighbours”. According to the Council: “This agreement will replace the current agreement between Albania and Frontex, which entered into force in 2019 (and which was agreed before the entry into force of the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency regulation)”. Frontex already has border management cooperation agreements in place with Serbia (2020) under the previous rules and with Moldova (2022), North Macedonia and Montenegro (both 2023) under the new rules.

In North Macedonia, a man in his thirties died after being electrocuted when he tried to descend from the roof of a freight train container near the central town of Gradsko. Police did not reveal the nationality of the deceased but said most of the migrants attempting to cross into North Macedonia are Syrians.

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