On 6 December Poland’s public broadcaster featured a concert in honour of the border guards “defending the border”. The controversial event follows renewed restrictions of access to the border with Belarus where a deadly humanitarian crisis is unfolding. The European Commission’s proposal on provisional emergency measures for the benefit of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland has come in for heavily criticism for severely restricting the right to asylum.

In an event described by a Polish editor as “the most surreal thing I’ve seen for a long time” and “beyond ridiculous” by an NGO commentator, Poland’s Defence Ministry organised a publicly-broadcast concert in honour of Polish border guards. The concert comes amid an unfolding humanitarian crisis and new deaths at the border with Belarus. The border guards – celebrated for “defending the border” to the tune of Lou Bega performing Mambo No. 5 and other pop artists – have been denounced for conducting violent pushbacks.

Based on testimonies and evidence collected by Minority Rights Group International and Grupa Granica, the Polish civil rights organisations estimate that at least 5,000 people have been in the forests along Poland’s border with Bebalrus and at least 1,000 people remain. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated that their “priority is the safety of these stranded migrants, upholding their human rights and preventing more deaths as temperatures remain well below freezing”. On 8 December the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), warned of plummeting temperatures and stated that: “refugees and migrants urgently need humane solutions to ensure their safety, rights and dignity”. A volunteer from Minority Rights Group describes the situation at the border, saying people have: “not eaten for weeks. Every few days, after a violent pushback over the barbed wire fence, they may get an old potato from a Belarusian soldier, if they have money. They will share that with the kids. They have nothing to drink for days. Or drink swamp or rainwater, which causes stomach cramps and a deadening headache, further weakening them”. The European Court of Human Rights received 47 requests for interim measures, by a total of 198 applicants, regarding the situation at the border between 20 August and 3 December. 44 of these were lodged against Poland. The court applied Rule 39 in a total of 43 of the applications, saying: “In some, the Court indicated to the Governments to provide the applicants with food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter for a limited amount of time”.

The death toll at EU border with Belarus continues to mount, with at least 15 lives lost. One victim was a pregnant Kurdish woman who hiding in the forest at the Polish border for weeks, leaving behind a husband and five children. Exhausted, dehydrated and with little food in the cold, the woman fell sick and later died in a Polish hospital on 3 December. Her baby had reportedly been dead in her womb for 20 days due to infection. A four-year-old Iraqi girl has gone missing in the icy forest after she was separated from her parents when Polish border guards pushed the family back into Belarus on 6 December. “This girl is probably either already dead or will die very soon. The most dramatic thing is that if it was a Polish child, the whole country would be looking for her,” said Kasia Kosciesza from the charity group Families Without Borders. On 7 December Polish soldiers recovered the dead body of a man carrying a Nigerian passport in a forest near Olchowka in the Polish border region with Belarus.

A three-month access ban on the zone at the Polish border has blocked journalists and aid workers from entering under the area since early September. On 30 November the state of emergency measures were replaced by regulations allowing the government to declare areas along its 3,511 kilometre borders off-limits to everyone except residents and people who live, work or study in the zone. The regulation allows the interior minister to designate 15-kilometer wide no-access strips as a security measure on recommendation from the border guard agency. Immediately after the regulation was approved by the lower house of parliament and the president, interior minister Mariusz Kaminski applied the new measures to the border zone with Belarus for a period of three months. According to Kaminski, the construction of 5.5 -meter-tall barrier on the border with Belarus, will start in December. Further, British, Czech, and possibly Estonian troops will be deployed at the Polish borders where around 20,000 Polish soldiers and police are already stationed. The response from Latvia and Lithuania to arrivals from Belarus has also been barbed wire fencing. Lithuania’s parliament has approved a request by the government to extend the existing state of emergency until 9 January as well to permit new checks of “suspicious vehicles” on its border with Poland. Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) has agreed to deliver service weapons to its standing corps officers in Lithuania.

Dehumanisation and framing of people in search of protection as a “hybrid threat” has dominated the media and politicial discourse since the stand-off with the Lukashenko regime began in July. Despite initial, vague expressions of concern about rights violations, albeit alongside declarations of support to the eastern member states, the European Commission’s latest position reveals little concern for the rights of people on the move. While announcing hundreds of million euro of EU funding for emergency border management, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated: “Lithuania has been responding to this attack humanely and firmly”. Following the Commission’s launch of a controversial proposal on provisional emergency measures for the benefit of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, Executive Vice President Margaritis Schinas stated: “when one of us is under attack, the rest of us will be there for him”. The proposal – which introduces measures including border detention and sub-standard procedures – has been met with an outcry by the Greens (EFA) and Socialist & Democratic (S&D) groups in the European Parliament, as well as MEPs and NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW). ECRE Director Catherine Woollard finds few solutions but notes several contradictions in the proposal in an editorial concluding: “while the situation results from a tense conflict with Belarus, that is no reason for weakening the right to asylum in Europe, and the people themselves are not a security threat. Calm management, combined with continued pressure on Belarus and political, diplomatic operational, and humanitarian initiatives would have been a better way to respond to the provocations from the other side, Belarus and its allies. As the Joint Communication says, they are cruel. It could add that so are we”. When challenged by journalists, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson suggested people on the move should apply for asylum to the notorious Belarusian regime.

In contrast to its failing to ensure access to asylum procedures, the Commission has thrown its weight behind efforts to return of people stranded in Belarus including through high-level diplomacy. On 4 December more than 400 children and adults were returned to Erbil in the Kurdish region of Iraq and another more than 400 followed on 7 December. More than 3,000 Iraqis have been returned since mid-November. Another flight returning 97 Syrian nationals to Damascus was scheduled on 8 December. Reportedly, Syrians and Iraqis are afraid to return to the countries they fled. As of 29 November the IOM had assisted 44 people with voluntary return from Belarus, with another 38 returns in the pipeline.

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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.