For years, UNITED has monitored the humanitarian crises on the external borders of the European Union. During the past years, illegal pushbacks have been worrying. They are a clear output of a series of policies aimed at creating the so-called Fortress Europe, where people can freely move only if they have the privilege to be EU citizens, while the entrance of migrants escaping from wars, persecutions, and poverty is blocked on its borders. The principle of non-refoulement is supposed to protect asylum seekers. This is a fundamental principle of international law. It forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in danger of persecution. However, this principle is violated frequently and EU member states do not allow migrants to apply for international protection, using violence against them.
Multiple groups of asylum seekers have been stuck at the Polish-Belarusian and Lithuanian-Belarusian borders. The Belarusian Border Guard has reportedly pushed them towards Polish and Lithuanian territories, but the national border guards of the EU said member states have prevented them from getting into the EU, violating the principle of non-refoulement included in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Over the summer, both Lithuania and Poland have passed laws allowing collective expulsion of migrants, thus legitimizing illegal pushbacks. This has been possible because both governments have declared an emergency state, which can amend migration legislation and create barriers to filing for asylum-seeking.
In particular, in Poland, the situation has worsened since the beginning of last week. On Tuesday the 16th, the Polish police reported that migrants started to throw stones, branches, and empty cans of tinned food against policemen. In reality, the situation seems to be different: in some videos, the migrants seem to be exhausted by the situation, just asking for some food and shelter. The Polish police first completely ignored their requests and then attacked the migrants with violent water jets and clouds of tear gas.
There are also different testimonies from migrants who have been stuck in the hell of the Polish-Belarusian border. Youssef Atallah, a Syrian migrant, explains that Belarusian authorities forced him to try to cross the Polish border and, even if he told them that he would not continue this trip, they did not allow him to go back to Minsk. Because of this situation, he was stuck in the Polish forest, in a sort of no man’s land, for several days without food and potable water, which was frozen due to the low temperature. A few days ago, Poland imposed a ban on journalists’ travels to the border, making it harder to report on human rights violations. The journalists Maciej Nabrdalik, Maciej Moskwa, and Martin Divíšek claimed to be subject to police harassment.
On the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, the situation is very similar. Because of the state of emergency, Lithuania banned all travel, including travel of journalists, within five kilometers of the border. Lithuania has also taken away mobile phones from migrants. Moreover, the Lithuanian government has sent the army to patrol the border, allowing them to use “mental coercion” and “proportional physical violence” against migrants.
EU officials accused Belarussian president Lukashenko of pushing migrants towards EU external borders with false promises of an easy entry in Poland and Lithuania, but he completely refused these accusations, affirming that it is the EU that has not respected international rules of asylum. According to EU sources, this is Lukashenko’s retaliation for the economic sanctions that the EU has imposed on the Belarusian government after the discredited electoral victory of the current President of Belarus and his action to silence internal dissenting voices. Last week, the president of the Council of Europe Charles Michel visited Warsaw in order to give his support to Polish and Lithuanian governments, declaring that Belarus acted in an irresponsible way, causing a humanitarian crisis.
It is clear that on the EU Eastern external border, the EU and Belarus are having a geopolitical clash, which is only the peak of diplomatic tensions between them that started months ago. It is, however, not acceptable that innocent people escaping from wars, persecutions, and poverty, are paying the consequences for this. According to the Geneva Convention and international and EU law, migrants have the right to apply for international protection in a country. Countries cannot expel them before they have fully examined their application.
UNITED highlights the need to ensure that aid organisations and the press have direct access to the borders to help the stranded migrants and to report the situation.
We also call on the EU, Polish and Lithuanian governments to end illegal pushbacks immediately and all its Member States to act according to the international and European law, respecting the principle of non-refoulement and all the human rights guaranteed by the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees.
We also ask the Belarussian government to stop using human lives as an instrument to reach its geo-political objectives and to guarantee to the migrants their rights, according to international law.