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24th Oct 2021

EU Commission evasive on Polish/Lithuanian pushbacks

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The European Commission was evasive when asked about the legality of push backs of migrants in Poland and Lithuania, which is illegal under EU and international law.

Repeatedly pressed on the issue during a press briefing in Brussels on Wednesday (29 September), it instead said they had questions for Poland.

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The Belarus regime under president Alexander Lukashenko has been shuffling people to the border, in retaliation for EU sanctions, an act qualified by the EU as a hybrid war.

Poland, in August, temporarily legalised pushbacks to prevent migrants and would-be asylum seekers from entering from Belarus. The new rules means people caught crossing irregularly into Poland will be "taken back to the state border" and "ordered to leave the country immediately."

Lithuania has been doing the same, amid backlash from the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, including at Poland.

Pressed on whether the moves break EU law, EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson said that "the commission has several question marks" on the Polish rules.

European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas also appeared evasive.

"This was something that has been proposed by Lithuania and I understand others have similar ideas," he said, drawing a distinction between legitimate asylum seekers and others who are escorted to the border by the police.

"There is a difference between the two situations," he said, noting that Europe will always be an asylum destination.

He told reporters responses on Polish and Lithuanian pushbacks can instead be found in a yet to be adopted pact on migration presented one year ago.

The blockade on the borders with Belarus has seen scores of people stuck between border authorities on both sides, leading to at least five known deaths.

Marta Górczyńska, a Polish human rights lawyer and researcher, last week told this website that there had been 4,000 attempts of illegal border crossings in September.

"These people were pushed back to Belarus, maybe some of them more than once," she had said.

The comments also come as Johansson goes to Poland on Thursday, where she will briefly meet with interior minister Mariusz Kaminski at the airport in Warsaw.

"It's also important that we show that this European border is not only a Polish border," she said, calling for greater Polish transparency.

"We of course need to comply with our EU aquis and our values," she added. She also repeated Polish claims Minsk is possibly sending in potential terrorists and criminals.

Polish officials had early this week said they found Islamic extremist text messages on some of the phones used by the migrants. Asked if she would seek evidence from the Poles to back up the claims, she said it was not up to the European Commission to investigate.

Poland has imposed a state of emergency on the border zone, obstructing NGO and journalist access, which is now set to extend for another two months.

The EU's border agency Frontex has deployed some 100 guards to Lithuania and eight to Latvia but none to Poland, pending an official request from Warsaw.

On Wednesday, the commission said Belarus officials should no longer be entitled for visa-free travel to the EU, a proposal that needs to be signed off by member states.

But the issue of pushbacks along the border is proving tricky for the European Commission, which on the one hand wants to defend its European borders against the Minsk regime, while on the other tip-toeing around pushbacks.

"Yesterday, by midnight, 30,941 users of foreign telephones located in the border area with Belarus received SMS messages warning migrants against illegal crossing of the border," said Poland's Kaminski, in a tweet on Wednesday.

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