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28th Nov 2022

Belarus migrant arrivals 'under control', says EU

  • At least 13 people have been reported dead, including a one-year old child. (Photo: El Bingle)
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The EU says people's arrivals in Belarus are "under control" amid priority plans to now return stranded asylum seekers and migrants to their home countries.

"There is still some work to be done," Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, told reporters on Tuesday (23 November). "But for the time being we think that we can consider the flow under control, the inflow under control," he said.

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The commission estimates up to 15,000 people are currently stuck in Belarus, of which around 2,000 are close to the border with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

The comments were echoed by European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas, who recently travelled to Lebanon, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey.

"Flights from Baghdad and routed through Dubai, Beirut, Istanbul, Damascus, and Tashkent have all been halted," he said.

"Attention now will shift to returns. In order to alleviate the situation in the border, we are working to step up returns," he also said.

Asked whether there were any plans to help bring the most vulnerable into the EU, Schinas said it was outside the bounds of EU competence.

"These people either would return as many of them do through voluntary returns or will apply for asylum," he said, without noting that Poland is pushing prospective asylum seekers back into Belarus, making it impossible for them to apply for asylum.

Meanwhile, some 450 people returned to Baghdad from Minsk last week. The commission is now mobilising around €1m to finance returns, readmission, and reintegration from Belarus.

"Overall, this will take our support for return to €3.5m voluntary returns from Belarus," he said.

This comes on top of an additional €200m of border management support for Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, also announced on Tuesday. None of it can be spent on walls or barbed wire fences.

Severe hypothermia

The comments come amid warnings of more deaths in the Polish exclusion zone, continued reports of abuse by both Polish and Belarusian guards, as well as illegal pushbacks.

"All the migrants, asylum seekers caught inside the exclusion zone are beyond the reach of anyone other than local residents," said Stefan Lehmeier, an International Rescue Committee regional director.

Lehmeier, who recently travelled along the Polish exclusion zone with Belarus from Sokolka to Siemiatycze, said they had, on Monday, found three Iraqi men close to death with severe hypothermia.

"We know for a fact that there are much more acute cases now," he said.

"Often you can see that the [Polish] border guards are trying to push back as fast as they can, before an asylum claim can be made. And then they're gone. And then yeah, it's impossible to help," he said.

A report by Human Rights Watch, published Wednesday, drew similar conclusions.

It said both Belarus and Poland share responsibility for the thousands of people at the border. It also said people hd been duped by travel agents, with some paying up to $17,000 to reach Poland.

The NGO said it had witnessed licensed taxis and vans pulling up to a hotel in central Minsk in the afternoon to take groups of people to the border areas.

Blacklist bill

The report comes as the European Commission proposes a new regulation, giving it the power to decide on whether to sanction transport companies suspected of smuggling or trafficking people.

EU foreign affairs ministers had earlier this month agreed to slap a new round of sanctions against the Minsk regime.

But EU commissioner for transport, Adina Valean, said the draft bill is needed to allow the EU "to act at European level."

"It gives us a powerful tool to take action where operators have failed to act or seek to benefit from the exploitation of vulnerable people," she said

"Those operators found to be in breach of the rules may have their right to operate in the EU suspended or limited," she added.

The bill still need to be agreed by the European Parliament and the Council, representing member states.

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