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21st May 2022

EU skirts pushbacks, suggests people seek asylum in Belarus

  • Ylva Johansson (r) says fundamental rights must be respected when it comes to asylum (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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The European Commission has skirted repeated questions on Polish laws legalising so-called pushbacks and instead suggested migrants apply for asylum in Belarus.

"Belarus is part of the Geneva Convention. It's also a possibility to apply for asylum in Belarus," EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters on Wednesday (1 December).

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The EU has repeatedly accused Belarus autocrat leader Alexander Lukashenko of weaponising migrants under a regime that has jailed thousands of pro-democracy opposition activists and tortured scores of others.

The questions and comments came on the back of a new a proposal, jointly presented by European Commission vice-president Margitis Schinas and Johansson.

The draft EU regulation would allow Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia to relax existing EU asylum rules for six months.

All three share borders with Belarus, which has been accused of carrying out a so-called hybrid attack by luring thousands of migrants and prospective asylum seekers to Belarus to then cross into the EU states.

At least 12 people have so far died. Around 8,000 are said to have entered, while another 10,000 went to Germany.

Some reportedly made it to Calais in France, in a bid to then cross the English Channel towards the UK.

The new proposal also comes on the back of an October demand by EU member states and is based on article 78.3 of the EU Treaty, which allows for "provisional measures in emergency migratory situations at the EU's external borders."

If approved, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia would be allowed to extend the registration period of asylum applications from the current standard of several days to four weeks.

It also speeds up returns, provides the three states with "more flexibility" when it comes to giving them shelter, and allows people to apply for asylum near the border or at official crossing points.

Both Schinas and Johansson said the proposal fully supports and respects the right for asylum, fundamental rights, and outlaws pushbacks.

But emergency state measures and legislation in Poland, for instance, have already suspended some of those rights, posing questions on how the commission's latest raft of proposals will make any difference.

Poland earlier this week extended emergency measures restricting access to its border with Belarus, barring journalists and NGOs from the border area. And in mid-October, it passed a law that de facto 'legalises' pushbacks.

Johansson at the time said EU states had the right to protect their borders but that fundamental rights must be upheld.

Pressed on Wednesday on whether Poland's October law complies with EU rules, she skirted the question. "Council has asked the commission to come up with the proposal to clarify how we can give more flexibility," she said.

Asked again, she offered a similar response. "We are coming with this legal clarification with our proposal today. And I expect Poland to comply with it," she said.

Asked a third time, she said the aim of the proposal was to ensure "the fundamental right to apply for asylum".

The European Commission's refusal to directly answer the question may be due to an on-going dispute with Poland over rule of law issues. But it also points to wider shift in approach on migration and asylum throughout the EU amid numerous reports of pushbacks elsewhere like Greece and Croatia.

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