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27th Sep 2021

Refugees at risk, as Belarus 'attacks' EU border

  • Belarus is flying in vulnerable people via Baghdad and Istanbul, Lithuania says (Photo: IOM.int)

EU ministers have condemned Belarus' use of refugees to "attack" Europe, as Lithuania called for sanctions against countries and companies helping Minsk to do it.

Belarus was trying to "instrumentalise human beings for political purposes", 27 EU interior ministers said on Wednesday (18 August) after an emergency video-conference called for by Vilnius.

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"This aggressive behaviour ... is unacceptable and amounts to a direct attack aimed at destabilising and pressurising the EU," the ministers added.

There was "a need to strengthen the entire external border" of the EU to prevent irregular crossings, they also said.

The meeting was called after Lithuania published a video of 12 Belarusian police officers armed in riot gear pushing some 35 migrants across the border earlier this week.

The Belarusian police officers themselves also crossed briefly into Lithuania to do it, in what Vilnius called a "provocation".

"I have seen these outrageous actions when officials push people across the border. It is both an issue of human rights, and also a question of protecting the border of the EU," European Parliament president David Sassoli said in Vilnius on Wednesday.

Belarus has been flying in people from Syria, Afghanistan, and West African countries via Baghdad and Istanbul ever since the EU imposed economic sanctions in June.

There were some 4,026 irregular crossings already this year, compared to 74 last year, Lithuania said.

Poland and Latvia have also complained about similar problems.

Some 2,100 people tried to enter Poland irregularly in August alone, compared to 122 interceptions in all of 2020, Poland said.

And 50 refugees were currently living in a camp in no-man's land between Belarus and Poland, Polish broadcaster TVN24 reported.

Lithuania has started to build a €500m razor-wire fence along its Belarusian border.

Poland has sent some 1,000 soldiers to help police its frontier.

"The government's priority is the safety of Polish citizens," the defence ministry said.

Meanwhile, Latvian guards forcefully pushed back some 30 migrants last week in an incident involving frightened and cold women and children, which was witnessed by the Reuters news agency.

"Such measures are acceptable, as long as ... the fundamental right of the persons concerned to be protected against refoulement [pushback] and access to the asylum procedure are respected," the European Commission said at the time, when Latvia noted that those who had been pushed back were free to claim asylum at an official border crossing point instead.

But the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, as well as charities, such as the Lithuanian Red Cross, have voiced concern about the EU states' harsh response.

For her part, Lithuania's interior minister, Agnė Bilotaitė, said on Wednesday the commission had given it €37m to help build its fence, but that more aid was needed.

More sanctions?

Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, also wrote in a letter to EU foreign-affairs chief Josep Borrell last weekend that countries, such as Iraq or Turkey, who were letting Belarus move people north, should face sanctions.

"Countries and entities participating in the illegal human smuggling have to ... face repercussions that would deter them," he wrote.

"We need to make sure that no European company participates ... as, for example, those European companies that are renting airplanes to the otherwise sanctioned Belarusian Belavia company," he added.

Meanwhile, the EU ministers' talks on Belarus came in the context of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, which is expected to see even more people seek refuge in Europe.

Afghanistan

"The instability in Afghanistan is likely to lead to increased migratory pressure," EU home-affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday.

There were already more than 3.4m internally displaced people in Afghanistan, she noted.

"We should not wait until people arrive at the external borders of the European Union. This is not a solution," she added, alluding to the fact EU states have failed to agree on any reforms of outdated asylum laws in recent years.

"As things stand, the situation in Afghanistan is clearly not safe and it will not be safe for some time. Therefore we cannot force people to return to Afghanistan," Johansson also said, even though some EU states, notably Austria, were still keen to do so.

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