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29th Feb 2024

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Poland and Hungary go hard on Belarus migrants

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Poland wants the EU's blessing to restrict people's right to asylum if they sneak in from Belarus, among other "emergency" measures.

"PL [Poland] would like to add in the text: [an] article which may allow to make asylum applications by third-country citizens/stateless persons who illegally crossed the border with Belarus only at designated places - border crossing points", it said in an EU Council report dated 19 January and seen by EUobserver.

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It also wanted an "article which may allow to leave the application for international protection unprocessed if it was submitted by a foreigner apprehended immediately after illegally crossing the external border of the EU ... unless the foreigner arrived directly from the territory in which his life or freedom was threatened".

The Polish clauses were to be added to an EU Commission proposal on how "to address the emergency situation at the EU's external border with Belarus".

The Commission put forward its text last December.

More than 20 people died last year after Belarus flew in thousands of refugees from the Middle East and forced them to storm Polish and other EU borders.

Belarus did it as a "hybrid" counter-strike against EU sanctions, while Poland and others were accused of thousands of illegal pushbacks of women and minors in winter conditions.

Things calmed down during the Christmas holidays.

But there were still between 3,000 and 5,000 migrants in Belarus, including 500 people camped near the Bruzgi crossing point on the Belarusian-Polish border, a Belarusian opposition activist, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver.

Tensions in the region were sky-high over Russia's military build up against Ukraine.

And states in the EU Council were still in talks on the Commission's proposals how to counter potential "instrumentalisation" of refugees.

"On Facebook, there are large groups waiting for the opportunities to try again [to enter the EU]. So [Belarus president Alexander] Lukashenko has opportunities to continue this circus," the Belarusian activist said.

The original EU Commission proposal said Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland should be able to detain migrants in asylum centres for 16 weeks instead of just four.

They should also get practical help, including 1,500 EU border guards, satellite imagery, and EU air-surveillance, the commission said.

Lives at risk

The ideas were savaged by International human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and Oxfam when they first came out.

"Stopping, detaining, and criminalising people trying to find safety in Europe breaks international and European asylum law ... puts politics over people's lives", Oxfam's Erin McKay said.

But for its part, Hungary was being even more hawkish than Poland in the EU talks.

"We have doubts on the effectiveness of the proposed measures, as they fail to address the core issue: stemming the flow of migrants used as instruments," Hungary said in the Council note.

"The measures are merely a repetition of the current legal loopholes, as they would not provide adequate tools against the absconding of migrants, the abuse of the right to asylum, the frustration of return procedures", it said.

"We consider it essential to allow temporary restrictions to access to asylum," Hungary added.

Meanwhile, Austria's top concern was how to stop refugees coming to Austria.

"What is missing in the current proposal are: Concrete measures against secondary movements such as detention, where legally possible," it said.

"Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland shall apply effective measures to ensure that applicants and illegally staying third country nationals remain at the disposal of the competent authorities ... to prevent any risk of absconding," Austria said.

But Germany, Portugal, and Sweden showed more heart.

"With regard to all measures, we should keep in mind that they should help the MS [member states] concerned to deal with third-country nationals instrumentalised by Belarus in a humane and orderly manner, respecting fundamental rights and European asylum law," Germany said.

"It is central that asylum applications of people arriving in the EU are examined and human rights are respected. Accommodation under humane conditions must be guaranteed," it added.

Portugal wanted stronger protections for "vulnerable persons".

Sweden voiced concern about unaccompanied minors and "family unity".

Reservations

It remains to be seen how the Belarus migrant situation evolves alongside the Russia-Ukraine tensions.

But whatever happens next, the EU is not yet equipped to handle it, among ongoing Council divisions.

The French EU presidency will now have to draft new proposals for Belarus counter-measures taking on board the EU states' remarks, an EU official said.

But the Council report noted that Hungary and Sweden, which come from opposite poles in the EU political spectrum, had both imposed "reserves" on the Belarus project for now.

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