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3rd Dec 2023

Czechs pushing EU law on Belarus-type migrant storms

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Belarus and Russia could once again use migrants to try to "destabilise" EU countries, Prague has warned, amid preparations to curb people's asylum rights in future emergencies.

There was an "ever-present risk of instrumentalisation [of migrants] by Belarus and Russia," the Czech EU presidency told fellow member states in an internal paper one week ago, seen by EUobserver.

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"Multiple sources from Polish and Lithuanian authorities suggest the rise of attempted irregular crossings of African migrants who are temporarily staying in Russia before travelling towards the EU via Belarus," it added.

"The flow of migrants is facilitated by Russia's visa policy towards certain African countries of origin," it said.

There were just 752 "irregular border-crossings" from Belarus so far this year, but Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia also prevented 14,613 entries, showing that "the potential for the possible increase in flows into the EU remains high", the Czech Republic said.

Its warnings hark back to events in 2021 when Belarus flew in thousands of people from the Middle East and forced them to storm Polish and Lithuanian borders.

The situation was different to authentic refugee crises because it was a deliberately orchestrated campaign by Belarus to cause political stress inside the EU.

Turkey and Morocco used similar tactics against Greece and Spain in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

The Czech discussion paper comes at the same time Prague is trying to shepherd a new EU law allowing front-line countries to suspend normal asylum rights if fresh trouble broke out.

The draft law allows them to register asylum applications only at specially designated points next to the border.

It lets them detain people to stop them absconding, take up to four weeks to lodge their claims, and up to 16 weeks to process them.

It also makes provisions for fast-track deportations, while underlining that people's basic rights, such as "the principle of non-refoulement", must be respected.

The Czechs sent round a new compromise text for the rules, to be discussed by EU diplomats on Thursday (8 September).

The text, also seen by EUobserver, differs little from the original EU Commission bill put forward last December.

It adds that Cyprus' de facto border with the internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus should be treated the same way as the EU-Belarusian or Russian border in terms of the new emergency measures.

And it tweaks legal language so that even people with "well-founded" asylum applications would find it harder to enter the EU.

"At the moment, it is too early to say whether it would be possible to conclude the Council's negotiations under our [EU] presidency [which ends in December]," a Czech spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the Czechs noted that more Ukrainian refugees were likely to soon come to Europe due to cold weather.

"With the upcoming winter and given the devastating aftermath in many cities in the form of destroyed residential housing and schools, numbers of IDPs [internally displaced persons] and subsequently refugee flows towards the EU are likely to rise," they said.

The flow of refugees had currently stabilised, with around 35,000 people a day entering the EU from Ukraine and 37,200 Ukrainians exiting the bloc.

This compares to up to 190,000 entries a day when war first broke out.

But the conflict has changed the eastern migration route for the long term, the Czechs predicted.

Russian EU asylum applications were low (just 7,638 since Russia invaded Ukraine in February), but still double that in normal times.

And with "no end to the war in sight, the far-reaching socio-economic impact can be foreseen for years to come" in all countries in the region, pushing people also from Moldova, for instance, to seek better lives in Europe.

"Record inflation, the refugee wave, and severe trade disruption do not bode well for the future [of Moldova]," its discussion paper noted, singling out the EU neighbour for its vulnerability.

"Any conflict intensification in the south of Ukraine could affect a large number of IDPs and set them on the move; most likely towards the Moldovan border," it added.

A "potential risk of involving the Transnistrian region, where Russian military is present, into the war should not be discarded," it also said, referring to a Russian-occupied breakaway part of Moldova.

"Last months have seen an upsurge of violent incidents, with a series of explosions and attacks on infrastructure [in Transnistria] aimed at destabilising the situation," Prague warned.

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