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Ongoing tension on the Poland-Belarus border in November 2021

Maddalen Martin-Arteche , 15 novembre 2021

Belarus’s retaliation for the restrictive sanctions adopted by the European Union in response to the fraudulent nature of the August 2020 presidential elections in Belarus and the intimidation and violent repression of journalists and opposition members continues. Since June 2021 Belarus has been facilitating the transit of migrants originating from the Middle East and Asia to Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland (all neighbouring countries).

The migratory pressure on the Polish border has become acute in the past weeks. Only in October 2021 Poland recorded 15,000 attempted illegal border crossings. The Polish Government has not, for the time being, requested any support to Frontex, the EU Agency that assists Member States facing challenges at their external borders, such as illegal immigration, upon request of the latter. The Polish Government has instead deployed 12,000 border guards to the border shared with Belarus and constructed a new fence to halt the advance of migrants.

The EU has immediately condemned the conflict escalation on the Poland-Belarus border. The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen expressed on 8 November 2021 the solidarity of the EU with Poland, called the Member States to extend the sanctions adopted against Belarusian authorities and announced that Commission members will be travelling to the countries of origin of the migrants to talk their authorities into discouraging their nationals from ‘falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities’. In addition, President von der Leyen announced that the Commission will be reaching out to the United Nations agencies to prevent a humanitarian crisis from unfolding and organize the return of migrants to their countries of origin. On 9 November 2021 the Council of the EU agreed on the partial suspension of the visa facilitation agreement concluded between the EU and Belarus. The suspension will not affect ordinary Belarusian citizens, but officials of the Belarus regime. The suspension covers the provisions of the agreement that waive requirements for documentary evidence, regulate the issuing of multiple entry visas and reduce visa application fees.

The condemnatory statements by the EU institutions do not seem to have intimidated the Belarusian authorities. On the contrary, the latter have denied all accusations of violation of the Polish border and have warned Poland against using provocations at the border. Russia has also expressed its concern with the situation at the border and put on the table the possibility that the EU grant financial assistance to Belarus to deal with the influx of migrants. Such possibility seems however unrealistic given the EU’s past and present responses to Belarusian provocations.

In the meanwhile, hundreds of migrants seeking to enter the Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish territories from Belarus are confronted to harsh living conditions on the border. As an example, the European Court of Human Rights requested the Polish and Latvian authorities to provide 32 Afghan nationals and 41 Iraqi nationals seeking to obtain international protection in Poland and Latvia, respectively, with food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter. Lithuania was requested not to remove 5 Afghan nationals attempting to enter the country from Belarus and hiding in Lithuania from the Lithuanian territory and expel them to Belarus.

The judgements of the European Court of Human Rights remind us that the well-being and lives of hundreds of migrants at the Poland-Belarus border are currently at stake, and so is their right to asylum under international and EU law. Be it as it may, the Member States do not seem, a priori, willing to let asylum seekers into their territories to the extent they did following the 2015 refugee crisis. Indeed, physical border barriers have been built in Hungary, Greece, Spain, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland to protect their external borders. Some of them (Hungary and Germany, for example) have expressed their support for Poland’s efforts to protect the external borders of the EU and prevent the entry of migrants. Germany has even offered to send police personnel to the border with Belarus. By referring to the EU external borders, the need for a unified response to the conflict with Belarus is further stressed. Also, the solidarity demonstrated with Poland may serve to soften the tense relations between the EU and Poland due to the ongoing democratic backsliding in Poland. After all, Poland may be the glue that holds the Member States together during the current migratory challenge.

Maddalen MARTIN, Ongoing tension on the Poland-Belarus border in November 2021, actualité du CEJE n°37/2021, disponible sur www.ceje.ch