Poland, Lithuania and Latvia should be allowed to hold people in special asylum processing centres at the border with Belarus for up to 16 weeks, the EU executive has said, in an emergency loosening of standards to help deal with what it calls a hybrid attack from Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
The European Commission’s top officials said the three EU member states needed flexibility to deal with an unprecedented situation, but critics hit back that Brussels was “building the walls of fortress Europe” ever higher.
Under existing EU rules, member states have three to six days to register an asylum claim, or 10 in exceptional circumstances; while the whole process, including appeals, is supposed to be completed in four weeks.
The EU has accused Belarus’s authoritarian leader of luring desperate people from the Middle East to Belarus and then bussing them to the EU border in the hope of destabilising the bloc. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have experienced a surge in people arriving from the Middle East via Belarus to claim asylum. About 10,000 people are thought to have reached Germany via Belarus, while some have tried to cross the Channel.
The commission’s offer to loosen European asylum law came after Poland’s parliament snubbed EU officials by voting to extend a ban on journalists in an exclusion zone on the Polish-Belarusian border.
The EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, has repeatedly called on Poland’s government to allow media and NGOs access to the border region, a point she repeated on Wednesday. “Transparency is of the essence: that is why it is so important media can have access and we are not the victims of rumours that can’t be clarified.”
On Tuesday, Polish MPs rejected a proposal from the senate to allow media access to the zone, voting for a long-term ban to replace current emergency measures. Poland’s interior ministry has said the ban on independent observers would facilitate the imminent construction of a 5.5-metre high wall on the border with Belarus.
The European commissioner did not respond directly to questions about the EU compatibility of a Polish law from October that NGOs say allows Polish border guards to push back people seeking asylum, in contravention of international law.
Johansson said: “We all realise that the situation is unprecedented at the borders … and it has been difficult of course for the member states most concerned at the borders to deal with it. And that is why they have asked us for legal clarifications on what is possible to do and what is not possible to do, and we are coming with these legal clarifications with our proposal today and I expect them to comply with it.”
She has previously said the EU does not allow pushbacks, but member states have a duty to prevent unauthorised entries.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, she said the latest proposal protected fundamental rights, including the right to a fair process and non-refoulement, the right not to be returned to face war or persecution.
The emergency rule change, which has to be approved by all EU member states, would apply only in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland for six months.
EU officials believe the crisis is easing, as new arrivals of migrants into Belarus have ceased, while 1,872 Iraqi citizens have been flown home, with more flights expected. Yet 10,000 people are believed to be stranded in Belarus, while Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are facing numerous asylum clams.
According to the commission, 7,831 people have entered Latvia, Lithuania and Poland this year, compared with 257 for the whole of 2020. Poland has received 6,730 requests for asylum, Lithuania 2,676 and Latvia 579.
Critics argued the emergency changes were unnecessary and accused the commission of being influenced by Poland’s nationalist government, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Juan Fernando López Aguilar, a Spanish Socialist MEP who chairs the European parliament’s justice and home affairs committee, described the measures as excessive and disproportionate. “The decreasing number of people seeking asylum at the EU’s border with Belarus in no way justifies allowing governments to abandon their obligations under international law to give access to asylum. Nor is there any reason to turn a blind eye to the illegal practice of pushbacks.
“It is very worrying that the commission is willing to dance to the tune of the PiS government’s demands to suspend the EU’s asylum rules and even more so following yesterday’s vote in the Polish parliament to ban media and NGO from accessing the border area.”
Erin McKay, of Oxfam, said: “Stopping, detaining and criminalising people trying to find safety in Europe breaks international and European asylum law. Supporting the detention of migrants at EU borders puts politics over people’s lives.”