EU, UN officials rap Poland, Latvia, Lithuania over Belarus border policy

BRUSSELS: The methods deployed by Latvia, Lithuania and Poland since the migrant crisis erupted with Belarus are questionable and violate international and European laws, senior United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and European Union officials said.

Around 8,000 asylum-seekers, many from Iraq, crossed into Latvia, Lithuania and Poland last year. Thousands more got stranded along borders in Belarus as the weather turned cold. Some died. But the number of attempted entries has slowed to a relative trickle.

“Even in this dangerous and difficult situation that these three (EU) member states are in, they have to have legislation where pushbacks are not accepted and not legalized,” Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told EU lawmakers.

The word “pushback” is mainly used in Europe to refer to the forcible return of migrants across an international border while denying them their right to apply for asylum. Pushbacks are considered illegal under international refugee treaties and EU law.

Johansson did not say why the European Commission, which proposes and polices the bloc’s laws, is not taking action against the countries for those infringements.

She did say that border tensions have “de-escalated significantly,” and that the EU has helped to repatriate almost 5,000 migrants from the Belarus capital Minsk, but that people are still in limbo in forests around the border area.

“People still have the right to apply for asylum, they still have the right to have access to the asylum process. We still have to be true to our values and to our treaty,” Johansson said.

The EU accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants in a type of “hybrid attack” against the 27-country bloc after it slapped sanctions on his government over alleged fraud in the 2020 elections that returned him to power and the security crackdown that followed. -Agencies