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New EU measures set to restrict asylum rights at Belarus border

Aid groups express concern about the ability of migrants to seek refuge in the bloc

Migrant children on the border with Poland in Bruzgi, Belarus, on Nov. 17, 2021.JAMES HILL/NYT

BRUSSELS — The European Union on Wednesday proposed new measures that would allow Poland and other member states bordering Belarus to suspend some protections for asylum-seekers, raising concerns that they may undermine the ability of migrants to seek refuge in the bloc.

The proposal from the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, would extend the period that Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland would be able to detain asylum-seekers while their applications are being processed. Aid groups said the rule change would leave applicants in a state of limbo and in increasingly unsafe conditions.

The three countries have taken a hard line against the migrants who have been trying to enter the EU in recent months, and the bloc has stood with them even as border guards have illegally pushed back migrants or refused to process asylum requests, violating EU and international law.

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So the proposal announced Wednesday appeared to be another concession to Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania and a likely deterrent for asylum-seekers, immigration experts and human rights organizations said.

“The commission seeks to apply fundamental exceptions instead of making sure that current norms and standards are delivered by national governments,” said Sergio Carrera, a senior researcher at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Research.

The commission said the measures would be temporary and were aimed at addressing the emergency situation in Belarus by giving member states “flexibility” in dealing with asylum claims.

For months, EU officials have accused Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic leader of Belarus, of orchestrating “hybrid warfare” by loosening Belarusian visa rules for migrants, most of them Iraqis, and later helping them reach the EU's eastern border.

The main flashpoint of the crisis was defused last month after Belarusian authorities moved thousands of migrants from an encampment near the Polish border, and most attention has now shifted to repatriating the migrants.

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Yet thousands remain stranded under freezing temperatures, and at least 12 people have died during the crisis in the forests on the Polish side of the border.

Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, on Wednesday acknowledged that the crisis at the EU border had receded, raising questions about the necessity of the new measures and how much further the EU was willing to go in accepting the tougher lines taken by the countries bordering Belarus.

Under the new proposal, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland could extend the registration period for asylum applications to four weeks from three to 10 days currently. The processing time for claims could be extended to four months, after which migrants are either granted asylum or sent back to their home countries.

According to Johansson, 8,000 migrants who came through Belarus are now in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, and 10,000 went to Germany via this route.

In the short term, the new proposal would force the three countries to provide shelter, clothes, and food to the migrants while their applications are being processed.

But it remained unclear Wednesday whether they would apply the rule or even process asylum claims. A Polish official said authorities would study the proposal but argued that it did not address the situation at the border properly.

Under EU and international law, anyone seeking asylum at the borders of the EU can file an application in a member state. Yet Polish border guards have pushed back migrants, including by force and by using water cannons and tear gas, effectively denying them the rights to lodge asylum applications. Lithuania has also closed its borders to most asylum-seekers.

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Silvia Carta, a policy analyst focusing on migration at the Brussels-based European Policy Center, said similar measures adopted elsewhere in the past had devastating consequences. Delaying registration and processing of asylum claims on the Greek islands, for instance, had only resulted in longer detention periods, violation of fundamental rights, and additional burdens for both the asylum applicants and local authorities, she said.

The new measures still have to be approved by the Council of the European Union, the body that brings together the bloc’s 27 ministers. They would then remain in force for six months but could be extended.

In October, Poland passed legislation legalizing pushbacks, which is against European and international law. The European Commission has said it has “many question marks” about the Polish law, but on Wednesday officials declined to comment on the issue.

Camino Mortera-Martínez, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, said the new measures amounted to “rubber-stamping the behavior” of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. “Especially Poland, which has been breaking all asylum laws possible,” she said.

Grupa Granica, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations working at the border in Poland, said Wednesday that the crisis had worsened in recent days as colder weather set in.

Thousands of migrants are still stranded on the Belarusian side of the border, according to Polish authorities, but Grupa Granica said migrants trying to cross were still being pushed back and left without shelter from rain, snow, and the cold and without access to food, clean water, and medical help.

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“They are silently dying in those forests,” said Anna Alboth, a member of the group.