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Poland may refuse entry to migrants from Belarus; EU must actively help Poland

An estimated thousand migrants are still stranded at the Belarus-Polish border. Screenshot from
Poland may refuse entry to migrants from Belarus; EU must actively help Poland
Article by: Willem Aldershoff

For weeks, the media has been full of reports about migrants who want to enter the European Union from Belarus. It is now sufficiently clear that the regime of Belarus’ dictator Lukashenko is actively recruiting migration candidates in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Iran and bringing them to Belarus by plane.

Once landed in the capital Minsk they are helped with transport to the border with the European Union. From there they want to cross the border to apply for asylum, initially mainly in Lithuania, now mainly in Poland. There are currently an estimated several thousand migrants on the Polish border.

The images of how they stay in the border area during these winter months are hard to watch. Poland does not want to let them in, Belarus does not want to keep them, they are between hammer and anvil.

In such a human and moral drama, it is important for policymakers to keep a cool head and to analyze the problem carefully. They must also include the legal perspective, cause, and effect, plus the question of guilt. In the discussion, different terms are often used incorrectly or mixed up. This complicates a correct analysis.

For example, people at the Polish border are variously referred to as migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers.

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention only speaks of “refugees.” It provides that a person can only be recognized as a refugee if the country where he/she applies for asylum concludes that he/she is entitled to that status. This only happens when there is a “founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality or political conviction” in his country of origin.

The people on the Polish border are no longer fleeing, because they are in Belarus. Perhaps there are also asylum seekers among them, people who are in actual danger in their own country. But applications for asylum must be made in a legally valid

This is possible in embassies of EU countries in the country where the (prospective) asylum-seekers live or at official border crossings at the external borders of the EU. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has reaffirmed this in a February 2020 ruling: migrants must “enter European territory in a legal, as opposed to an illegal, manner” before they can enjoy a certain human rights protection. Illegal intruders may be deported.

It is also important to examine who bears prime responsibility for the presence of migrants at the Polish border. That of Belarus is crystal clear: the country actively recruits candidate migrants and transports them to the border, sometimes even under duress.

There is also a responsibility of the migrants themselves. When they leave their country, they are aware of the asylum admission procedures in the EU. However, they think they have a better chance of entering the EU asylum procedure if they take the illegal route organized by Belarus.

A large number of migrants come from the autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq. This region has a high degree of independence and can be called practically safe. In addition, they travel by plane to Belarus, which means that they have to undergo border and customs checks in their own country. Someone who actually fears the danger of prosecution does not do that. This also applies to the Minsk travelers from other countries.

Finally, it should be emphasized that asylum seekers do not have the right to decide for themselves in which country they should be granted asylum and that, on the other hand, a country does not have the obligation to admit every person who applies for asylum.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights merely states that someone who meets the conditions for refugee must be granted asylum. It does not prescribe which country should do that. The UN Refugee Convention does not have the word asylum seeker. It merely states that refugees should not be returned to areas where their lives or freedom are threatened because of race, religion, or political opinion.

In practice, the rule of “country of first reception” has developed: an asylum seeker must be received in the first country he enters after his country of origin and where there is no risk of persecution. The Netherlands has been applying this principle, confirmed by court decisions, for decades. This rule has also been in effect for a long time within the EU.

For migrants who want to cross the border to Poland from Belarusian territory, Belarus is logically the country of first reception. Together with the active recruitment of migrants, the responsibility of the Lukashenko regime for the entire fortunes of these people is therefore obvious.

Moreover, by creating all this misery for the migrants and for Poland, Belarus is violating an important provision of the Refugee Convention: countries must “do everything in their power to prevent (a refugee problem) from becoming a source of tension between countries.”

The Polish border with Belarus is also the EU’s external border. It, therefore, has every interest itself in actively assisting Poland.

First of all, by strengthening the border to prevent migrants from entering the EU illegally. It is incomprehensible that the European Commission still refuses to support Poland financially. At the same time, the European Union must crack down on charter companies that transport migrants to Minsk, including by banning their flights to EU countries.

Finally, the Union must take effective measures against the Lukashenko regime. The recent visa restrictions on Belarusian politicians and officials do not impress. A measure that will have an effect, for example, is the exclusion of Belarus from the European payment system.

Willem Aldershoff is a former head of the police and customs cooperation unit at the European Commission and is now a Brussels-based analyst of international affairs.


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