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Opinion: The suffering of migrants at the border with Belarus is a result of EU migration policy

Jim Clarken of Oxfam Ireland says the EU must better protect migrants suffering at its borders.

Jim Clarken

Updated Nov 24th 2021, 9:10 AM

THE EU’S BORDERS are the deadliest in the world. At least 22,853 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2014 trying to reach the EU’s shores.

Over the past few months, we have witnessed yet another of the entry points to the EU, the borders with Belarus, become a site of death and suffering for refugees and migrants.

The EU migration and asylum policies that contribute to such humanitarian suffering, and the EU response to this tragedy demonstrate that the EU must change its approach to migration and international protection. Failure to do so risks a repeat of these tragic events and ultimately the undermining of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

EU failing migrants

Migrants and refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries have spent cold days and nights in horrendous conditions camped in freezing forests near EU borders with Belarus.

They had hoped to cross into an EU which declares itself a force for human rights. Instead, Polish authorities have used tear gas and water cannon against these people and refused NGOs access with humanitarian aid; a clear violation of humanitarian principles.

It’s reported that up to 13 people have now lost their lives, the latest victim a one-year-old child who passed away on Thursday before Belarus moved people from the freezing makeshift camps to a warehouse.

The EU has allocated humanitarian funding to support those blocked at the Belarus-EU border, but its overriding approach has been to evade responsibility for refugees and migrants at its borders. Two EU responses in particular demand our attention.

Firstly, when faced with the humanitarian needs of refugees at its borders in need of protection, the EU has been unable or unwilling to work together as a union and has instead looked to countries outside of the EU. Margaritas Schinas, European Commission Vice President, embarked last week on a tour of Baghdad, Beirut, Dubai and Ankara to persuade them to stop refugees and migrants from departing and to agree to take back those already in Belarus.

Mr Schinas had some success in achieving this ethically bankrupt goal; on Thursday, almost 400 refugees and migrants flew from Belarus to Iraq, and the Lebanese government agreed to restrict travel to Belarus.

That the EU has yet again called upon Lebanon to take on the responsibility of hosting refugees is concerning. Lebanon already hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees. In Lebanon, one in every six people is a refugee, whereas in the EU it is one in every 166. The EU is one of the richest regions in the world and with a political will can, between its 27 member states, host the relatively small numbers of refugees that arrive at the EU’s borders in a sustainable manner rather than offload responsibility to already stretched “partner countries”.

The recent episodes at the Polish/Belarus border are not the first time that refugees and migrants have been used as political pawns by countries bordering the EU.

For example, in March 2020, as tensions rose between the EU and Turkey, people fleeing violence and persecution were used as political bargaining chips and left stranded in a no-man’s land at the Greek borders without access to food, shelter or medical care.

EU now left exposed

So, while the EU’s approach to migration has been viewed as a success by most policy makers as it has reduced the number of migrants and refugees arriving in the EU, it has weakened the EU politically and left the block open to political manipulation by countries on the EU’s border.

This is not to defend or ignore the abhorrent treatment of migrants by Belarus but to point out that the EU’s own approach to migration helped create the context where states like Belarus feel they can use migrants and refugees to threaten the EU politically.

Secondly, Poland has allegedly used pushbacks at its borders. Pushbacks occur when migrants, including asylum seekers, are pushed back to the country from where they attempted to cross without being given the opportunity to lodge a claim for asylum or access international protection.

Refusing to examine a case for international protection is illegal under refugee law as enshrined in the EU’s own treaties. Worryingly, Poland is not the only EU member state where pushbacks are being reported. National human rights institutions, civil society organisations and international bodies including the UN regularly report cases of pushbacks at the EU’s land and sea borders.

Research published by the Greek Council for Refugees and Oxfam includes testimonies from young refugees who were forcibly returned to Turkey from Greece when they applied for asylum there. Oxfam and other organisations have called on the European Commission to follow through on its proposal to establish an effective independent border monitoring mechanism which would make it easier to monitor this kind of systematic violence at European borders.

Must do better

The European Commission has recognised past failures of EU migration and asylum policy and promised a “fresh start”, publishing the EU ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’ in September 2020.

Oxfam has, with other civil society organisations, raised concerns that the Pact does not offer any new solutions but will replicate the types of problems that allow tragedies like that at the Belarus border.

The Pact relies on cooperation from neighbouring countries in achieving the EU’s goal of hosting fewer migrants and refugees. Oxfam believes the EU should instead focus on mechanisms that share responsibility for international protection amongst the EU member states.

In 2015, Ireland opted-in to the EU relocation scheme and relocated asylum seekers from Greece. Relocation and other forms of responsibility-sharing mechanisms are key in making the EU’s migration & asylum policy work.

All EU member states must agree on fair and appropriate arrangements for sharing responsibility, protecting those seeking asylum and hosting them in decent and dignified conditions. Otherwise, the tragic deaths on the EU’s borders will continue.

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Jim Clarken is CEO of Oxfam Ireland. Jim is also a Commissioner on the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and an Executive Board member of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).

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