EU proposes scaling back asylum rights for arrivals from Belarus

EU Commission pushes for Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to have more time to weigh asylum claims amid migration crisis.

The commission's proposal comes after the EU has accused Belarus of flying in thousands of refugees and asylum seekers and pushing them to cross into the bloc in response to Western sanctions imposed on Minsk [Kacper Pempel/Reuters]

The European Union’s executive has proposed that member states bordering Belarus should be allowed to handle asylum seekers under amended procedures that threaten to weaken protections for refugees.

Wednesday’s proposal by the European Commission (EC), if passed, would allow national authorities in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia more time to register and consider asylum claims, potentially leading to people being held at basic reception centres along the EU’s external frontiers for months on end.

The development has come as Europe struggles to respond to the migration crisis the bloc says has been engineered by Minsk.

The EC suggested allowing up to four weeks –  rather than a maximum of 10 days currently envisaged in EU laws – to register asylum applications by people who crossed from Belarus.

It would also permit Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to hold registered asylum seekers for up to 16 weeks on their side of their respective borders with Belarus while authorities analyse people’s requests for protection – but this would deny them the standing right to be held in more suitable centres inside the country.

The measures will need approval from the European Council – a body made up of the heads of state of all 27 EU member states – following consultation with the European Parliament.

If passed, the changes would take effect almost immediately and remain in force for six months unless extended or repealed.

Poland-Belarus border crisis

The EU has accused Belarus of flying in thousands of people – mainly from the Middle East – and pushing them to cross into the bloc via Poland, Lithuania and Latvia as part of a “hybrid attack” in response to Western sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko’s government for alleged human rights abuses. Belarus has denied those accusations.

The months-long migration crisis escalated in November, when thousands of people headed to Belarus’s border with Poland, seeking entry into the EU.

Poland’s nationalist government reacted by sending police, border guards and troops en masse to try to seal off the border. Lithuania and Latvia have also attempted to prevent crossings in recent months.

The three countries defend their approach of pushing people back without assessing asylum cases or granting a realistic chance to claim asylum – which rights groups have said violates EU rules and international humanitarian law.

Their approach has left many stranded in border regions in freezing conditions as winter sets in, unable to enter the bloc but unwilling to turn back.

Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for global NGO Human Rights Watch, said the EC’s proposed changes were evidence of continued callousness over the crisis.

“Give the EU Commission credit for one thing: consistency,” he tweeted. “They don’t let human suffering muddle their thinking.”

Lowering safeguards

The EC’s proposal also suggested that the right to claim asylum, enshrined in the international humanitarian law, be restricted to designated places such as chosen border points.

That would mean people would not be able to claim asylum wherever they reach the Polish, Latvian or Lithuanian border and might instead be required to walk many more kilometres through the forests, lakes and swamps straddling the eastern rim of the bloc to make it to the designated locations.

The proposal would also allow for quicker deportations of asylum seekers whose applications are rejected.

“We are family. And when one of us is under attack, the rest of us will be there for him. And this is the message we want to project with this package,” EU Executive Vice President Margaritis Schinas said, presenting the suggested measures in Brussels.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies