New E.U. Measures Set to Restrict Asylum Rights at the Belarus Border

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 asylum applicants in a state of limbo and in increasingly unsafe and frigid conditions.

The E.U. members bordering Belarus — Poland, Lithuania and Latvia — have been taking a hard line against the migrants who have been trying to get into Europe through their countries from Belarus. The proposal announced Wednesday appeared to be a concession to them, and a likely deterrent for asylum seekers.

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.

“It’s firefighting,” Margaritis Schinas, the commission’s vice president, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

For months, E.U. officials have accused Aleksandr G. 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 E.U. border.

The escalating tensions turned into a crisis last month as thousands became stranded at the border between Poland and Belarus, which also became the scene of ugly clashes between migrants and border guards.

Items, including sleeping bags and rain jackets, in a forest that has become a frequent route for migrants arriving from Belarus, near Narewka, Poland.Credit…Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The main flash point of the crisis was defused last month after the Belarusian authorities moved thousands of migrants from a sprawling encampment near the Polish border, and most attention has now shifted to getting the migrants back home.

At least 12 people have died during the crisis in the forests on the Polish side of the border, but aid groups say the toll could be higher as the authorities have limited access to human rights organizations and journalists to the border areas.

More than 1,800 people have been repatriated to Iraq from Minsk, the Belarusian capital, according to Iraqi and European officials.

Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, on Wednesday acknowledged that the crisis at the E.U. border had receded, and that the “inflow of instrumentalized migrants has stopped,” raising questions about how much farther the European Union is willing to go in accepting the tougher lines taken by the countries bordering Belarus.

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

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 can also be extended to four months, after which migrants are either granted asylum or sent back to their home countries.

“Lukashenko has been trying to sell free access to the E.U. and that can never be accepted by us,” Ms. Johansson said as she announced the new measures.

Immigration experts say the new measures could have worrying consequences for asylum rights within the bloc, and that the number of migrants — in the thousands, while the European Union has 450 million inhabitants — did not justify it.

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 the local authorities, she said.

Members of the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service and soldiers at a makeshift checkpoint near the Lithuania-Belarus border, in November.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

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. After approval, the measures would remain in force for six months but could be extended.

The proposal comes as Poland and other member countries have faced criticism by human rights organizations for restricting access to the border and for arbitrarily denying migrants the right to lodge asylum applications.

Under E.U. and international law, anyone seeking asylum at the borders of the European Union can file an application in a member state. Yet Polish border guards have pushed back migrants, including by force and by using water canons and tear gas, and in Lithuania, immigration authorities have closed their borders to most of them.

In October, Poland passed legislation legalizing the procedure of pushbacks, which is against European and international law. The European Commission has said it has “many question marks” about the Polish law, and that it was analyzing it in detail, 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,” Ms. Mortera-Martínez said.

A Polish official said the authorities would study the proposal, but said that it did not address the situation at the border properly. Some 3,000 migrants are on the Belarusian side of the border near Poland, the official said.

The number of migrants arriving in Belarus has declined, but aid groups say there are still stranded on both sides of the border. Activists on the ground report that the humanitarian crisis has worsened in recent days, with snowfalls and colder weather setting in.

Grupa Granica, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations working at the border in Poland, said in a report published on Wednesday that most people who managed to cross the Polish border were pushed back toward the border line by force.

Migrants, the group added, have stayed in the forest for weeks, without shelter from rain and cold, and with no access to food, clean water and medical help because of the actions of the authorities in Poland and Belarus.

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

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