The current escalations at the border are not the result of migrating asylum seekers or the actions of smugglers, but rather the political decisions of Belarus, Poland, and the EU.
On Sunday, November 14, Polish officials found the body of a young Syrian man near a village at the Poland-Belarus border. He most likely froze to death from hypothermia. This brings the death toll at the border to at least nine.
An estimated 3,000 - 4,000 asylum seekers are currently stranded at the border, having been physically blocked from entering the EU by Polish authorities. The migrants have been attacked with water cannons and tear gas after throwing rocks across the border in protest of their desperate conditions. Meanwhile on the other side, Belarusian authorities are continuously ‘guiding’ asylum seekers to the Polish border by offering instructions on ‘how to cross’.
The border zone where asylum seekers are stranded is restricted; no journalist or aid organisation is allowed access, which has left thousands of asylum seekers abandoned in appalling conditions.
Poland has deployed 12,000 soldiers and thousands of police officers to its border with Belarus, and the UK just sent 10 military troops to assist Polish authorities. This has created an image of the border as a war zone. Many media outlets, politicians, and activists refer to the situation unfolding at the Poland-Belarus border as a ‘migrant crisis’ or ‘refugee crisis’.
But this is neither a war zone nor a migrant crisis; it is a state-made humanitarian catastrophe that has left asylum seekers dying and suffering from preventable illnesses.
A European political crisis
Decisions made in Brussels, combined with the policies of the Polish government and the political conflict between Belarus and the EU, has created a disaster at the border. Asylum seekers trying to cross into the EU are treated as a collective bargaining chip by both Belarus and EU-backed Poland, who seek only to further their own political goals.
The EU accuses Belarus of using the asylum seekers as a political tool to exert pressure on the EU to negotiate sanctions placed on President Aleksandr Lukashenko and other key actors in his government.
The EU is exerting its power as a regional organisation by imposing additional sanctions designed to stop Belarus from providing Southwest Asians passage to Europe.
But this is not the first such crisis the EU has seen at its borders. The escalations at the Poland-Belarus border are just another example of how EU policy has failed to address the root causes of why people are forced to enter the EU irregularly.
While EU member states have formally committed themselves to the global refugee protection regime, they have also insulated themselves with carefully constructed migration policies designed to limit, shift, and circumvent the legal obligation of providing asylum. The result: no realistic prospects for nationals from ‘developing nations’ to reach the EU, and a decades-long humanitarian disaster unfolding at the EU’s borders.
For years, one of the only ways for asylum seekers to reach Europe has been to take dangerous routes and rely on smugglers. This has had a devastating impact on these migrants’ basic right to life. Between 1993 and 2018 there have been 35,000 documented deaths in the Mediterranean.
Today, once again, rather than addressing the underlying issue from a policy level, EU officials continue to merely condemn Poland - which itself has obligations as an EU member - and Belarus with empty words and no action. The EU has even threatened international airline companies with sanctions for transporting people to Belarus. EU economic pressure has already pushed Turkish airlines and Iraqi airlines to limit migrants’ flights to Belarus.
Brussels continues to play the blame game by accusing states and other actors of misconduct without admitting to the failures of the EU’s migration policies and asylum framework.
Future of EU migration policy
Neither the EU nor individual member states have taken any action against Poland's pushback and violence against asylum seekers. There have also been no investigations or legal proceedings challenging Poland's new “pushback” law.
Migration is a natural human phenomenon that will continue and be exacerbated with climate change, proxy wars, political turmoil and more. The member states of the EU must put aside political motives and xenophobic sentiments and seek a humanitarian solution to migration. This can only come by restructuring the current asylum framework and providing routes of lawful migration to the EU.
Member states must agree to establish routes of safe passage to the EU that fairly distribute asylum seekers throughout all 27 EU countries. This new framework needs to provide all individuals who claim asylum, regardless of nationality or entry points from transit countries, the equal opportunity to be part of the asylum process in the EU.
With the development of a new and humane approach to migration, domestic asylum procedures must be regularly vetted to ensure all countries are providing fair, equal and unbiased asylum opportunities and equal rights to beneficiaries of international protection.
In reforming the asylum framework, the border must also be demilitarised. Borders cannot be treated as war zones where asylum seekers are used as political tools. There must be a sufficient number of accessible and safe border crossing points, so people can claim their right to seek asylum and go through national determination procedures. Borders must not be military frontiers where asylum seekers are robbed, beaten, and pushed back. EU borders should be safe points for people claiming lawful entry into the country by seeking asylum.
The thousands of people stranded between Belarus and Poland are victims of a Europe-wide system that views the lives of asylum seekers as dispensable. This is not a ‘crisis’ of migrants or refugees; it is the state's political systems that are in crisis.
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