The European Union executive proposed on Wednesday (1 December) temporarily looser asylum rules, allowing Poland and its two Baltic neighbours, Lithuania and Latvia, to handle migrants pushed by Belarus to their shared border, but the proposal angered EU lawmakers and rights groups.
The EU has accused Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into the bloc via Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, a route not used by migrants before. Belarus dismisses the accusations.
The European Commission now proposed that the right to claim asylum, enshrined in the international humanitarian law, be restricted to designated places such as chosen border points.
Under the proposal, migrants would not be able to claim asylum wherever they reach the border and might be required to walk many more kilometres through the forests, lakes and swamps straddling the eastern rim of the EU and NATO.
Rights groups have already criticised the anti-immigration government in Poland for reacting to increased arrivals by dispatching police, border guards and troops en masse to try to seal off the border, while failing to provide enough humanitarian aid and shelter in freezing conditions.
Under the proposals, national authorities would have up to four weeks – rather than a maximum of 10 days currently envisaged in EU laws – to register asylum applications from people who made it to their territory.
They would be allowed to keep registered asylum seekers for up to 16 weeks on their side of the border until they analyse their request for protection, while denying them the standing right to be held in more suitable centres inside the country.
The Commission is now seeking only basic reception conditions such as food and water, medical care and assistance for the most vulnerable people – lower requirements than usual, and not including education, among others.
The proposal would also allow for quicker deportations of failed asylum seekers in another example of lowering safeguards for those seeking to get into Europe.
Socialist and Green groups in the European Parliament came out attacking the executive over the proposals.
“The measures also play straight into the hands of the governments that want to use the plight of vulnerable migrants to spread anxiety and fear about a migration crisis at the EU’s borders,” Birgit Sippel, spokesperson of the social democrats (S&D) for justice and home affairs, said in a statement.
Green lawmaker Tineke Strik went one step further, saying the “measures are tantamount to endorsing the illegal, immoral and life-threatening practice of pushbacks.”
“Instead of enforcing EU asylum law and starting infringement procedures, the Commission chooses to allow the illegal practices of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia at EU borders,” she added.
However, the MEPs are unlikely to thwart the Commission’s move, which is proposed under an article of EU treaties that only foresees a consultative role for the European Parliament.
Meanwhile, last month Poland’s parliament already passed a legal amendment allowing migrants to be pushed back at the border and asylum claims made by those who entered illegally to be ignored.
Pressed by journalists at the press conference presenting the proposals, Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas and Commissioner Ylva Johansson did not reply whether the European executive believes that EU countries in question are currently respecting the right to request asylum at the EU’s borders.
After multiple questions on the disparity between Brussels’ proposals and the practices of EU countries on the ground, Schinas said: “We had ad nauseum responded to these questions.”
Pointing out that this proposal was requested by EU leaders after their meeting in October, Schinas said “this will now go into the legislative process”.
“And if it’s not applied, then we have, as in all cases of EU law, ways and means to check, through infringement or other procedures, that it is correctly applied. That’s the story.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]