The situation at Belarus’ borders with EU member states Poland and Lithuania is still ongoing, with many detained in terrible conditions, highlighting a significant difference in the treatment of Ukrainian refugees and those who were seeking asylum from other countries prior to the the Russian invasion.
Although media attention on the matter has died down since last year, the migration crisis on the Belarus-Poland and Belarus-Lithuania border is still rampant, a humanitarian expert told Al Arabiya English, with migrants being held in unacceptable conditions, grappling with trauma and mental health issues and uncertainty about their futures.
“Since late last year, there has been a sharp decrease in the number of people who have tried to cross and have been pushed back. But it hasn’t stopped altogether,” Kyle McNally, Humanitarian Affairs Advisor at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)- also known as Doctors Without Borders- told Al Arabiya English in an interview.
While the number of alerts from people in need of assistance and aid in the forest or restricted zones has decreased, the people who managed to cross the border found themselves being detained by European authorities.
“People still remain held in detention in the thousands, both in Lithuania and Poland,” he said, adding that even though a “significant” amount of people were returned to Belarus, “there are still several hundreds, if not thousands, still left.”
“We only know what is also publicly available at this point. We hear that there are 700 people or more in the logistics facility in the warehouse in Belarus, but then there are also several hundred throughout Belarus that have not returned.”
A large number of Syrian groups and families have not returned to their home country and are now “stuck in hiding because of not knowing what to do in terms of crossing [the border] or being pushed back,” he said.
The Polish government estimated that the Alexander Lukashenko regime has sent back around 3,000 migrants to Syria and Iraq, but that there were 7,000 remaining on Belarusian territory, as reported by Global Detention Project.
In a United Nations report published at the end of 2021, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) urged Poland and Belarus to resolve the migration and refugee crisis at their mutual border, describing the situation as “appalling.”
Migrants crossing the border to get into Lithuania or Poland have been either pushed or sent back to Belarus or held in detention under dire conditions.
“The fact that they [migrants] are being held at all is already significantly problematic. These [people] are not criminals. These people are seeking international protection,” McNally said. “These are women, children and families so the fact that they are being held is already a problem.”
Accounts of violence against migrants in detention
“The policy in these [EU] member states for just de facto or automatic detention is hugely problematic and it is not consistent with their obligations under international law, or EU human rights or legal frameworks,” he said.
UN teams that visited the area at the end of last year heard several reports of people being “immediately and automatically returned to Belarus.”
This includes children and adults who requested international protection.
Echoing McNally’s sentiment, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Head of News and Media told Al Arabiya English that “states must guarantee and safeguard the rights of those seeking international protection in accordance with national, European and international law.”
“UNHCR fully respects the legitimate right of States to control their borders and recognizes the challenges posed by mixed movements of refugees and migrants at the external borders of the EU,” said Saltmarsh.
“Every individual – regardless of country of origin, race, religion, gender, age or other characteristics – has the right for their case to be heard and their protection needs assessed.”
He added that the UNHCR has been “deeply concerned” about the rise of xenophobia, discrimination and exclusion against refugees and asylum seekers in recent years, in Europe and elsewhere.
Saltmarsh also expressed deep concerns about reports of pushbacks and violence against people attempting to cross border in recent years.
“Pushbacks are illegal, and they endanger lives. UNHCR has called on all stakeholders to respect basic humanitarian principles, adhere to international and EU law and refrain from violence,” added Saltmarsh.
“We condemn racism and discrimination of any kind against any person or group and call for those responsible to be brought to justice and held accountable by the relevant national authorities. UNHCR urges governments to continue to maintain access to territory for all those fleeing: Ukrainians, and third country nationals living in Ukraine, who are now forced to escape the violence. We stress that there must be no discrimination against any person or group,” said Saltmarsh.
The OHCHR has urged Poland to review its legislation and conduct “meaningful individual assessments” instead and determine protection needs that are in line with international law.
However, Poland systematically detains migrants and refugees that are not returned to Belarus after crossing the border. Many of the detained people who were interviewed by the UN said that they had limited contact with the outside world, limited access to proper mental and physical healthcare and independent lawyers and humanitarian organizations.
McNally told Al Arabiya English that the conditions detained migrants are currently living in are also problematic.
“They induce a lot of psychological stress for people who are there in one of the detention centers that MSF works [at],” said McNally.
“In a period of two weeks, we had five suicide attempts in one of the centers due to mental health deterioration of people. People experienced significant isolation, significant uncertainty and anxiety about their futures,” he said, adding that they were worried about being forcefully returned to their countries, “a place that they’re afraid of going back to.”
“Especially in a place like Lithuania, there’s virtually nobody providing information that they need about the situation they’re currently in, or how to navigate the messy systems that they now find themselves caught up [in],” he explained, adding that there has been a significant lack of legal aid and assistance for people in these situations.
McNally added that most of the refugees and migrants MSF has interviewed at the Belarus border have also reported having experienced some kind of violence or traumatic events at their home countries.
“This is only compounding [the] stress and anxieties they had to begin with,” McNally said.
“We have people who have described significant violence that they have experienced. I spoke with people and I saw the injuries that they had in Belarus, they just showed me their injuries that they experienced at the hands of Lithuanian and Polish border guards, the bruised ribs, the taser marks on the neck. We have seen children who have been traumatized by border guard dogs.”
“We have heard [about] significant accounts of violence. These are somehow well-known now. And yet we see a complete unwillingness from European authorities to do anything about it.
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