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Crisis of values at the EU’s borders

10 December 2021

The European Commission is allowing states to abandon their human-rights obligations, says Alexander Faludy

“WHAT we are witnessing at the EU-Belarus border is an attack. . . Every day there are new reports of illegal migrants trying to force their way into an EU country.” So ran a sponsored advert from the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Union’s alliance of moderate conservatives, inserted into selected radio programmes and podcasts last week.

Describing somebody as an “illegal migrant” prejudges the outcome of their asylum claim before it is considered according to due process of law. Arguably, speaking of desperate Syrians’ “trying to force their way into an EU country” attributes a surfeit of agency to people who find themselves pushed forward at gunpoint by Belarusian soldiers.

On Wednesday of last week, the European Commission announced proposals to allow three border states — Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania — wide latitude to derogate from the normal framework of humanitarian law on account of the “emergency situation”. These countries, it is intended, will have the right to hold asylum-seekers in closed camps, and to have four months (rather than ten days) to register their applications.

Such an extension of the registration timeframe creates a significant risk that people will be discreetly, and illegally, pushed back into Belarus without any trace in administrative systems (Leader comment, 19 November).

Polish authorities are already documented as having taken such action against irregular border-crossers, having first closed off lawful entry points. The Red Cross reports that this has had fatal consequences for at least ten people, caught between two national armies and devoid of shelter and food.

 

SUCH tactics contravene the 1951 Refugee Convention, which forbids group expulsions and requires that cases be assessed individually. The rule against pushback (technically “refoulement”) developed in the wake of the Holocaust, which was preceded by incidents such as the 1939 voyage of the SS St Louis, when ships filled with Jews fleeing persecution were repeatedly turned away from ports in Western countries. Foreign governments alleged that passenger lists harboured Nazi spies posing as asylum-seekers, thereby endangering national security. There is an obvious parallel to present-day assertions that migration columns harbour terrorists.

The EU’s failure to criticise Poland’s present pushbacks, and seeming willingness to enable future ones, has drawn strong criticism from human-rights defenders.

“We are not talking about a major crisis. We are talking about a few thousand refugees /migrants . . . yet in the name of that pressure the EU institutions are prepared to eliminate decades of human-rights procedures in violation of international refugee law,” the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Dr Agnès Callamard, told Politico Europe last week.

Polish authorities estimate that the total number of asylum-seekers trapped at the border is just 4000 — a mere 0.36 per cent of the 1.1 million migrants whom Germany accepted in 2015.

 

ALTHOUGH the EU’s approach to the stand-off at the Belarus-Polish border has elicited shock, it should not be greeted with surprise. It only makes visible an association with pushback practice which monitoring bodies have long accused EU authorities of, with regard to the bloc’s Balkan and Mediterranean borders. Concerns focus especially on the EU Border and Coastguard Agency (Frontex).

In January, sustained allegations of Frontex’s complicity in the sometimes violent pushback practice of Hungarian security forces on the country’s Serbian border caused the agency to withdraw in an effort to protect its reputation.

In July, a four-month fact-finding investigation by MEPs concluded that Frontex “failed to address illegal pushbacks, did nothing to prevent these violations of fundamental rights and has done nothing to reduce the risk of future violations”. The report fell short of a verdict of direct involvement, but it did allege that the executive head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, had removed some material relevant to the investigation (Frontex has denied that this was the case).

In a subsequent debate in the European Parliament, in October, the leader of the investigation, the Dutch Liberal MEP Tineke Strik, offered a scathing critique of the EU’s institutional culture surrounding pushbacks. “The silence from the Commission, as guardian of the Treaties, and from the Member States, has encouraged border countries to make these pushbacks a systematic practice, and the debate has even turned from denial to a demand that pushbacks are legalised,” she said.

Subsequently, a joint report by the investigative-journalism outlets Bellingcat and Lighthouse, published in mid-November, adduced evidence of varied levels of EU involvement in refoulement. This ranged from the Commission’s unquestioning financial support of national border agencies (such as Croatia’s) understood to execute pushback operations, to the repeated attendance of Frontex officers alongside member-state security forces at locations where pushback is known to occur.

In at least one case, evidence suggested direct tactical involvement. On 8 June last year, a Frontex vessel operating in the Mediterranean blocked a dinghy heavily laden with would-be asylum-seekers, while an accompanying Greek coastguard boat carried out pushback manoeuvres.

By defending its borders through such means, the EU cuts away from beneath it the moral foundations on which it purports to stand.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

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