The European Union’s willingness to set aside its core values to curb migration is once again on display with the European Commission’s launching of a new partnership with one of Europe’s most repressive governments.
The deal was signed with Belarus, the only country on the continent that still practices the death penalty and one with highly restrictive laws which deny many human rights groups the ability to register their organizations. The ironically titled “mobility partnership” makes references to asylum and refugee protection, combating smuggling and trafficking, and the development impact of migration, but fails to address key concerns identified at the EU’s main border with Belarus at the Polish frontier.
The new deal with Belarus is likely to please its neighbour Poland, which has been accused by human rights groups in the region of pushbacks of some migrants and asylum seekers at its border with Belarus, and denying access to asylum procedures for some refugees.
The consequences for those denied access to protection in Poland are grave. The case of activist Shabnam Khudoydodova, a member of the opposition movement Group 24 which has been persecuted by the Tajik authorities, is very telling. After Polish border guards denied her the right to claim asylum and turned her back, Shabnan was detained by Belarus authorities. She spent over eight months held in Belarus, facing extradition to Tajikistan on trumped-up extremism charges, and was only released in February 2016. She was finally allowed to seek protection in Poland after her case received international attention.
While Poland does admit some asylum seekers, local rights groups say that many other Tajik asylum seekers have had the same experience as Khudoydodova, denied the chance to claim asylum in Poland after they made their way to the Polish-Belarus border.
Along with Tajiks, Chechens, facing continued government persecution at home, constitute the other noticeable group of asylum seekers who human rights groups say have often been denied access to procedures at the Polish border. In late August, 200 of them, including children, women, and elderly people, staged a protest at the border over the lack of access to asylum and the dire conditions at the border.
The failure of the Polish authorities to accept some asylum applications, which contravenes international and European standards, needlessly puts those fleeing to safety in danger.
The Commission’s cooperation with Belarus to improve its treatment of migrants and asylum seekers and to prevent trafficking is not objectionable. But its failure to press Warsaw to end the practices of denying the right to asylum and forcible summary returns at its border sets a worrying precedent as to what might happen under its new deal with Belarus. And it shows the flawed compromises the EU is willing to accept in order to keep the migration crisis away from the heart of Europe.