By LORNE COOK, Associated Press
BRUSSELS (AP) – Fears that the authoritarian leader of Belarus is using migrants and refugees as “hybrid warfare” tactics to undermine the security of the European Union weighs on some of the values and laws in the bloc of 27 nations.
The crisis on the eastern borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia is fueling calls for funding for something it never wanted to build: fences and walls on the border.
And that idea was voiced this week at a ceremony to commemorate the fall of one of Europe’s most notorious and historic barriers, the Berlin Wall.
The border crisis with Belarus has been simmering for months. Senior EU officials say Belarusian long-time authoritarian leader President Alexander Lukashenko is luring thousands of migrants and refugees to Minsk with promises to get help to Western Europe.
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Belarus denies using them as pawns, but the EU claims Lukashenko is taking revenge for sanctions it imposed on his regime after the controversial election of the president for a sixth term last year led to anti-government protests and crackdowns against internal disagreements.
The crisis came to a head after large groups of asylum seekers recently gathered at a border crossing with Belarus near the village of Kuznica in Poland. Warsaw increased security there and sent riot police to send back those who tried to cut through a barbed wire fence.
The Polish legislature declared a state of emergency and changed the country’s asylum laws. Only troops have access to the area, to the horror of the refugee organizations and Poland’s EU partners. Lithuania is taking similar action and has started building its border fence.
The EU’s executive, the European Commission, believes walls and barriers are ineffective and has so far opposed calls for funding, even though it will pay for infrastructure such as surveillance cameras and equipment.
This attitude can change in the tightened security climate.
“We are facing a brutal, hybrid attack on our EU borders. Belarus is arming the plight of migrants in a cynical and shocking way, ”said European Council President Charles Michel at an event in Germany on Tuesday, the 32nd anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We opened the debate on EU funding for physical border infrastructure. This has to be settled quickly, because the Polish and Baltic borders are EU borders. One for all and all for one, ”said Michel.
This approach, and other border tactics, is a source of dismay. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, turned to EU lawmakers on Wednesday, calling for European leadership and appealing to the bloc to avoid “a race to the bottom” in migration policy.
“These challenges just don’t justify the knee-jerk reaction we’ve seen in some places: the irresponsible xenophobic discourse; the walls and the barbed wire; the violent pushbacks in which refugees and migrants are beaten, sometimes stripped naked and thrown into rivers, or drowned in the sea; attempts to evade the obligation to asylum by paying other states to assume their own responsibility, ”said Grandi.
“The European Union, a constitutional union, should and can do better,” he said.
According to the European Commission, around 8,000 migrants from Belarus entered the country this year, and border guards have prevented around 28,000 attempts to cross, according to the European Commission.
Monique Pariat, a senior home affairs officer for the commission, said most of them are Iraqis or Syrians flying to Minsk from Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. They pay a lot of money to a state tourism company that “flows into Lukashenko’s pockets,” she said.
That’s the last thing Europeans want to see. The accession of well over 1 million people in 2015, most of whom fled the Middle East conflict, sparked the EU’s most persistent political crisis. They do not agree on who should take responsibility for refugees and migrants and whether other EU countries should be obliged to help.
Greece and Italy were at the forefront six years ago. Spain has received thousands of asylum seekers in recent years. Now it’s the turn of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Many in the West believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is helping Lukashenko to target Europe.
“You know very well that this is an issue that divides the Member States of the European Union. We have to be very aware that it would be their game to quarrel with one another, ”said Isabel Wiseler-Lima, a Conservative MEP from Luxembourg.
At a summit late last month, the bloc’s leaders called on the Commission to “propose any necessary changes to the EU legal framework and concrete measures, underpinned by adequate financial support, to ensure an immediate and appropriate response”.
A few weeks earlier, twelve member countries – Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia – had demanded that the European Commission consolidate the passport-free rules for Europe’s travel zone, known as Schengen- Space.
They want “stronger border protection” and new instruments to avoid the “serious consequences of overburdened migration and asylum systems and exhausted accommodation capacities”, which could affect public confidence in the EU’s ability to act.
The question is whether these instruments constitute “pushbacks” – denying people entry, often by force, without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum – which are illegal under international refugee agreements and EU law.
EU officials and UN agencies already fear Poland will be denied access to its border area near Belarus, where thousands have been denied entry under circumstances that cannot be independently verified. Eight people died in the border no man’s land.
The commission is also examining the latest changes to the Polish asylum law, “which do not seem to be secure in this case,” said spokesman Adalbert Jahnz.
As tensions rise, security tighten and old methods regain popularity.
Europe must protect its external borders and time has shown that the only effective solution is physical barriers to protect European citizens from the mass arrivals of illegal migrants, ”Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote in a letter to the Commission last week, calling for it the reimbursement of money his government spent on its own border fences.
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