UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is appealing for urgent action to save lives and prevent further suffering at the border areas between Belarus and the European Union (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland) after the latest tragic death of an asylum-seeker was reported this week.
This is now the eighth death to be reported in this border region, where several groups of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants have been stranded for weeks in increasingly dire conditions. UNHCR has warned that the situation will further and rapidly deteriorate as winter approaches, putting lives in danger.
“When fundamental human rights are not protected, lives are at stake. It is unacceptable that people have died and the lives of others are precariously hanging in the balance. They are held hostage by a political stalemate which needs to be solved now,” said Pascale Moreau, UNHCR’s Regional Director for Europe.
Among those stranded at the border are people with international protection needs, including 32 Afghan women, men and children. They have been left in limbo at the border between Poland and Belarus since mid-August in dire conditions and are unable to access asylum and any form of assistance on either side. They do not have proper shelter or protection from the elements, and no secure source of food or water.
UNHCR learned that 16 Afghans from this group made an attempt to cross into Poland this week, only to be apprehended and denied the opportunity to apply for asylum. They were also denied access to legal assistance. This group was subsequently pushed back across the border to Belarus, within the span of a few hours.
UNHCR has so far not been granted access to meet with the group from the Polish side – despite repeated requests – and only could access them a few times from the Belarusian side to deliver life-saving aid. The Agency has been advocating for this group to have access to asylum, since the Afghans have expressed their wish to seek asylum either in Belarus or in Poland.
However, their asylum request has been ignored by both sides, constituting a clear violation of international refugee law and international human rights law.
“We urge Belarus and Poland, as signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to abide by their international legal obligations and provide access to asylum for those seeking it at their borders. Pushbacks, that deny access to territory and asylum, violate human rights in breach of international law,” said Moreau.
“People must be able to exercise their rights where they are, be it in Belarus or in Poland or other EU States where they may be located. This must include the possibility to seek asylum, access to legal aid, information and appropriate accommodation.”
UNHCR urges all concerned authorities to conduct individual assessments to determine and address humanitarian and international protection needs and find viable solutions for each. UNHCR stands ready to support all concerned authorities in this process, together with other relevant stakeholders.