Between 2,000 and 4,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded for weeks at the Belarus-Poland border after being pushed back while attempting to cross into Poland. As the IRC has witnessed, humanitarian needs in the border area remain pressing, as people who arrived in search of safety and support have been left without access to food and medical aid, legal services or asylum processes.

Yesterday the European Commission proposed provisional measures in response to this situation, which would enable Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to temporarily weaken asylum and reception safeguards.

The IRC, together with more than 100 organisations, called last week on EU institutions and member states to chart a path out of this humanitarian crisis that is in line with international legal obligations and standards of common decency. Today’s proposals fail to achieve this and raise alarm bells over the direction of the EU’s approach to asylum and migration.

Harlem Desir, the International Rescue Committees’ Senior Vice President - Europe, said:

“This proposal from the European Commission in response to the grave situation at the borders with Belarus goes in the wrong direction. Whilst Belarus must stop using vulnerable people for political ends, and the EU and its Member States must work together to end this political standoff and the resulting humanitarian emergency, weakening safeguards for people seeking asylum is not - and will never be - the solution.

First, we are alarmed that proposals to hold people seeking asylum in processing centres for up to 16 weeks, without access to the territory, will amount to de facto detention. As we have seen in Greece, trapping vulnerable people in remote areas behind walls and fences has a devastating impact on their wellbeing and mental health. Detention must always remain a measure of last resort.

Second, we are concerned that the accelerated border procedures the proposals introduce will allow people to be returned without a full and fair asylum process, including children and vulnerable groups.

Third, the proposal to allow officials to delay the registration of asylum seekers by up to four weeks and reduce the reception support they receive to only the most basic needs could leave them stuck in limbo, detained, or at risk of pushbacks to Belarus, where they are likely to face further violence, abuse and exploitation.

With over 90% of the world's 26.4 million refugees hosted in low and middle income countries, Europe has a firm moral and legal responsibility to protect those that reach its borders. With a fair, humane and efficient system in place, it should be well within the capacity of a rich and stable region like the EU to respond to the small number of arrivals at its external borders in a calm and humane way that fully respects rights enshrined in the bloc’s own laws.

When faced with vulnerable refugees freezing to death at Europe’s door, denied the right to seek asylum, and pushed back to violence and abuse in Belarus, the EU’s response must be to robustly reaffirm their human rights and guarantee their protection - not to punish them for states’ actions. By rolling back safeguards for people seeking asylum, it threatens to set a dangerous precedent. If the EU does not respect its own values, how can it expect countries in its neighbourhood hosting far greater numbers of refugees to do so?”