EU allows Poland, Baltics to trim migrant rights at Belarus border

EU flags flutter in front of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

BRUSSELS/VILNIUS, Dec 1 (Reuters) - The European Union proposed on Wednesday curtailing some rights of migrants at its frontier with Belarus, a gesture towards member states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, even as Brussels acknowledged border tensions were easing.

The EU says Belarus has flown in migrants from the Middle East to push them to cross the border, accusations Minsk calls absurd. Rights groups say at least 13 people have died as migrants have camped in freezing conditions at the border.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said the crisis appeared to have subsided in recent weeks, with Belarus sending 1,900 migrants back to Iraq and moving others back from the border.

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"Even though the situation is de-escalating, we have to stay vigilant," she said. "The numbers are not high. This is not primarily a migration crisis. This is a hybrid threat."

She said around 8,000 migrants are now in the three border countries. Germany, the preferred final destination for many who get into EU, reported some 10,000 people had arrived that way.

PEOPLES' LIVES

The three EU countries that border Belarus have defended their approach of pushing migrants back without individually assessing their cases or granting them a realistic chance to claim asylum as guaranteed under international humanitarian law.

The proposal by the Commission, the EU's executive arm, would allow the three countries to require migrants to claim asylum only at designated locations, such as certain border crossings, for the next six months.

Asylum seekers could be kept for up to 16 weeks at the border, losing a standing right to be held in more suitable centres inside the country, and EU states would be required to offer them basic provisions only as their cases are decided.

Charity Oxfam denounced the proposals: "Supporting the detention of migrants at EU borders puts politics over peoples' lives," said Erin McKay, Oxfam's European migration manager.

The proposals are a sign of political support for the three states on the eastern rim of the EU and NATO.

Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have already had in place their own emergency rules that suspend some human rights for months and the reality migrants face is harsher than what the Commission offered to allow.

A senior Lithuanian lawmaker praised the proposals - which are likely to swiftly get the necessary approval of all EU states - as making the bloc's migration policies more realistic.

The EU has been tightening immigration rules since 1 million people arrived in 2015, overwhelming the bloc and dividing member states over how to respond. Poland's nationalist government has been a leading anti-immigration voice, also clashing with the EU over other human rights issues.

Poland allowed its state of emergency to lapse overnight, but used new powers to extend a ban on media and rights activists operating freely in the border area for three months.

Johansson said she regretted that move. The Council of Europe - a European rights watchdog - said it perpetuated restrictions and obstacles to protecting human rights.

Lukashenko was quoted on Wednesday saying he was ready to suspend Russian energy flows over Belarusian territory if Poland closed the border. The Kremlin said it hoped he would not do so. L1N2SM0JH

In Vilnius, the government was debating on Wednesday extending its state of emergency. Its interior ministry said there were 10,000 migrants still in Belarus.

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Additional reporting by Pawel Florkiewicz, Alan Charlish, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Nick Macfie and Peter Graff

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