With news footage showing migrants on the border between Belarus and Poland attempting to dodge teargas and make their way through razor wire, UN agencies called for an “immediate de-escalation”, following weeks of rising tension.
Alarmed by the latest reports, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) issued a joint statement calling on States to ensure “the safety and human rights of migrants and refugees”.
The border became a flash point after the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus on the basis of alleged human rights violations, following the crackdown on protests, and the forcing down of a commercial flight between two EU nations by Belarus in May, in order to remove a leading dissident, according to news reports.
The EU reportedly contends that in reprisal, Belarus has been deliberately assisting migrants to cross the border into Poland illegally, a charge which Belarus denies.
Humane treatment ‘highest priority’
On Monday, reports surfaced that a large group of migrants and refugees, including women and children, moved from Belarus towards the international Bruzgi border crossing, where they allegedly settled in a makeshift camp.
In contact with both Governments, UNHCR and IOM are calling for “an urgent resolution” to the confrontational situation along with “immediate and unhindered access” to provide humanitarian assistance and other forms of protection.
With several tragic deaths recently recorded at the border area amidst the onset of winter temperatures, the UN agencies reminded States that it is “imperative to prevent further loss of life” and to treat migrants and refugees humanely, “as the highest priority”.
Both UN agencies have frequently stated that instrumentalizing migrants and refugees for political ends is “deplorable and must stop”.
“Taking advantage of the despair and vulnerability of migrants and refugees by offering them unrealistic and misleading promises, is unacceptable and has severe human consequences”, their statement read.
UNHCR and IOM have repeatedly reiterated to the Belarusian authorities the need to preserve the well-being of people and avoid creating difficult humanitarian situations.
UN ready to assist
The two organizations stand ready to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees on both sides of the border and to support Belarus in assessing people and providing counseling away from the areas.
“In view of the alarming situation at the border, both sides must uphold their obligations under international law and guarantee the safety, dignity, and protection of the rights of people stranded at the border”, they stated.
Both IOM and UNHCR have also urged the authorities to explore all humanitarian options to respond to the situation, including voluntary returns.
Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Response in Europe, Afshan Khan, expressed her deep concern over “the dire situation facing migrant and asylum-seeking children in Europe and at its borders”.
She reminded that “shocking” reports of children living in appalling conditions, detained at the eastern borders are “a direct violation” of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“Children and their families have the right to seek asylum and have their protection needs evaluated on an individual basis”, upheld Ms. Khan.
Acknowledging that UNICEF recognizes Member States’ sovereignty, the challenge posed by irregular migration and the need for safe and orderly border management processes, the Special Coordinator joined UNHCR, IOM and the UN human rights office (OHCHR) in condemning the use of pushbacks across borders, as a violation of international law that puts children’s lives at risk.
“There is a need for a renewed collective political commitment for the protection and safeguarding of all children in Europe – regardless of their migration status”, she said. “Migrant children should not be instrumentalized for political purposes and their right to safely claim asylum must be guaranteed”.
UNICEF stands ready to work with governments, UN organizations and civil society to ensure that the rights of all children are “understood, protected, and promoted everywhere”.
“A child is a child. No matter the circumstances”, concluded Special Coordinator.