The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and migration agency IOM, called on Tuesday for an immediate investigation into the deaths of four people near the border between Poland and Belarus, due to causes yet to be determined.
In a joint statement, the agencies expressed their condolences to the families of the deceased, all of whose nationalities have yet to be confirmed, although two of the victims were identified as Iraqi nationals who reportedly died of hypothermia.
EU-Belarus border crisis
In recent months, groups of asylum-seekers and migrants have been transiting through Belarus, to seek asylum in neighbouring EU Member States – Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
Reports of cross-border pushbacks and lack of adequate asylum access for those seeking international protections, shelter and assistance, have been relayed to UNHCR and IOM, who have been closely following the situation.
Noting that “groups of people have become stranded for weeks, unable to access any form of assistance, asylum or basic services”, the agencies said that many had been left in dire situations, exposed to the elements, and vulnerable to deadly hypothermia. “Some were rescued from swamps”, the statement added.
Human rights protection
Recognizing the significant challenges posed by irregular movements, both UN agencies called for the situation to be managed in accordance with States’ international legal obligations, adding that they should work collaboratively to resolve the situation, prioritising human rights.
UNHCR and IOM called for immediate access to those affected, in order to provide lifesaving medical help, food, water and shelter, especially considering the approaching winter.
Noting that border management is a country’s sovereign prerogative, IOM and UNHCR called on all States to uphold the rule of law at the borders and to respect the human rights and freedoms of all migrants.
The statement added that UNHCR and IOM have been engaging with relevant authorities to explore various options for the people who continue to be stranded at borders; from access to asylum, family reunification procedures, and voluntary return for those found not to be in need of international protection.
IOM and UNHCR concluded by saying that asylum-seekers and migrants should never be used by States as political pawns.
Many news outlets in recent days have highlighted the view within the European Union, that Belarusian authorities have been orchestrating the influx of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Asia, in retaliation for sanctions against the hard-line Government in Belarus, which has led a violent crackdown against the pro-democracy movement there since disputed elections last year.