Fortress Europe’s ‘emergency measures’: Europe limits asylum protection at the Belarus borders

Six years ago, the European Commission used Article 78.3 as a basis for a relocation mechanism that brought thousands of vulnerable people to safety. Yesterday, Von der Leyen’s Commission used the same legal basis to allow Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to completely disregard asylum protection and punish people used for political gains.


Von der Leyen’s latest announcement is a continuation of Europe’s disastrous approach on asylum policy, which degenerated over the past year into national efforts at preventing people from entering and detaining them upon arrival. The approach appears to be the same everywhere. In Greece, protection is being denied to a majority of asylum-seekers who arrive from Turkey, leaving them in a state of limbo. In international waters, Europe established a shadow immigration system that captures migrants before they reach Europe’s shores and puts them in deadly detention centres in Libya.


Europe’s inability to respond humanely towards Lukashenko’s instrumentalisation of people once again focused attention at Europe’s deterrence policy. First, Lithuania and Poland have closed their borders to most asylum-seekers coming from Belarus. Then, Poland passed a law legalising pushbacks, empowering border guards to use force and tear gas against people arriving at the borders. Both failed to uphold their obligations of the right to seek asylum under the Geneva Convention and the European asylum law. Appearing alongside Prime Minister Morawiecki, Charles Michel (President of the Council) raised the question of potentially using EU money to finance walls. In the meantime, ‘Team Europe’ under the auspices of conservative Vice-President Schinas, used all of its economic and foreign powers to stop anyone from making it to Belarus in the first place.


Just when you think things could not get worse, they did. Yesterday, Von der Leyen’s Commission took its disastrous approach on asylum policy to another, unimaginable level. Without any apparent need – Migration Commissioner Johansson admitted herself that the crisis at the border receded and the numbers of arrivals stabilised – the Commission proposed ‘emergency measures’ for Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to implement for six months. In its move, Von der Leyen’s Commission conceded to the Council and the EU governments, who called it to propose new tools to respond to ‘hybrid threats’.  In the upcoming moths, the Commission will make further concessions by providing a legal definition of ‘instrumentalisation of migrants’.

The misleading title says it all: the ‘emergency’ the Commission is addressing is the one of the European countries, which are under a ‘hybrid attack’, whilst the real ‘emergency’ and the painful reality of people trapped in the no-mans-land, suffering and freezing to death, remains unresolved.


Under the new emergency measures, the three countries can re-direct asylum-seekers to formal border crossing points, where they can be kept in de-facto detention for up to 5 months (i.e. 20 weeks). Asylum-seekers would be deprived of their reception conditions rights under the current EU asylum law, for the exception of meeting their basic needs.  Lessons learned from Greece show that measures, including delayed registrations and border procedures, will lead to a significant reduction of human rights and safeguards, putting asylum-seekers in limbo, and place heavy burden on national authorities, requiring more staff, money, and facilities. As one of the negotiators on the Commission’s proposed Crisis Mechanism Regulation (as part of the Asylum Pact), I see stark similarities between the recently announced emergency measures and the proposed crisis regulation, which is facing fierce criticism from the key political groups in the Parliament, including myself.


To crown her approach, Von der Leyen put these measures forward as a ‘Council Decision’, bypassing the checks and balances of the European Parliament.  To me, Von der Leyen has once again underlined her cabinet’s role as a mere secretariate of national leaders, caving in to false national narratives and pressure, disregarding the very real human suffering on the ground, and throwing our common European representative democracy to the wayside. Instead of enforcing and protecting EU asylum law, the Commission chose to side with illegal practices of some EU governments.


A principled leader would understand that the real emergency lies not with aggressive national leaders, but the people in need.