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Embrace of Belarusian dissidents highlights hypocrisy of eastern Europe’s asylum policies

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya seated behind a dozen or so microphones at a press conference
Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya gives a press conference in Poland. ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Central and east European members of the European Union have long been adamant opponents of external migration to the EU. But when it comes to extending humanitarian visas to Belarusian dissidents, some countries – in particular, Poland and Lithuania – appear curiously accommodating.

Since August 2020, Lithuanian authorities extended more than 800 humanitarian visas to Belarusians. In June 2021, the Lithuanian interior minister said that people fleeing the regime will always find refuge in the country. This includes the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

In the aftermath of the brutal crackdown on protests following the contested presidential election in 2020, many Belarusian dissidents and activists sought safety in neighbouring Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic countries, especially Lithuania.

Poland has also became a safe haven for Belarusian dissidents. In 2020, the Polish authorities extended international protection to around 75% of all applicants from Belarus. On average, the Polish protection rate was a dismal 9% for asylum seekers.

The recent headline-making incident of a Belarusian sprinter who refused orders to fly home after criticising her coaches highlights this discrepancy. Poland and the Czech Republic both offered Krystsina Tsimanouskaya a humanitarian visa, with the former hosting her at its embassy in Tokyo.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has accused the EU of waging “war” against Belarus, with sanctions imposed over the arrest of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, after a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Minsk and Protasevich detained. Now, Lithuania has accused Lukashenko of facilitating the sudden increase in the number of asylum seekers at its borders.

The acute discrepancy between the general treatment of asylum seekers – particularly those from the Middle East – in EU’s eastern member states and the hospitality that the Belarusians receive portray hypocrisy at best, and racial bias at worst.

Middle Eastern refugees

So far in 2021, the number of refugees crossing into the EU from Belarus via the Lithuanian border has reached 4,000. While some of these are Belarusians seeking refuge from Lukashenko’s oppressive approach to dissidents, many more are Middle Eastern refugees – including Syrians, Kurds, Egyptians, and members of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, displaced following persecution and genocide by Islamic State. They have flown to Belarus from Iraq, Turkey, and elsewhere, hoping to ultimately reach the EU.

The Lithuanian authorities claim that a state-owned travel agency in Belarus offers flights from Iraq to Minsk, where people are transported to the Lithuanian border (and the EU). Belarus denies involvement. Regardless of how these people have reached the EU external border with Belarus, Lithuania has an obligation to treat them humanely and process their asylum applications. But Lithuanian leaders have used Lukashenko’s alleged involvement as an excuse to close their borders.

In a Facebook post directed at Middle Eastern refugees entering Lithuania from Belarus, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis stated: “Because you were involved in a cunning crime, virtually no-one of you will receive an asylum and be recognised as a refugee. You will have to live in the tent camp until we find a way to send you home. And you will go home.”

Detained migrants waiting in line for buying goods from an off-site store in a car at the migrant detention centre in Vydeniai, Lithuania
Thousands of migrants have been detained in Lithuania since the beginning of 2021. Toms Kalnins/EPA-EFE

Some Iraqis turned to the Polish-Belarusian border after Lithuania closed its borders. But Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has repeatedly said his country would not accept any refugees, and that the Polish government’s preference is for the effective return of refugees to their country of origin.

Even if Lithuania is seemingly forced by Belarus to face the inflow of refugees from the Middle East, according to EU asylum regulations, it has the responsibility to process the asylum requests as the first country of arrival within the EU. At the end of July, the Lithuanian parliament passed a new law fast-tracking asylum procedures to ten days in order to enable authorities to process and return migrants faster, while legalising detention for migrants for up to six months without a court order.

EU response

Lithuania has also reached out to the EU Commission and other Baltic states in order to build an anti-migrant coalition. During a visit to Vilnius in August, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU is facing “an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke”. The Estonian president, Toomas Ilves – a social democrat – called for “the EU to cut its aid to Iraq immediately unless they stop these flights” to Belarus. In early August, Lithuania’s prime minister, Ingrida Simonyte, said that “there is no free access to EU territory”.

The Belarus government’s most recent step has been to shut the country’s borders to prevent Lithuanian authorities from sending back refugees. Belarusian officials claimed that five Iraqis had been turned back from the border with Lithuania and had “injuries including dog bites and had to be hospitalised”. An Iraqi man has reportedly died near the Belarus-Lithuania border.

Despite its distance, Lithuania is no stranger to conflict in the Middle East as it supported the invasion of Iraq by US forces in 2003, and as such has a moral obligation – if not a legal one – to offer asylum to migrants from the region. Lithuania was found complicit in hosting US secret detention facilities for alleged suspects of terrorism subjected to enforced disappearance and torture as part of the US rendition programme.

The country’s restrictive asylum legislation, which provides for the detention of asylum seekers, has been criticised by several UN human rights bodies. Lithuania’s treatment of asylum seekers from the Middle East is tainting its human rights achievements since its transition to democracy, and portrays its support for democracy and respect for human rights in its near abroad as cynical at best.

Promotion of democracy in post-Soviet states will be hypocritical if the eastern EU member states are willing to extend protection to white Europeans, but remain reluctant to respect human rights for all those in need.

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