Two international bodies, United Nations agencies IOM and UNHCR, have called for "immediate access" to the Polish and Lithuanian borders with Belarus. Their demand comes after four migrants were found dead at Poland's border with Belarus over the weekend.
IOM, the UN migration agency, and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, issued a joint statement on Tuesday, September 21. In it, they expressed their "shock and dismay" over the deaths of four migrants on either side of the Polish-Belarusian border.
The agencies said they were "deeply saddened by the deaths of four individuals near the border between Poland and Belarus." After expressing their condolences to the families, they called for an "immediate investigation into this tragedy" in said statement.
Although the identities of the migrants, found on Sunday, on the Polish side as well as the Belarusian side of the border, have yet to be confirmed, it is thought all four victims -- three men and one women -- may have come originally from Iraq. At least two of them reportedly died of hypothermia.
'Immediate access to border'
IOM and UNHCR requested "immediate access" to the borders from Polish and Lithuanian authorities in the light of these deaths. The two agencies also said they are concerned that after reports of pushbacks at the Lithuanian-Belarusian and the Polish-Belarusian borders, "groups of people have become stranded for weeks, unable to access any form of assistance, asylum or basic services."
The two agencies, both based in Geneva, said that many migrants had been left in "dire situations, exposed to the elements, suffering from hypothermia." They reported that some had even been "rescued from swamps."
Whilst IOM and UNHCR recognized the "significant challenges posed [to states] by irregular movements," the agencies asked that the "situation be managed in accordance with international legal obligations, and for states to work collaboratively to resolve the situation, prioritizing human rights."
Need for 'lifesaving medical help'
The agencies said they wanted access to people on these borders in order "to provide lifesaving medical help, food, water and shelter, especially in light of the approaching winter." While IOM and UNHCR recognized that states have the "sovereign right to manage their borders," they underlined that at least some of the way the situation is being managed "is not compatible with the respect for human rights, including the right to seek asylum."
In the statement, the UN agencies reminded all international bodies that "pushbacks endanger lives and are illegal under international law."
Since Belarus ceased stopping migrants from entering EU countries earlier in the summer, several thousand migrants began to cross first through the Baltic states bordering Belarus, particularly Lithuania, and latterly through Poland. Many of them hope to make it to richer EU states like Germany, France or Britain, where some have contacts, family or friends.
States of emergency
Poland, Lithuania and Latvia recently declared states of emergency in response to the increase in irregular border crossings. These states of emergency effectively deny access to some of the border areas to anyone except border guards and security services from the respective countries.
Poland, reported the news agency Associated Press (AP), has also begun building razor wire fences along its border with Belarus to try and deter those hoping to cross. The Polish authorities confirmed that the three people found on its territory had died from "hypothermia and exhaustion," reported AP.
Poland and Lithuania have repeatedly accused the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of attempting to destabilize the EU by encouraging migrants in his country towards the border. His actions came as a response to the EU’s imposition of sanctions on his country after his security forces diverted a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania in May. The plane had a Belarusian activist and his girlfriend on board, both of whom are now in prison in Belarus.
The diversion of the plane was condemned by many international governments, bodies and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations as "unlawful" and "state-sponsored hijacking."
President Lukashenko's tenure in office has been disputed since August 2020 when opposition activists, most of whom are either in exile or in prison in Belarus, say he rigged the election results to stay in power. Lukashenko has become known as 'Europe's last dictator.'
Correction note: The first version of this article, published on September 22, 2021, misstated that the four bodies were found on the Polish side of the border. In fac, three were found on the Polish side and one on the Belarusian side of the border.