Together we stand: Call on the EU to restore human rights and values at Europe’s borders

An urgent call by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) on the continuing humanitarian crisis at the EU and Belarus borders.

A girl stands next to the Belarusian fence as several Polish police officers stand guard at the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing, near the Belarusian-Polish border, on November 15, 2021, in Bruzgi, Belarus. Viktor Tolochko/Sputnik (Europa Press via AP)
A girl stands next to the Belarusian fence as several Polish police officers stand guard at the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing, near the Belarusian-Polish border, on November 15, 2021, in Bruzgi, Belarus. Tension has risen on the border between Poland and Belarus, as thousands of people seeking to continue their advance towards the European Union have been crowding in, where in addition to living in the cold and in the open, attacks and altercations are taking place. Photo: Viktor Tolochko/Sputnik (Europa Press via AP)

Introductory remarks by Dr. Maria Pia Belloni Mignatti — Member of the Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC); Representative of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education (OMEP)

The Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC) stands in solidarity with the following joint statement by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and its signatories in the global response to this growing humanitarian refugee crisis at the borders between the European Union (EU) and Belarus.

The use of excessive force and violence against migrants and refugees is unjustifiable; against migrant and refugee children, it is unbearable. Too often are we witness of atrocities committed against them and their families.

A broken immigration system means broken families and broken lives.

Children should not have to experience the trauma that comes from daily threats, a terrifying journey, forceful separation from their parents, or having to sleep on cold floors and without access to hygiene and basic support. Migrant and refugee children should not die because of our indifference or political interest. Particularly at risk are the youngest children.

Adversities and toxic stress in the first few years can affect children throughout their lives. They not only have long-term effects on cognition, health, well-being and productivity, but also contribute to the cycle of poverty, inequality, and social exclusion that affect all societies worldwide. [1]

Every child needs to be saved and protected. The best interest of the child must prevail over general considerations of immigration control and enforcement. Punitive immigration policies have harmed a generation of children, and we must act immediately to change this. [2]

Supporting and empowering young children today can not only interrupt cycles of racial injustice and inequality, but build a strong foundation for peace and security, resilience, social justice and social cohesion. Protecting children can afford the development of a culture of peace. [3]

We invite you to join this joint statement advocacy campaign, to ensure young children are not forgotten amidst this crisis and to stop this inhumane indifference.

References

[1] Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Impact of Early Adversity on Child Development (InBrief).

[2] Wood, Laura C.N. (2018). Impact of punitive immigration policies, parent-child separation and child detention on the mental health and development of children. BMJ Paediatrics Open. 2. 338. 10.1136/bmjpo-2018–000338.

[3] Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC). (2020). ECPC global call to action in response to COVID-19 for children in fragile and conflict-affected settings.

Joint statement: Call on the EU: Restore rights and values at Europe’s borders

The following joint statement, co-developed by ECPC member organization World OMEP, is reproduced with permission from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).

A man and his child rest inside a logistics center at the checkpoint “Kuznitsa” at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. The West has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of luring thousands of migrants to Belarus with the promise of help to get to Western Europe to use them as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation European Union in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian government. Belarus denies engineering the crisis. (Photo: Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA via AP)

As European civil society and professional organisations working on asylum, migration, humanitarian assistance and human rights, we are shocked by the continuing humanitarian crisis at the borders between the EU and Belarus which causes immense suffering and has led to the deaths of at least ten people.

While we fully condemn the actions of Belarus, we urge a response from the EU, the EU’s Member States, and all relevant European and international organisations that is in line with EU and international legal obligations and with standards of common decency.

While the people in the middle of the crisis are being used as parties in the conflict between the EU and Belarus which has a security dimension, the people themselves are not a security threat, and should neither be referred to nor be treated by either side as though they were a weapon. Indeed, all accounts suggest that there are many highly vulnerable groups among those caught up in these events, including pregnant women, families with young children and people who are elderly or injured. Among them are people who have fled war and persecution from Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, and who, in the absence of safe and legal pathways, had no alternative way to reach safety. We also note that despite the serious tensions that exist between the states involved, the situation, like many others at the EU’s borders, is manageable, and should be approached with a sense of perspective. Globally, many countries in very fragile situations face complex displacement challenges, with Geo-political and security dimensions and involving far larger numbers of people. What is needed is a clear-headed response that includes a firm defense of the right to asylum, and of EU and international law.

We thus propose the following responses covering the various elements of the crisis:

1. Ensure access to asylum at the borders

In this handout photo released by State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, Migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere stand near near the barbed wire gathering at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus. Thousands of migrants have flocked to Belarus’ border with Poland, hoping to get to Western Europe, and many of them are now stranded at the frontier, setting up makeshift camps as Polish security forces watch them from behind a razor-wire fence and prevent them from entering the country. (State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus via AP)

Under EU and international law, everyone seeking asylum at the borders, irrespective of the manner of their arrival, has the right to make an asylum application. Access to asylum in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia should immediately be restored both in law and in practice. This means that all measures aimed at preventing people from accessing EU territory and from lodging an application for asylum, must cease. This includes preventing people from reaching the EU’s territory, including through the use of force and instructions to border guards to conduct push-backs, prohibiting their asylum applications from being lodged through limiting effective access to the procedure via geographical restrictions on where claims can be lodged, and attempting to derogate from asylum law and protection against refoulement.

2. Guarantee humanitarian access

Belarusian medical staffers treat a baby inside an ambulance near a logistics center at the checkpoint “Kuznitsa” at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. The West has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of luring thousands of migrants to Belarus with the promise of help to get to Western Europe to use them as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation European Union in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian government. Belarus denies engineering the crisis. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA via AP)

In the short-term, it is essential that the states involved grant humanitarian access to the people affected so that humanitarian organisations can reach them and provide assistance. The fact that EU Member States prevent the delivery of life-saving assistance to people, some of whom are extremely vulnerable, is deplorable and reckless. It furthermore risks having negative implications for humanitarian access in displacement contexts outside the EU and undermines the EU’s role as a credible humanitarian actor.

Should the stand-off continue, the decision to immediately evacuate people from the border region into EU Member States, also by making use of the offers already received from civil society, cities and faith groups to welcome people is one option that could prevent further loss of life. In parallel, EU Member States should discuss and agree on ad-hoc relocation arrangements. Transporting people to third countries for asylum processing as has been proposed is unlawful under international and EU law, and politically unfeasible.

3. Withdraw non-compliant domestic legislation

A child cries on the ground as other migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere gather at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. About 15,000 Polish troops have joined riot police and guards at the border. The Belarusian Defense Ministry accused Poland of an “unprecedented” military buildup there, saying that migration control didn’t warrant such a force. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA pool photo via AP)

The situation at the external border has led to changes to domestic asylum legislation. As legal analysis of the adopted legislation in Lithuania, Poland and Latvia demonstrates, some legislative changes are incompatible with the EU asylum acquis, the EU Treaties, the Charter for Fundamental Rights, and international law. In Lithuania, the changes aim to restrict access to asylum; remove protections for people in vulnerable situations; allow for automatic detention; restrict access to an effective legal remedy; and reduce access to reception conditions.

In the case of Poland, the new legislation is in direct violation of the principle of non-refoulement by allowing the removal of people from Poland even after they have applied for international protection and without an individual examination of whether the removal will lead to a violation of their human rights. In Latvia, the changes preclude the possibility of seeking asylum for persons crossing the border, meaning the right to seek asylum and protection against refoulement is not respected. While some of the amendments are — in theory — temporary and their application geographically restricted, they nevertheless risk institutionalising unlawful practice. Seeking asylum is a fundamental right and non-refoulement is a non-derogable principle that must be observed even in times of emergency.

The European Commission needs to follow through on its request to Member States to remove aspects of the legislation which violate EU law. Compliance with EU law should be a basic condition for all EU support. If Member States refuse to respect EU and international law, infringement and disciplinary measures must be considered.

4. Counteract repression of civil society, media and legal practitioners

A girl holds a poster for journalist as migrants gather at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. About 15,000 Polish troops have joined riot police and guards at the border. The Belarusian Defense Ministry accused Poland of an “unprecedented” military buildup there, saying that migration control didn’t warrant such a force. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA pool photo via AP)

The situation at the EU’s borders has provoked attempts by Member States to intimidate and repress independent civil society, media and legal practitioners seeking to respond in line with their professional functions. Activities aimed at providing humanitarian assistance and legal aid to people at the border must not be criminalised. Banning access to the border zones for civil society and journalists not only leaves people without support but also has repercussions for the work of independent civil society and media beyond Europe. It is essential that the situation in the border area is monitored by independent actors to ensure that EU and international law is respected. Acts of violence need to be condemned and investigated.

5. Place human rights standards and transparency at the heart of cooperation with third countries

Geneva, Switzerland — Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in UN Geneva used by the United Nations Human Rights Council with ceiling sculpture by the prominent contemporary Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo, Photo 52055638 © Vogelsp | Dreamstime.com
Geneva, Switzerland — Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in UN Geneva used by the United Nations Human Rights Council with ceiling sculpture by the prominent contemporary Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo, Photo 52055638 © Vogelsp | Dreamstime.com

Currently, the EU is proactively seeking agreements with third countries either to stop people from arriving at the EU’s border or to take back their nationals. It must be ensured that any agreement with third countries, such as Iraq, Turkey or Lebanon is in line with international human rights standards, starting with the right to leave one’s country and non-refoulement obligations. To enable democratic accountability over EU agreements with third countries, the content of any arrangements should be made publicly available, and the European Parliament should have a meaningful role in monitoring agreements. Independent monitoring and support to those returning should also be guaranteed.

The EU and its Member States must respond to the crisis at the border in accordance with their international and EU legal obligations. The current political and legal framework, if applied, provides all the elements for handling this situation in a rights based, calm and well managed manner. We are alarmed to hear of proposals being drafted that may allow for unjustifiable derogations from EU and international law.

►WHAT YOU CAN DO

  1. SHARE this statement today with your colleagues, follower bases, and networks. Contact key actors with whom you are associated who can advocate for the recommendations presented in this statement. Mainstream news outlets are not covering this crisis situation as consistently and as is urgently necessary.
  2. VISIT the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) for an up-to-date list of joint statement signatories and to share and download the joint statement in English, Italian, and Spanish.
  3. SEE also on ECPC MediumCall for unified action: Solutions, not violence, for refugees and migrants trapped at borders”. ECPC member organization the NGO Committee on Migration, calls on States to take immediate action for practical and humane solutions.

About the ECPC

The Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC) is a global movement of United Nations agencies, Non-Governmental Organizations, academia, practitioners, and the private sector focused on sharing scientific and practice-based evidence on how investment in early childhood development (ECD) can contribute to sustainable peace, social cohesion and social justice. We recognize that investing in ECD is a powerful and cost-effective strategy for reducing violence, poverty, and exclusion and for building peaceful societies.

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