Migrants at the Belarus-EU Border: key issues documented by the UN Special Rapporteur

Human Constanta
18 September 2023

From July 16 to July 20, 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants visited Belarus to assess the human rights situation of migrants at the border between Belarus and Poland. The findings and recommendations resulting from this country visit are outlined in a report published on May 18, 2023.

Human Constanta expresses gratitude to the Special Rapporteur and his team for their work, and highly values the efforts of various actors in monitoring the situation at the border and providing assistance to migrants facing difficult circumstances in Belarus and at the border with European Union (EU) countries.

The final report contains general information about the humanitarian crisis at the border, the legal framework in Belarus, and the main issues faced by migrants, as documented by the Special Rapporteur during the visit. However, it does not fully reflect the scale of the humanitarian crisis at the Belarus-EU border and the depth of the political and social crisis within Belarus itself.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur notes that at the beginning of 2021, there was a significant increase in the number of visitors on tourist visas to Belarus from countries in the Middle East, primarily from Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Many of them arrived in groups, using Belarusian group visas. Moreover, the procedures for obtaining tourist visas to Belarus, especially for citizens of Iraq, were significantly simplified, and group visas for at least five people, and in some cases, 20 or 30 people, were regularly issued. Obtaining such a visa did not require a return ticket, and visa stamps were not even affixed to the passports of foreigners. The Special Rapporteur emphasised that Belarusian authorities did not provide convincing evidence that the situation with migrants at the border was not the result of their deliberate actions.

It should be noted that group visas were not a new development, and the possibility of obtaining such visas was established by legislation before the start of the humanitarian crisis. Belarus also maintains a so-called non-public list of countries with migration-related challenges, which presumably includes countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Citizens of these countries find it more difficult to obtain tourist or guest visas to Belarus, and reasons for denial may not even be communicated. However, after Lukashenko’s statement that he would no longer restrain migration to EU countries in response to sanctions following the incident with the Ryanair plane, tourist agencies, including state-owned ones, and Belarusian diplomatic missions actively promoted Belarus to foreigners and issued Belarusian visas on a mass scale.

The final report states that since August 2021, thousands of third-country nationals attempted to enter Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia through their borders with Belarus, “using illegal means of crossing the border in forests.” The Special Rapporteur also describes the situation at the Belarusian-Polish border on November 8, 2021, when approximately 2,500 migrants approached the border checkpoint and requested asylum in the EU. The report does not mention that after the Polish side refused to admit people into their territory, Belarusian border guards directed people into the forest and did not prevent the migrants from setting up an improvised camp in the forested area near the border. Such behaviour by Belarusian authorities contributed to an escalation of tensions on the border with Poland. Furthermore, the report does not analyse the reasons that prompted people to resort to illegal migration routes to the EU. At the moment, legal channels providing the opportunity for legal entry into EU countries remain practically inaccessible to most people from “migration-challenged” countries or destabilised regions of the world. People do not have the opportunity to obtain a visa to enter the EU or apply for international protection remotely through diplomatic missions. The legislation of most countries stipulates that individuals can apply for protection either at a border checkpoint or within the destination country’s territory. As a result, migrants are forced to seek alternative ways to enter the territory of countries where they seek protection.

In the final report, significant attention is given to the operation of a temporary camp for migrants in the logistics centre in Bruzgi, Belarus, and the assistance provided to migrants placed in this centre by various organisations. The Special Rapporteur noted that civil society organisations providing humanitarian aid were not granted access to the centre and the border zone. UN structures were also not involved in organising the centre, even though they had the opportunity to regularly visit and provide medical and humanitarian assistance to migrants.

The report, however, does not address the fate of those migrants who were not in the Bruzgi centre but were returning to Belarusian cities after unsuccessful attempts to cross the border or were stranded in the forests in border areas. Often, such migrants were completely deprived of access to medical, humanitarian, and legal assistance. UNHCR and IOM representations in Belarus focused their efforts on the Bruzgi centre and those who sought protection in Belarus or requested assistance in voluntary return to their home countries. The majority of migrants and their needs were ignored by Belarusian authorities, the Red Cross, and UN agencies. Political persecution of civil society, including human rights defenders, and the liquidation of almost all civil society organisations in Belarus, along with criminal liability for activities on behalf of unregistered organisations, exacerbated the situation of vulnerable groups in Belarus, including migrants.

The Special Rapporteur pointed out that border guards and military personnel ensured the security of the centre where migrants were located. We assume that the presence of border guards and military personnel, some of whom used violence against migrants and pushed them to the other side of the border, and the fear of experiencing violence again, must have been a traumatic experience for migrants and had severe consequences for their mental health. Furthermore, there is no information about investigations into at least one case of violence against migrants by Belarusian border guards or military personnel. The report notes that the centre did not have the necessary infrastructure for accommodating migrants, with inadequate sanitary facilities and a lack of personal space. Cases of cruel treatment and gender-based violence by law enforcement officers are documented.

According to the report, people were released from the centre only in the direction of the Polish border. However, the Special Rapporteur does not explicitly state that Belarusian authorities effectively forced people to cross the border in violation of established rules. Migrants could also choose to return to their home country or seek protection in Belarus. The Special Rapporteur emphasises that the latter option was not attractive to migrants, without delving into the reasons for such decisions. Human Constanta and other organisations have repeatedly pointed out that Belarus has not established an effective mechanism for providing international protection. The application procedure is complex and non-transparent, with a presumption of mistrust toward applicants. In case of denial of protection, there is a significant risk of expulsion to the country of origin, where individuals may face persecution, torture, execution, or extrajudicial killings.

The final report notes that thousands of migrants were repatriated to their home countries. IOM actively provided information to migrants and offered options for voluntary return and reintegration. At the same time, the report does not mention whether IOM conducted an analysis of each case, assessed the risk of return to the home country, or investigated potential cases of human trafficking. Additionally, the involvement of Belarusian authorities in preparing the humanitarian crisis, organising migration routes in violation of established norms and rules, and reports that in some cases Belarusian authorities compelled migrants to cross the border are not evaluated. Such actions by Belarusian authorities and IOM collectively increased the vulnerability of migrants to human trafficking and other risks.

The Special Rapporteur also drew attention to a significant problem in border areas – the disappearance and deaths of migrants on both sides of the border. The report notes that information from open sources does not coincide with the figures reported by Belarusian authorities, and it is presumed that the number of deaths and disappearances at the border is higher. At the same time, the report does not clarify whether Belarusian authorities were asked about procedures for identifying victims of the humanitarian crisis, informing diplomatic missions and relatives, or searching for missing persons in border areas. Currently, there is no information about any open cases regarding the disappearance of migrants on Belarusian territory. The restricted access to border areas, the liquidation of civil society organisations, and the lack of access for independent observers do not allow for monitoring and documenting cases of death and disappearance at the border. Most victims of the humanitarian crisis remain nameless, and their relatives may never learn what happened to their loved ones on Belarusian territory.

We support the Special Rapporteur’s conclusions and recommendations that Belarus and EU countries should engage in constructive dialogue to resolve the situation, prevent further harm to migrants, and protect the human rights of migrants. However, we want to emphasise that an important step toward resuming dialogue between Belarus and the EU should be Belarusian authorities’ abandonment of the practice of instrumentalizing migrants to exert political pressure on neighbouring countries, and the restoration of an adequate border protection system, including the border with Russia.

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