The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Belarus and Poland to de-escalate their migrant border dispute Wednesday, claiming that both countries’ militaristic responses had put the safety of refugees in jeopardy and risked violating international refugee law. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet Jeria said that she was “appalled” at the situation, describing large numbers of migrants being left unprotected on the Polish-Belarusian border in near-freezing temperatures.
This year’s migrant dispute between Belarus and Poland has greatly escalated in recent weeks, with the international community accusing Belarus of deliberately facilitating Middle Eastern migrants to cross the Polish border in large numbers in order to destabilize the EU. Belarus was targeted with EU sanctions earlier this year following crackdowns against protestors demonstrating against the authoritarian government of President Alexander Lukashenko, and the Belarusian government has since encouraged migrants to travel through Minsk and move towards the Polish border under official protection.
High Commissioner Bachelet noted in her statement that several people had already died on the border, trapped between Belarus and Poland with neither country allowing them in. She referenced international law that holds that individuals cannot be prevented from seeking asylum or other forms of human rights protection, and that individual consideration must be given to each refugee’s needs.
An array of international laws and agreements support the right of refugees to seek asylum and not be turned away. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 14 that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from protection”, while the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees provides a broad framework for accepting refugees in signatory countries’ territory if the refugees prove to have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries.
While Poland and Belarus have moved soldiers to the border and have continued to denounce each other in official channels, High Commissioner Bachelet dismissed the geopolitical issues underlying the dispute, plainly stating that “States have an obligation to protect the right to life. These hundreds of men, women and children must not be forced to spend another night in freezing weather without adequate shelter, food, water and medical care.”