What happens when people are treated as weapons – The Guardian

The small fires they make will do little to warm the families of refugees and migrants trying to cross the border between Belarus and Poland in a desperate attempt to reach European soil

What happens when people are treated as weapons - The Guardian
The freezing temperatures and lack of humanitarian aid have already killed at least nine people, and dozens have reported injuries, theft and abuse at the hands of the authorities.

Another humanitarian disaster is unfolding on the doorstep of the European Union.

Poland has responded by deploying 20,000 border guards, firing water cannons and tear gas at asylum seekers, reinforcing border fences and blocking access for journalists and humanitarian organisations. Poland’s militarised response is disproportionate and, according to the UN, a violation of humanitarian and asylum law. A succession of short-sighted and transactional agreements with neighbouring European Union countries in recent years is indeed to blame for this crisis.

The root of this latest military escalation – involving not only Poland but also a nominal number of UK troops, as well as EU sanctions and sharp condemnation by NATO and UN Security Council members – is the fear of migration that has been hanging over EU policy since 2015. Since the Brexit vote, “containment at all costs” dogma has dominated migration policy, including the deployment of illegal pushback practices at external borders, such as sending migrants back to the boats on which they arrived, collecting refugees on land and forcing them back to sea, and unofficial detentions.

The Polish government has long implemented a harsh immigration programme, closing its borders – even violating EU law and ignoring calls for humane treatment of asylum seekers.

Poland is no exception. As internal divisions within the European Union deepen and the prospect of a responsible plan for admitting refugees recedes, migration management has shifted to agreements with non-EU countries, which has become the bloc’s main solution.

Similar measures can be found in Europe’s border regions. In Libya, the EU supported the Libyan coast guard in intercepting asylum seekers at sea and returning them to detention centres where they had been physically and sexually abused. The confrontation this spring between Spain and Morocco – which is also a key EU partner in controlling migration from African countries – in the Spanish city of Ceuta, on the North African coast, revealed the same pattern of using migrants for political purposes. Spain accused Morocco of flooding its borders with migrants – 2,000 of whom were unaccompanied children – after Madrid allowed the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement to receive treatment from Covid in Spain. The footage, which shows a one-month-old baby rescued by the Guardia Civil and children using plastic bottles as floats to reach the shore, is a stark reminder of the real victims of European fear of migration.

Not only Europe’s transactional migration policies but also the language used set the stage for these recurring confrontations. In all European states and political parties, refugees and migrants are often presented as a threat to national security. The Greek, Polish and Turkish media use the rhetoric of “wars” at the borders; Brussels also uses militarised language.

The narrative – and the treatment of refugees as weapons – distracts attention from the real issue: protecting the security and rights of people trapped at the border. The EU’s externalisation of migration control does not justify the Belarusian regime’s deliberate state-sponsored humanitarian crisis tactics. But it should alert EU leaders to the dangers of transactional treatment of people.

Questionable migration deals and anti-immigration messaging not only undermine the right to asylum, but threaten the very foundations of the European project that may need to be recalled: to promote peace, human rights and dignity, and to offer freedom, security and justice without internal borders. As long as EU countries do not respect asylum laws and continue to treat refugees with hostility and violence, countries such as Belarus, Morocco and Turkey will continue to exploit their fear of migration. The EU has created its own Achilles heel – and people continue to pay the price.

Anna Yasmi Valliantu, The Guardian, UK

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