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Belarus: Consider taking the Lukashenka regime to international court, MEPs ask

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Parliament expresses strong solidarity with EU countries affected by Belarusian hybrid attacks, while calling for the Lukashenka regime to be brought to court, Plenary session  AFET.

In a resolution adopted on Thursday, Parliament expresses strong solidarity with Lithuania, Poland and Latvia, as well as other EU countries recently targeted by the Belarusian regime’s attempts to direct a substantial number of migrants and refugees towards the EU’s external borders - with hundreds of people detained after crossing over into the EU illegally and even some deaths.

MEPs underline that the ongoing Belarusian state-sponsored irregular migrant crossings into the EU, coupled with a disinformation campaign, are a form of hybrid warfare aimed at intimidating and destabilising the European Union.

They state that both the EU institutions and the member states have to deal urgently with the multidimensional crisis at the Belarusian border, in order to help migrants stuck there and to provide them with the necessary support.

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The case of Belarus to the International Court of Justice

In the resolution, Parliament also stresses the need to consider bringing the case of Belarus to the International Court of Justice over crimes committed on a massive scale against the country’s citizens by the regime of illegitimate dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka. This should be done on the basis of violations to the Chicago Convention, the Montreal Convention and the UN Convention against Torture committed by the Belarusian state, according to the text.

MEPs also continue to condemn “the repression, torture and ill-treatment of the peaceful people of Belarus”, which has not ended since popular protests broke out over the fraudulent presidential elections in August last year.

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More EU sanctions needed

In addition, the resolution regrets the fact that the imposed EU economic sanctions have only had a partial effect on the Lukashenka regime. It therefore urges EU countries to further strengthen the targeted economic sanctions, focusing on key Belarusian sectors, and to push ahead urgently with a fifth package of sanctions against Belarusian individuals and entities involved in the endless crackdown.

MEPs further call for unequivocal support for the Belarusian democratic opposition in organising free and fair elections, under international observation. They also condemn the continuous dealings between Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin and reiterate the urgency of exposing Russia’s support for Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on the people of Belarus, as well as its involvement in the hybrid actions against the EU.

The text was adopted with 506 votes in favour, 29 against with 139 abstentions.

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Belarus

EU vows unity on Belarus as Poland flags more border incidents

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Thousands of people stranded on the European Union's eastern border represent an attempt by Belarus to destabilize the bloc, rather than a migrant crisis, and as such call for a co-ordinated response, the head of EU executive said on Tuesday (23 November), write Alan Charlish, Marine Strauss, Pawel Florkiewicz, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Jan Strupczewski, Sabine Siebold, Andrius Sytas, Yara Abi Nader, Marko Djurica, Fedja Grulovic, Stephan Schepers, Felix Hoske, Sergiy Karazy, Andreas Rinke and Tomasz Janowsk.

Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament the 27-nation bloc was standing in solidarity with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, who are bearing the brunt of what the EU says is President Alexander Lukashenko's ploy to engineer a crisis by flying in migrants into Belarus and then pushing them across EU borders.

"It is the EU as a whole that is being challenged," von der Leyen said. "This is not a migration crisis. This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilise its democratic neighbours." Read more.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Warsaw's diplomatic efforts were helping reduce the numbers of migrants travelling to Belarus in the hope of entering the EU, but Poland and its neighbours warned the border crisis was far from over.

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Morawiecki, speaking after meeting the leaders of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Budapest, said Poland had been in talks with the governments of Iraq, Turkey, Uzbekistan and others.

Poland, at loggerheads with Brussels over accusations it was subverting the rule of law, has also been reaching out to its European partners.

A government spokesman tweeted Morawiecki would meet French President Emanuel Macron on Wednesday and Polish media reported plans for meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the meetings with Merkel and Johnson.

Von der Leyen said the EU was also coordinating its response to Lukashenko's challenge with its non-EU partners - the United States, Canada and Britain.

To deter intermediaries transporting migrants to Belarus from helping Minsk, the EU would create a blacklist of travel companies involved in trafficking and smuggling of migrants, she said.

It would provide the EU with a legal tool to suspend or limit the operations of companies, or even ban them from the EU if they were engaged in human trafficking, according to EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas.

"This is not a migration crisis, this is a security crisis," Schinas noted. According to the EU, over 40,000 attempts to enter the EU via the Belarus border were prevented in 2021.

A migrant walks with a child during snowfall, at a transport and logistics centre near the Belarusian-Polish border, in the Grodno region, Belarus November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Migrants stay in the transport and logistics centre Bruzgi on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus November 23, 2021. Andrei Pokumeiko/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

The EU hit Belarus with sanctions after Lukashenko's violent crackdown on protests against his disputed re-election last year, and Brussels earlier this month agreed to expand those to airlines, travel agencies and individuals involved in the movement of migrants.

Minsk cleared migrant camps at the border and agreed to the first repatriation flights in months last week and on Tuesday reported that about 120 migrants had left on Nov. 22 and more were due to follow.

But authorities in Warsaw said repeated incidents at the border showed Minsk may have changed tactics but had not given up plans to use migrants fleeing the Middle East and other hotspots as a weapon in the stand-off with the EU.

Border Guard spokesperson Anna Michalska said about 50 migrants tried to cross on Monday evening, with 18 briefly making it across the barbed wire barrier.

Another group of similar size gathered but ultimately gave up an attempt to cross at another location.

"There are repeated attempts to cross the border and they will continue," Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesperson for Poland's special services, told reporters.

Polish authorities estimate about 10,000 or more migrants could be still in Belarus, he said, creating the potential for further problems.

Lukashenko, who denies the allegation that he fomented the crisis, has pressured the EU and Germany in particular to accept some migrants while Belarus repatriates others, a demand the bloc has so far flatly rejected.

Humanitarian agencies say as many as 13 migrants have died at the border, where many have suffered in a cold, damp forest with little food or water as winter sets in.

Reuters was present when Syrian siblings who had crossed into Poland from Belarus were detained by border guards near the town of Siemiatycze on Tuesday, as the first snow of the winter fell on the forests around the frontier. Read more.

In a stark reminder of the human toll of the crisis, the imam of the Polish village Bohoniki buried on Tuesday an unborn child who died by the Polish-Belarusian border in the womb of its mother.

Halikari Dhaker's mother miscarried him while she, her husband and their five children crossed the border through dense forests and wetlands. Read more.

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Belarus waiting for answer from EU on taking 2,000 migrants, Lukashenko says

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A migrant woman carries a child as they exit a tent outside the transport and logistics centre near the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus November 21, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Belarus is waiting for an answer from the European Union on whether the bloc will accept 2,000 stranded migrants from the Belarusian border, President Alexander Lukashenko was quoted as saying on Monday by the official Belta news agency, write Maria Kiselyova and Matthias Williams, Reuters.

Lukashenko said Belarus would demand Germany takes in the migrants and said the EU was not making contact with Minsk on the issue.

He also warned that Poland should consider the consequences of acting on a threat to close a border railway crossing, saying rail traffic could be diverted to run through a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in such a scenario.

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The European Union accuses Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into the EU in response to European sanctions. Minsk denies fomenting the crisis. Read more.

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Belarus clears migrant camps at EU border, but crisis not yet over

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Belarus authorities on Thursday (18 November) cleared the main camps where migrants had huddled at the border with Poland, in a change of tack that could lower the temperature in a crisis that has spiralled in recent weeks into a major East-West confrontation, write Kacper Pempel and Joanna Plucinska.

The European Commission and Germany poured cold water on a proposal by Belarus that European Union countries take in 2,000 of the migrants currently on its territory, however, and the United States accused Minsk of making migrants "pawns in its efforts to be disruptive", signalling the tensions with the West were far from over.

European countries have for months accused Belarus of deliberately creating the crisis by flying in migrants from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to illegally cross its borders into Poland and Lithuania.

Minsk, backed by Moscow, rejected those accusations in a stand-off that had left thousands of migrants trapped in freezing woods at the border.

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A spokesperson for the Polish border guards said the camps on the border in western Belarus were completely empty on Thursday, which a Belarusian press officer confirmed. Belarus state news agency Belta said the migrants had been brought to a warehouse in Belarus away from the frontier.

"These camps are now empty, the migrants have been taken most likely to the transport-logistics centre, which is not far from the Bruzgi border crossing," the Polish spokesperson said.

"There were no other such camps ... but there were groups appearing in other places trying to cross the border. We'll see what happens in the next hours."

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In recent weeks, migrants have tried, mostly at night, to cross the frontier, sometimes clashing with Polish troops.

In a cruel illustration of the harsh conditions for those camped out, a couple, both injured, told the Polish Centre for International Aid, an NGO, early on Thursday that their one-year-old child had died in the forest. At least eight more people are believed to have died at the border in recent months.

U.S. Secretary of State State Antony Blinken said the United States would remain very focuses on the migrant crisis.

"It is profoundly unconscionable that Lukashenko and Belarus have sought to weaponize migration," Blinken told reporters during a visit to Nigeria, adding the United States had the authority to as necessary add to sanctions. Read more.

The move to clear the camps came during a week of intensified diplomacy. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone twice in three days to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, normally shunned by European leaders.

Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and his Poland's counterpart Mariusz Kaminski attend a news briefing in Warsaw, Poland November 18, 2021. Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via REUTERS
Belarusian law enforcement personnel walk in a camp near Bruzgi-Kuznica checkpoint on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus, November 18, 2021.  REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

And Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called on Lukashenko to start a dialogue with his opponents - who swiftly rejected the idea unless Lukashenko freed political prisoners first. Read more.

Belarus said earlier on Thursday that Lukashenko had proposed a plan to Merkel to resolve the crisis, under which the EU would take in 2,000 people while Minsk would send another 5,000 back home.

But German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer rejected the proposal and talked of misinformation.

"If we took in refugees, if we bowed to the pressure and said 'we are taking refugees into European countries', then this would mean implementing the very basis of this perfidious strategy"," Seehofer told a news conference in Warsaw.

A German government source added that Germany had not agreed to any deal, stressing that this was a European problem in which Germany was not acting alone.

Shortly before the plan was announced, the European Commission had said there could be no negotiation with Belarus over the plight of the migrants.

It declined to comment on the proposal, with a spokesperson saying: "We made our position very clear – this is an artificially created, state-orchestrated crisis and it is a responsibility of Lukashenko's regime to stop it and to solve it."

Earlier on Thursday, in what was potentially another sign of easing of the crisis, hundreds of Iraqis checked in at a Minsk airport for flight back to Iraq, the first repatriation flight since August. Read more.

"I would not go back if it wasn't for my wife," a 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who declined to give his name, told Reuters on the eve of the evacuation flight. "She does not want to go back with me to the border, because she saw too many horrors over there." The couple attempted to cross at least eight times from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland.

Meanwhile, Belarusian state airline Belavia has stopped allowing citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent to Minsk, Belta reported.

The EU has launched a diplomatic effort to ease the crisis by putting pressure on regional countries not to allow migrants to board flights for Belarus.

Before the border camp was cleared, migrants told Reuters how harsh the conditions were there.

"Here it's a really bad place for life, we are really cold, and we all are sick, especially the children. It is worst place for life," Nermin, from Iraq, said.

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