Amid growing concerns about the plight of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers at the Poland-Belarus border, the UN rights office and UN refugee agency on Friday urged all parties to respect human rights and refrain from using them for political ends.
Following weeks of rising tensions, the development came after news footage earlier in the week showed migrants located between the countries, attempting to avoid teargas and make their way through barbed wire fences.
“It is a terrible situation, we are seeing people in terrible circumstances, in the bitter cold, even reports that people have died”, said Liz Throssell, spokesperson, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
“This is why the High Commissioner has spoken out and other UN agencies have spoken out really clearly about this. The human rights of migrants and refugees have to come first. It is really important they must be respected under international human rights refugee law, but as for the political dimension to this, I would leave that to others to address that,” the spokesperson added.
Echoing that message, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Shabia Mantoo told journalists in Geneva that the human rights and the safety of refugees and migrants were “paramount…we do believe that we have said it many times that [using] refugees and asylum seekers and migrants to achieve political ends is unacceptable and must stop and that is completely deplorable”.
The border became a flashpoint after the European Union (EU) imposed sanctions on Belarus, based on alleged grave human rights violations there, and the country diverted a commercial flight between two EU nations to remove a leading dissident in May, according to news reports.
In recent months, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – all EU members – have seen an increase in the number of migrants, many from the Middle East, trying to enter their territories via Belarus.
In a strongly-worded statement in September, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet also expressed concern at “persistent allegations” of “widespread and systematic torture of protesters” in Belarus, following the crackdown of demonstrations over the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in August last year.