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IMMIGRATION

Who are the refugees coming to Germany via Belarus?

At the Eisenhuettenstadt reception centre for refugees on Germany's border with Poland, 19-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker Siban dreams of making a new life for himself after an exhausting journey from Belarus.

Refugees in Brandenburg, Germany
Refugees check their mobile phones at the arrival centre of the initial reception facility of the eastern German state of Brandenburg in Eisenhuettenstadt, on October 25th, 2021. Photo: JENS SCHLUETER / AFP

“I want to live here,” he says in broken German, learned through a few months of online courses.

Siban spent eight days trekking across Poland by foot to get to Germany after flying to Minsk from Turkey.

“I had no water, no food, it was cold. It was very tiring,” he tells AFP.

Siban is one of more than 6,100 illegal migrants who have entered Germany via Poland from Belarus since the beginning of this year, most of them from the Middle East, according to German authorities.

The EU accuses Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of flying migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Minsk and then sending them into the bloc on foot in retaliation for sanctions imposed over a crackdown on the opposition.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has branded the alleged scheme “a hybrid threat, in which migrants are used as political weapons”.

The migrants are initially crossing from Belarus into Poland and the Baltic States, but many are then travelling on to Germany – seen as welcoming to migrants after Angela Merkel’s decision to leave the borders open to hundreds of thousands in 2015-16.

READ ALSO: How Germany is proposing to tighten controls on the Polish border

Tenfold increase

On arriving in Germany, the migrants are not being immediately sent back to Poland as EU rules would normally dictate, but taken to reception centres for registration.

The centre in Eisenhuettenstadt has seen 10 times more arrivals this year than in 2020, Olaf Jansen, head of the city’s migration authority, tells AFP.

It feels like 2015 all over again, “even if we don’t have the same numbers” at the national level, he says.

A dozen new tents have been set up to accommodate the new arrivals and create space for Covid-19 testing centres.

Around half of the 1,300 asylum seekers at the centre are from Iraq. The others are mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Yemen.

Refugees at the Polish border
A refugee sits as clothes dry at the grounds of the arrival centre of the initial reception facility of the eastern German state of Brandenburg in Eisenhuettenstadt. Photo: JENS SCHLUETER / AFP)

Most of them want to remain in Germany. “Very few want to continue the journey to France or northern Europe,” Jansen says.

“I want to stay in Germany and continue my studies. It’s good here,” says Rohullah, 23, who arrived four days ago from Afghanistan.

To pass the time, some play football between the tents, while others call their relatives while sitting in the courtyard. All have stories of exhausting journeys on foot.

Zeidun, 22, from Fallujah in Iraq, walked non-stop for 10 days across Poland before taking a taxi across the border.

Border controls

Many have stories of brutality by the Polish police. “They are dangerous. They hit, and they have dogs,” says a 21-year-old from Baghdad who gave his name as Mamontzer.

To cope with the influx, Berlin this week tightened its border controls with Poland.

On the route to Eisenhuettenstadt, a dozen police officers have been assigned the task of blocking the bridge linking the German city of Frankfurt (Oder) and the Polish town of Slubice.

Goods vehicles and taxis are being routinely stopped and searched.

Refugees in Brandenburg
Refugees are seen on the grounds of the arrival centre of the initial reception facility of the eastern German state of Brandenburg in Eisenhuettenstadt. Photo: JENS SCHLUETER / AFP

The influx has also provided fuel for Germany’s anti-migration movement, especially since the far-right AfD achieved some of its best results in last month’s general election in the eastern regions of the country bordering Poland and the Czech Republic.

Police last weekend broke up around a rally of around 50 activists from the radical far-right group “The Third Way” (Der III. Weg), which had called for its members to gather to take action against migrants seeking to cross the border from Poland.

READ ALSO: Germany to step up checks as far-right activists target Polish border

Other such initiatives were also reported in neighbouring Saxony.

During the operation, police seized pepper spray, a bayonet, a machete and batons.

By Florian Cazeres

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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