The UN Human Rights High Commissioner has urged Belarus and Poland to urgently resolve the burgeoning migrant crisis on their mutual border, where thousands of people have gathered in an attempt to enter the European Union (EU). 

In a statement on Wednesday, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she was appalled that large numbers of migrants and refugees continue to be left in a desperate situation in near-freezing temperatures. 

“I urge the States involved to take immediate steps to de-escalate and resolve this intolerable situation in line with their obligations under international human rights law and refugee law,” she said. 

Migrant numbers increasing 

Poland, as well as Lithuania and Latvia, which are 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 recent months.  

The crisis has been brewing ever since the EU imposed sanctions against Belarus for cracking down on pro-democracy protests in the wake of the contentious August 2020 presidential election, according to media reports. 

The regional bloc also condemned the forced landing of a commercial flight over Belarus this past May, and the subsequent arrest of a prominent dissident and journalist. 

The EU has accused Belarus of orchestrating the migrant crisis in retaliation, which the country has denied.   

This week, Poland deployed thousands of troops to the border after migrants attempted to storm into the country.  Ms. Bachelet underscored the need to uphold human rights. 

Obligation to protect 

“The strong security-focused and politically charged responses on both sides – including through the increased deployment of troops – and accompanying inflammatory rhetoric, serve only to exacerbate the vulnerability and risks that migrants and refugees face,” she said. 

The High Commissioner called for the respective authorities to ensure that “the human rights of these individuals are the paramount concern”, and urged them to work together to protect the lives and dignity of those stranded at their common border. 

She added that humanitarian staff, as well as other civil society representatives, journalists and lawyers, should be granted access to the area. 

Ms. Bachelet stressed that under international law, no one should ever be prevented from seeking asylum or other forms of international human rights protection, and individual consideration must be given to their protection needs. 

“Several people have already died over the past few months – governments in the region cannot stand by and allow more lives to be lost. States have an obligation to protect the right to life,” she said.  

“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.”