Belarus may freeze EU refugee accord to due 'unfriendly actions'

·2 min read
FILE PHOTO: Polish border guard officers stand guard next to a group of migrants stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland near the village of Usnarz Gorny

KYIV (Reuters) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's government said on Wednesday it could suspend an accord with the European Union on accepting refugees, as both sides traded blame over a build-up of migrants on the Belarusian border.

Lukashenko has submitted a draft law to parliament to suspend the accord, which obliges Minsk to take back migrants who entered the EU via Belarus but who violated their conditions of stay, entry or residence.

"The document was prepared in response to the unfriendly actions taken by the EU and its member states towards Belarus," Lukashenko's press service said in a statement.

"In the near future, the corresponding obligations of our country will be 'frozen'."

EU countries have accused Lukashenko of encouraging hundreds of migrants to cross illegally into the EU via Poland and Lithuania in retaliation for Western sanctions imposed on Minsk.

Belarus has blamed EU countries for the row, which has left migrants stranded at the border and prompted Poland to impose a state of emergency in two regions for the first time since the fall of communism.

The Polish foreign ministry did not immediately respond on Wednesday to a request for comment on Lukashenko's move to freeze the accord.

CRACKDOWN

Belarus and the West have been at loggerheads since Lukashenko launched a violent crackdown on mass street protests following a disputed election in August 2020.

The refugee accord, signed at the start of last year before the election, had been a precondition for Belarus obtaining a simplified visa regime for the EU.

The EU mission in Minsk on Wednesday delivered a diplomatic demarche to Belarus, citing a 50-fold increase in irregular border crossings.

"The EU condemns the instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes and urges the authorities in Belarus to stop this practice," the EU said in a statement. "Irregular migration cannot be used as a bargaining chip."

Tens of thousands of people were detained after last year's election, which the protesters say was blatantly rigged to prolong Lukashenko's rule since 1994.

Lukashenko refused to step down, bolstered by diplomatic and financial support from Moscow. He is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ahead of joint military drills.

(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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