This blog post was written by Indrė Balčaitė, independent researcher, with contributions from Giedrė Blažytė, Research Director at Diversity Development Group, and Lina Grudulaitė, Coordinator at the Refugee Council of Lithuania.
In 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrants, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, landed in huge makeshift camps on the Greek Aegean islands and in South-Eastern Europe’s cities and borderlands. At the time, Lithuania failed to show solidarity with people fleeing conflict or the European Union member states where the migrants ended up. Media portrayed migrants as a threat, politicians quarrelled about the EU refugee resettlement quota, processes were slow and authorities picky. Out of 1077 refugees allocated for Lithuania, the country managed to resettle half of that number by mid-2021.
In 2021, Lithuania is undergoing its own test with undocumented migration, although on a smaller scale. Having missed the opportunity to review its reception and integration infrastructure a few years ago, the country with a population under 3 million and much more substantial experience in emigration than immigration was unprepared. Whereas previously there had been around 100 irregular arrivals reported a year, the number was 50-150 a day by July (Turkey was reporting on average 480 irregular arrivals a day in the same month). With the asylum seeker registration centre able to accommodate only around 250 people, increased numbers of migrants in a pandemic presented a formidable logistical challenge. On July 2nd, an ‘extraordinary situation’ was announced. Citizens’ protests against opening new sites for accommodating migrants added to the tension in an already polarised society.
From the start, the Lithuanian government has been vocal about the culprit of the unprecedented situation, rallying support in the EU. Alexander Lukashenko, the illegitimate president of Belarus, had threatened to “flood” its neighbour with irregular migrants in revenge for EU targeted economic sanctions that Lithuania had lobbied for. Journalists shed light on how migrants coming primarily from Iraq end up at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border with the help of Belarusian tourist visas and migration brokers. On July 1st,, Lukashenko’s presidential decree allowed citizens of 73 countries to visit Belarus visa-free for five days, ostensibly for COVID-19 vaccinations. In August, a video footage emerged of Belarusian officers in riot gear pushing migrants into the Lithuanian territory. EU condemned Belarusian actions as ‘direct attack’ on its external border and an attempt to ‘instrumentalise human beings for political purposes’ but has not acknowledged that violations of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights were being committed by Lithuania, Poland and Latvia in response to the situation.
Lithuania is also using those human beings for political purposes. Politicians have repeatedly justified severely restricting access to asylum with a toxic discourse. Migrants already intercepted or trying to cross into Lithuania (now also Latvia and Poland) are dehumanised and neglected or mistreated. While accusing Belarus of violating its international obligations, Lithuania’s treatment of migrants falls short of international human rights standards too. Curtailed access to asylum, automatic detention of all asylum seekers, including children, illegal expulsions, denying them due process and coercion, among other issues, are all part of Lithuania’s new EU external border management.
The resolution passed by the Seimas (Parliament) on July 13th portrayed undocumented migrants as participants in a ‘hybrid aggression’ against Lithuanian sovereignty. On the same day, the Seimas hastily changed the Law on the Legal Status of Aliens so as to excise the airport transit zones, official border crossings, border zones and asylum seeker holding centres from Lithuanian state territory where more human rights safeguards apply. It also legalised the automatic detention of asylum seekers, including children, having entered the country undocumented in an extraordinary situation (or state of war or emergency). Their right of movement can now be denied for up to six months while awaiting the decision whether they will be allowed into the country, with limited possibility to appeal it. On August 10th, the law was amended again to stipulate that in an extraordinary situation, applications for asylum by undocumented migrants would be accepted only at official border crossing points or Lithuania’s embassies abroad prior to travel. In reality, neither option is feasible. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the UNHCR, the European Council of Refugees and Exiles, Lithuanian human right advocates and civil society actors have criticised the new arrangements as violating migrants’ and asylum seekers’ fundamental rights.
The harsh reality of the new migration governance is evident. A barbed wire fence along the 679km-long Lithuania-Belarus border is under construction. Journalists and humanitarian organisations are not allowed to work in the border areas (only at the detention centres). Since early August, Lithuanian border guards no longer intercept undocumented migrants but actively prevent them from crossing into Lithuanian territory with very few exceptions. This has led to migrants being stranded at the border or rerouted to neighbouring Latvia and Poland, with officers from Belarus pushing them out and the border guards of its three EU neighbours pushing them back. In late August and early September, the European Court of Human Rights approved interim measures, demanding that Latvia and Poland provide humanitarian assistance to stranded migrants and that Lithuania halt the removal of five Afghan nationals to Belarus. On September 19th, four bodies of stranded migrants, who probably died from hypothermia, were found along the Belarus-Polish border.
With access to asylum practically blocked for new undocumented arrivals, migrants already in the holding centres are not faring better. Over 4,100 people, a quarter of them minors, face overcrowding and very poor conditions, many freezing in military tents in dropping temperatures. They lack information about their cases and access to legal advice. All asylum applications are fast-tracked, with no consideration of individual circumstances and applicants being pressured to accept voluntary return or be deported. For independent Lithuania, this is the first serious encounter with undocumented migration flows but its government led by Ingrida Šimonytė is learning fast from the worst examples in migration management.
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