LITHUANIA: Criminalisation of solidarity at the border with Belarus as migrants and asylum seekers are pushed back

Statement published by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) on 21/04/2022

Brussels, April 21, 2022 – Since the beginning of the Belarus-European Union border crisis, Lithuanian authorities have responded with asylum restrictions, legalised pushbacks and unjustified detention of people on the move, said today the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). Asylum seekers and migrant people have been detained in inhuman and degrading conditions and those fighting for their rights face judicial harassment and stigmatisation.

Since spring 2021, Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko has facilitated citizens coming from 73 countries to visit Belarus visa-free and has pushed them towards EU borders as a retaliation against the bloc’s sanctions. The EU condemned Belarusian actions as an attempt to “instrumentalise human beings for political purposes”. Yet, it failed to appropriately address the ongoing human rights violations committed by Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in response to the situation.

The Lithuanian government responded to the arrival of 4000 individuals, who crossed the border from Belarus irregularly, by severely restricting access to asylum, arbitrarily detaining them and easing deportations. In July 2021, Lithuania passed a law introducing limitations on the right to appeal against rejections in the asylum procedure and allowing for potential deportation during the appeal process. Since then, pushbacks at the border have been commonplace and migrants already intercepted or trying to cross into Lithuania were dehumanised, neglected and mistreated. As of April 12, 2022, there had been 9447 pushback cases according to Lithuanian authorities.

While accusing Belarus of violating its international obligations, Lithuania’s treatment of migrants keeps falling short of international human rights standards too. At the time of writing, 2.797 individuals are being held in detention facing what the Lithuanian Parliament Ombudsperson’s Office has described as “inhuman and degrading conditions”. Detention facilities are overcrowded and have very poor conditions: inadequate food, lack of hot water, poor sanitation and insufficient personal space. Moreover, the physical and mental health of migrants is deteriorating dramatically due to their indefinite detention, with reports of suicide attempts.

In this context, Lithuanian migrant rights defenders have been working in an increasingly challenging environment. Since the early phases of the crisis, the government has hindered their work by restricting their access to the border areas. Defenders and their organisations have been constantly stigmatised by government officials and labeled as “anti-State”.

Sienos Grupė (eng. Border Group), a grassroots initiative providing humanitarian assistance to migrants, is currently facing a public smear campaign and is under judicial investigation. On December 29, 2021, Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Kęstutis Lančinskas told the media that Sienos Grupė’s activists were “involved in anti-State activities and undermine trust in Lithuanian institutions”, while Chairman of the National Security and Defence Committee Laurynas Kasčiūnas stated that the group was “not involved in the protection of human rights, but in the trafficking of people.” One day later, information leaked according to which the Prosecutor General’s Office would launch a pre-trial investigation on “human smuggling” linked to the volunteers of Sienos Grupė. It was only on February 4, 2022 that volunteer Rita Škriadaitė Vrubliauskė was informed by the State Border Guard Office (SBOG) Varėna Unit Pre-trial Investigations’ Division that she was being investigated for “illegal human trafficking through the state border”. By mid-February 2022, Sienos Grupė was requested by the SBOG to provide detailed information about the members of the group and its activities.

Despite the public intimidation and pre-trial investigation, Sienos Grupė continues its efforts to help the migrants. On April 8, 2022, four Cuban citizens were pushed back to Belarus only a few hours after the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) had granted them interim measures to prevent their expulsion to Belarus. The Lithuanian State Border Guard Service claimed none of them provided any documents to substantiate the decision of the ECtHR. Yet, Sienos Grupė has evidence that the Lithuanian border police actively ignored their attempts to provide them with the said documents. On April 14, after 5 days of silence and uncertainty, the SBOG announced that the group of Cubans were now in Lithuania, at a border police facility, some 3 hours drive away from the location where they were initially detained, and were legally allowed to apply for asylum. No details regarding their pushback or their condition during the 5 days of absence have been provided either to their relatives, publicly, or to Sienos Grupe. The Border Police claim that they did not implement the ECtHR decision the first time, as there was “miscommunication between institutions.”

The harassment of Sienos Grupė and its members takes place against the backdrop of a progressively shrinking space for civil society across Europe, which disproportionately affects organisations and individuals working to defend the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society.

The OMCT strongly condemns legalised pushbacks of people on the move, their instrumentalisation for political ends as well as the degrading treatment inflicted upon them in the Lithuanian detention camps. The authorities must ensure dignified reception and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, and enable migrants to receive adequate humanitarian and legal help. Lithuania, with the support of the EU, must ensure reception conditions for people on the move in line with EU and international human rights standards.

The OMCT further condemns the prosecution of migrants’ rights defenders in Lithuania and urges the authorities to put an immediate end to the harassment, including at the judicial level, against Sienos Grupė, its members and all migrants’ rights defenders working in the country.

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) is the largest global NGO group actively standing up to torture and protecting human rights defenders worldwide. It has more than 200 members in 90 countries. Its international Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland.