Following the undemocratic presidential elections in Belarus and in the face of growing tensions between Belarus and the European Union, the Belarusian authorities have responded to EU sanctions by increasing the flow of migrants crossing the EU-Belarus border. In the summer of 2021, the number of illegal migrants crossing the Lithuanian border at unauthorized points increased tenfold, so the authorities took measures to stem the flow and to provide temporary accommodation for detained migrants and asylum seekers. On 2 August 2021, the Minister of the Interior decreed that people trying to cross the Lithuanian-Belarusian border are to be turned back and denied entry into Lithuania unless they do so at official border control points.
Representatives of the Parliament’s Ombudsmen’s Office monitored these returns at the border and visited the places of migrant and asylum seeker detention and accommodation. They prepared and published a report based on their observations, following which we can conclude that many types of human rights violations have been observed, such as not ensuring decent living conditions and basic humanitarian needs, as well as not catering to people with special needs or more vulnerable individuals/groups.
The primary human rights violations identified
The following violations were observed in migrant and asylum seeker places of detention and accommodation:
- The temporary accommodations constantly lacked warm food, weather-appropriate footwear and clothing, and hygiene facilities. The migrants interviewed confirmed that there was a lack of potable water, with the water available often being brown and unsuitable for drinking. The foreigners received only dry food rations irrespective of any special needs - pregnant women, children, and sick people did not receive special meals.
- The special needs of various groups were not respected in different ways: pregnant women did not receive special meals and lived in common tents with other immigrants, sick children and minors did not receive any extra care from both medical staff and border guards, children were not given special meals or milk daily. There were no efforts to find out the newcomers’ sexual orientation or gender identity, or to assess whether they had been victims of sexual, physical or psychological abuse or torture (and had any resulting special needs). Thus, there was no assessment of the foreigners’ vulnerabilities linked to them being a sexual minority (and potentially having suffered violence as a result), and special needs were not identified immediately. All assessments were visual, which is insufficient to accurately identify a person’s special needs.
- Foreigners were not given access to adequate health care - it was found that people living in the temporary accommodation could only access health care services in cases of urgent medical need, and that, among other things, they had to pay for all other services themselves. It should be noted that, according to the report, the immigrants were not given access to their bank accounts, which would have made it possible for them to pay for the appropriate treatment.
- The people’s right to privacy was not protected - the accommodations had common showers and toilets. According to the report, some shower stalls could not be locked or were only separated with curtains, which threatened the safety of women and girls; the women interviewed confirmed that they felt insecure. The right to privacy was also not properly protected in the sleeping quarters - women, men, children and young families slept together in common rooms.
- Individuals did not have the right to information about their rights and obligations (and the consequences for non-compliance), nor were they given information related to asylum applications. The interviewees confirmed that they had not been told about the asylum procedure, and it was found that they were not given access to information about their legal status in Lithuania or the possibility to use legal services free of charge. In addition, some State Border Guard personnel admitted that no information was being provided at all due to the lack of human resources, and that there were fears that more information about the foreigners’ rights could lead to unrest.
What were the recommendations?
Together with their report, the Parliamentary Ombudsperson submitted recommendations to various institutions and officials in order to protect human rights and prevent possible future violations of international obligations. The Prime Minister was urged to take heed of the established violations and to take measures to ensure that “the admission of foreigners while protecting the integrity of Lithuanian borders fully complies with European and international law, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees”.The Ombudsman recommended that the Minister of the Interior specify how the provisions of the Law on the Legal Status of Aliens regarding temporary and proportionate restriction of the rights of asylum seekers would be implemented in practice; and to identify the specific measures to be taken to ensure that the rights and liberties of foreigners are not restricted indefinitely. The Minister of Social Security and Labor was recommended to “take measures to assess the need for social workers in temporary accommodation for foreigners”.
The head of the State Border Guard Service (SBGS) was recommended to make efforts to ensure proper hygiene in the foreigners’ living quarters, to allow the people themselves to clean the premises, and to provide the means for that. It was also recommended to provide appropriate clothing, footwear, and food, and to improve access to health care services.
Currently, the law requires officials that have received the report from the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsperson to respond within 30 days on how they plan to implement the recommendations and rectify the identified violations.
Photo: Flickr.com / jo.sau