On November 8, reports surfaced about a group of several thousand migrants (including women and children) in Belarus moving towards the border with Poland. There were recorded attempts to break into Poland through the physical barrier separating the countries. The Polish authorities deemed this to be a mass attempt to infiltrate their territory by force, reinforcing the border in response. Seeing the situation in the neighboring state, the Lithuanian Parliament adopted a resolution to declare a state of emergency from 10 November 2021 – the first one since the restoration of the country’s independence.As laid out in the text itself, the resolution took into account the fact that the European Union has declared Belarus' actions to be a form of hybrid attack aimed at destabilizing the European Union, and the fact that this attack is currently being carried out against Poland. The resolution declared a state of emergency in the zone covering up to 5 kilometers from the Lithuanian-Belarusian border (including the border itself), as well as in the places used to accommodate the migrants (Pabradė, Medininkai, Kybartai, Rukla, and Naujininkai in Vilnius) and up to 200 meters around them.
The government has commented on the declaration of a state of emergency in the press, with the Prime Minister and the President claiming it to be an appropriate response to the "hybrid attacks” from Belarus. Only Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, the Speaker of Parliament, commented on how this will affect human rights – she claimed that the new requirements will only have a limited impact, emphasizing the need to maintain a balance between human rights and the national interest in protecting state borders and national security.
The impact of the state of emergency on human rights
The state of emergency resolution imposes certain restrictions on migrants and asylum seekers as well as Lithuanian residents. Notably, residents have had restrictions placed on assemblies and movement in the affected zones, with the further possibility of restricting freedom of expression and speech, as well as directing traffic.
The zone covered by the state of emergency has additional restrictions concerning journalists' access to the migrants’ accommodations, migrants' and asylum seekers' access to communication devices, their right to assembly (unless they are family members), further exacerbating the difficult situation of migrants and asylum seekers. International law obliges states, including Lithuania, to ensure that human rights are protected, and prohibits excessively curtailing human rights even in times of war or emergencies. States are only allowed to derogate from international human rights obligations when doing so is necessary based on the gravity of the situation, following the principle of proportionality and other international obligations (keeping in mind that not even a state of emergency would allow for discrimination or torture).Given that a state of emergency is not and cannot be grounds for disproportionate restrictions or violations of human rights, it is questionable whether the parliamentary resolution declaring a state of emergency from 10 November onwards with the aforementioned restrictions does not violate the principle of proportionality.
Why are human rights organizations so concerned?
Up until now, the efforts of the Lithuanian authorities to provide decent living conditions for migrants and asylum seekers have been strongly criticized, with reports of human rights violations. The report, prepared by the Office of the Seimas Ombudsperson and published in October, details the various human rights violations and the situation of migrants and asylum seekers in Lithuania. People were not given privacy, the temporary accommodation did not meet hygiene requirements, people with special needs (children, pregnant women, the sick, and the elderly) were not given proper consideration, there was a lack of information on the migrants’ rights, people were put into common rooms without consideration for their religion, gender, or sexual orientation (which increases the risk of them being discriminated on these grounds), and so on. Although there were attempts later to improve the situation, the newly-imposed restrictions on the work of non-governmental organizations and journalists make it difficult to monitor human rights and give an objective assessment of the situation.
NGOs and human rights activists are concerned that the state of emergency is placing a disproportionate burden on migrants and asylum seekers. The parliamentary resolution allows restricting the migrants’ and asylum seekers’ right to use communication devices (mobile phones or the internet), except when communicating with the authorities, in the area affected by the state of emergency, including migrant accommodations. This can make it more difficult for people to communicate with their loved ones back in their country of origin, as well as with journalists and lawyers who can provide legal assistance.