Lithuania's interior minister has signed a decree this week, instructing border guards not to let irregular migrants cross the border from Belarus. Some observers say this may come close to violating Lithuania's international obligations and migrants' human rights.
Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė announced on Monday night that Lithuanian officers would use “all legal measures” to protect the border and push back migrants trying to walk across from Belarus. Instead, migrants intending to request asylum would have to do it at border checkpoints and diplomatic representations, Bilotaitė added.
According to her, she took the measure, because migrants are used by the Belarusian government “as an instrument of hybrid aggression”.
The Border Guard Service said on Tuesday it had pushed back around 180 migrants on the first night of the new policy.
According to Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius, a liberal MP and chairman of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, Lithuania must be “careful” with this kind of policy.
“Turning back migrants at the border is hard to reconcile with the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the European Convention on Human Rights and other international human rights documents,” Raskevičius posted on social media.
First, according to the politician, the policy of pushing back all the migrants fails to consider their individual circumstances and vulnerabilities. Second, international law requires that migrants not be sent back where their lives could be in danger.
“These are international rules and we are walking on thin ice,” Raskevičius said. “Will we succeed in not breaking them?”
Lyra Jakulevičienė, a law professor at Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius, agrees: “The decision not to let migrants in raises all kinds of questions. [...] They [the government] didn't find any better solution to respond to the situation, just took the standard road, which is indeed very risky.”
She says the European Court of Human Rights has recently ruled in a similar case that may have implications for Lithuania.
In a 2020 case against Spain, the court ruled that the country did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights when it summarily expelled two men to Morocco.
According to Jakulevičienė, however, the court considered very specific circumstances in Spain and may not find that the same applies in Lithuania's case.
The Lithuanian government probably considered these risks, she adds, which is why it said that migrants could request asylum at Lithuania's border checkpoints and embassies.
“In case there is indeed at least one person fleeing political persecution or human rights abuses, it is important that they have an opportunity to request political asylum in Lithuania,” Raskevičius wrote, adding that this option is left open.
However, it is important, according to him, that Lithuanian officers do not use excessive physical force or violence when stopping migrants from crossing the border.
“I trust the professionalism of our border guards,” Raskevičius commented.
“Second, we must record as well as we can all the cases of these pushbacks (the place, the time, the number of people, the measures used, etc.),” he wrote. “We must be transparent as crystal, because international institutions will present us with many questions about our policies.”
What if Lithuania is found to have violated its international commitments and migrants' rights? According to Jakulevičienė, the damage would be primarily reputational. Moreover, this would let migrants file lawsuits against the country.
“This, of course, can take time and will depend on individual circumstances,” she tells LRT.lt.
Criticism from the Red Cross
The Lithuanian Red Cross Society has also expressed concern about the new policy.
“First, if vulnerable people are not let in – and, according to official information from Statistics Lithuania, minors account for around a quarter of all migrants and women account for around a third – they will remain in an unsafe environment and might face threat to their security,” Eglė Samuchovaitė, programme director at the Lithuanian Red Cross, said in a comment sent to BNS.
“Second, in the absence of a physical barrier on the border with Belarus, a question arises how we can prevent the use of disproportionate and unjustified force against people seeking asylum,” she said.
According to Samuchovaitė, the government is understandably concerned about stemming irregular migration, but pushing back asylum seekers is incompatible with human rights documents.
Over 4,000 irregular migrants have entered Lithuania from Belarus over the past several months. Lithuanian officials say that the Belarusian government is involved in migrant smuggling.