News

2021.08.25 17:40

Volunteer warns of ‘humanitarian crisis’ at Lithuania's migrant camps

Jurga Bakaitė, LRT.lt2021.08.25 17:40

Living conditions in Lithuania's migrant camps are unsustainable, under-resourced and inhumane, says a volunteer after visiting several facilities housing irregular migrants.

LRT.lt has received a letter from Benjamin Nangle, a UK citizen who lives in Lithuania and has been volunteering at migrant detention camps for a week. He describes appalling living conditions, warning they could lead to deaths and unrest.

“These are people who have generally been misled and tricked into coming to Lithuania in search of a better life, and who find themselves now in inhumane and unsafe conditions, without enough to eat or to feed their children, without clothes to keep warm, or the basic sanitary conditions that we all expect, and unable to contact loved ones or family members in their home countries,” Nangle wrote.

He has visited two migrant camps: the Medininkai camp for families and the men's only camp in Rūdininkai.

“In the family camp we were greeted by extremely friendly, kind, but desperate people. Women lacked basic sanitary products, baby formula, diapers, even bin bags to keep the place clean, all of which they had been practically begging for since days earlier, and none of which we were equipped to provide.

“There was also a dangerous lack of food provision, without enough meals to go around, some people only received a few slices of bread. The children particularly asked for apples, but there weren’t enough for everyone,” according to Nangle.

Conditions at the men's camp are even more shocking, he wrote: “Eight hundred men [...] are crammed into tents, idle, freezing and hungry, without appropriate clothing and many even without blankets.”

People overseeing the camp lack equipment, experience and direction, and “despite their best efforts are totally unable to handle the situation”, according to Nangle.

Asked by LRT.lt whether he spoke with the camp guards about it, he said communication was difficult, for him as well as for the migrants, due to the language barrier. He had the impression that the officers were trying to maintain minimal order, without much direction from higher management.

Severe shortages at the camp provided for a potentially explosive situation, according to Nangle.

“Our task at the camp was to distribute clothing donations, and when we unpacked and checked the clothing there were just a few bags of mismatched, low-quality items, including around 10 suitable winter jackets and around 20 pairs of shoes, mostly very small and not appropriate for the winter.

“The 800 men formed a crowd as we attempted to distribute what little clothing we had, but the desperation of the freezing men, often without any footwear and often just a t-shirt, made this impossible. We had such a limited and sub-standard selection of items to offer, and not nearly enough to go around, and no feasible approach to distribution. We eventually had to repack the clothing in front of the men, and return it to storage, to avoid the fence collapsing or a potentially violent riot.”

Another volunteer who approached LRT.lt, but preferred to remain anonymous, said that deprivation at the migrant detention camps gave rise to a prison-like gang culture.

According to her, in order to stay warm, migrants use beds for firewood which they take from weaker men, leaving them to sleep on the ground.

“You cannot give anyone a better piece of clothing, because it will be snatched. We wanted to give a pillow to our interpreter, but he said: I cannot take it, I'll lose my head,” she said.

No five-star hotel

Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė commented on Wednesday that the government was focusing on improving living conditions for women and children, while male migrants needed to be patient.

“We cannot ensure five-star hotel conditions. Our priority right now is vulnerable groups, that is mothers and small children. We are making decisions to move them to better conditions,” Bilotaitė responded to a question about poor living conditions at the migrant camps.

The anonymous volunteer said she was angered by the minister's comments. “Every person has a right to a blanket and a sweater, so they don't have to lie on the ground and freeze,” she said.

According to the Lithuanian Red Cross, conditions in migrant camps are gradually improving, though remain harsh in some.

“The situation remains complicated at the Rūdninkai camp – with the number of foreigners housed there, the place does not have enough sanitation facilities or tents to ensure the minimum of dignity for them, some tents are not suitable for all weather conditions. There is still no hot water, but we know that hot food will be delivered to this camp from Friday,” Red Cross spokeswoman Monika Alimienė told LRT.lt.

Asked whether moods in the camps were really explosive, she said that the situation is made worse by a lack of information.

“People in detention centres are in an information vacuum – they don't get enough information in the language they understand about the decisions that concern them, asylum procedures and further steps,” she said, adding that “poor, undignified living conditions [...] also escalate tensions”.

Makeshift accommodation

Over 4,000 irregular migrants, most of them from the Middle East and Africa, crossed into Lithuania from Belarus in the last couple of months. The country has not been equipped to handle so many asylum seekers, housing them in makeshift tent camps and border checkpoint facilities as well as unused buildings provided by municipal authorities.

“There is clearly no simple solution to the issue of illegal immigration and the unprecedented situation taking place in Lithuania, however the provision of humane conditions for those held in the camps is a clear human rights issue, and steps must be taken immediately to avoid an inevitable worsening of the situation,” Nangle wrote in his letter.

According to him, migrant detention camps should be assigned non-military management with humanitarian experience and able to respond to the migrants' needs.

Moreover, he suggested, the migrants should be provided with adequate winter clothing and proper nutrition, particularly young children, and a means of cooking and heating canned food.

“All detainees should be provided with a means of contacting their families and those in their home countries, as a majority don’t have access to a phone,” according to Nangle.

LRT.lt has forwarded Nangle's letter to the Interior Ministry and expects to receive a comment.

Mums svarbus tikslumas ir sklandi tekstų kalba. Jei pastebėjote klaidų, praneškite portalas@lrt.lt