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2021.09.02 08:00

What not ‘five-star’ conditions look like in Lithuanian migrant camps

Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt2021.09.02 08:00

Lithuania’s interior minister has claimed that the country cannot guarantee “five-star hotel” conditions for the thousands of migrants who have entered from Belarus. In one of  the makeshift camps, even the bare minimum seems to be a tall order.

“I think we are still in Iraq,” said one man, describing his living conditions in Lithuania. Like everyone else, he preferred to remain anonymous.

The camp, no more than 50 metres on each side, houses a few hundred people, including multiple families with children, as well as several pregnant women.

While other camps in Lithuania are set up in defunct schools, administrative buildings, or purpose-built centres, the one near Druskininkai, on the border with Belarus, is a collection of tents submerged in mud.

“People are getting sick, especially women and children – throat, chest, body, allergies,” said an Iraqi.

As we walk through the inch-deep mud, sounds of coughing reach me from many of the dozen-odd tents set up on a hill overlooking the Nemunas river. On the other side, red and green posts mark the edge of Belarus – the point of transit for all of the asylum seekers.

Many of the tents are leaking. The trenches dug around them are filled with food waste and filth. “The rain was not so bad yesterday and it’s already hard to walk,” said one man. “Imagine when it rains a lot.”

In one corner of the camp, a container with several toilet cubicles and showers can only be reached by walking precariously over stepping stones half submerged in the mud. Inside, the view is no better, with dirt and mud drenching even the walls of the container.

“We asked for materials to clean, so we can clean ourselves,” said one man, adding that nothing has been provided so far. Similar stories are repeated by asylum seekers in other camps.

Having lived here for two months, they have had few opportunities to break the boredom. Families and women walk up and down along the perimeter fence, holding hands, talking, sharing a cigarette. Men sit down for a game of cards, overseen by Lithuanian military personnel who have their posts on the other side of the flimsy fence.

At least several dozen people are Yazidis from Iraq. Having survived a genocide by ISIS, they said they had lived some seven years at a camp in Iraq which burned down earlier this year, pushing them to look for options to flee. Now, the historical Yazidi lands are again the centre of a conflict between Kurds, Turks, and various Iraqi groups.

“We don’t have safety in Shingal (Sinjar),” said one of the women.

They hudde over flatbread and Lithuanian cottage cheese – the closest equivalent to their Labneh – bought from a shop that visits the camp a few times a week. There, they can buy milk, cheese, and other nutrients to supplement their meagre diets.

The prices prevent them from buying more than the bare minimum, a few of the migrants said.

Two months of dry rations

Two months since the establishment of the camp, people here are still only supplied with dry rations. They say it hasn’t changed. Each day, a person receives some bread, a 1.5-litre bottle of water, a can of tuna and sweetcorn, some fruit, and dried noodles.

A few kettles set up along the fence provide the only opportunity to get warm food by boiling eggs or filling up cups of dried noodles.

“The same every day, every day,” motions one of the men. Like most of his compatriots, he has been here for more than 30 days.

Worryingly, at least three women in the camp are pregnant and have to live on the same diet. One of them says she had a miscarriage.

“The doctor said this food will not get the baby growing,” the woman said, adding that she was one month pregnant when she arrived at the camp.

Two others are five and seven months pregnant. They worry that the conditions will lead to the same tragedy.

“I was taken to the hospital for a check up after I fell,” one of them said. However, due to the bad conditions, “I am afraid it will lead to problems with the baby”.

She is due to give birth in a few weeks, she added.

Another woman said she was five months pregnant. “I am worried about the food, there is no medicine,” she said. “They [the guards] brought rice, but how will we cook it?”

A local medic visits once a day and stays as long as it is necessary, according to the guards onsite. Crowds gather by the fence, waiting for their turn.

Most of them are Iraqis, but there are also Africans from Guinea, Congo, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast. There is also one Chechen family.

Alleged pressure from Red Cross to sign return papers

The asylum seekers also claim that Red Cross workers, or translators working alongside them, have attempted to convince them to agree to voluntary returns.

“The Red Cross did not come to help us,” said one Iraqi man. “They said, why are you here, you should go back to your country.”

His claims were supported by several other testimonies at the camp. They could not, however, distinguish whether it was the Kurdish translator or Red Cross workers or volunteers who allegedly pressured them to sign voluntary return papers.

Eglė Samuchovaitė, spokesperson for the Lithuanian Red Cross, told LRT.lt that such claims would be investigated.

“Any attempts to persuade [people to return] would be overstepping our mandate,” she said. “After receiving such signals [...] we always check the information and try to make sure that it doesn’t happen.”

The Lithuanian authorities are currently trying to persuade as many asylum seekers as possible to agree to voluntary returns.

Samuchovaitė said the Red Cross did provide information about the return procedure, as well as legal support during the asylum application process. “Our aim is not to advise which decision to take, but to supply information.”

Moving families out

“We strive, based on our abilities, to ensure basic living conditions for migrants and provide food rations,” the Lithuanian Interior Ministry told LRT.lt in a written comment. “The situation [at the migrant camps] is not identical. Hot food is provided in some places.”

In the near future, families and vulnerable individuals will be transferred to purpose-built container housing, equipped with amenities and with access to appropriate infrastructure.

“As the cold weather season approaches, migrants from Lipliūnai [...] will be transferred to modular housing, which is equipped with heating, as well as household and hygiene equipment.”

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