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2021.09.13 08:00

‘The main goal is to get rid of them.’ Lithuania's asylum system cracks under pressure

Benas Gerdžiūnas, Artūras Morozovas, LRT.lt2021.09.13 08:00

Lithuania has claimed that virtually none of the irregular migrants who have arrived over the past months will receive asylum. With over 4,100 people already several months in de facto custody, Lithuanian authorities are now trying to coerce them into agreeing to voluntary returns.

“We had at most a minute or two [...] to ask why they are in Lithuania,” said an employee of a Lithuanian institution. He shared his story anonymously, describing what he saw as “lies” being told to asylum seekers during the registration process organised by the Migration Department at the temporary migrant camps.

He was tasked with interviewing the irregular migrants, but subsequently left his position.

The outcome of interviews depended on the interviewer’s “own morals” – in a process lasting less than 20 minutes, they would have to make a quick call whether to register the migrant as an “illegal” or an “asylum seeker”, putting them in one of the two boxes that will determine the future of their claim for refuge.

“We were cheating them during this process, because [...] the main goal is to get rid of them,” the man said.

The main message repeated to the asylum seekers was that they would have to leave sooner or later – either voluntarily or by force. For agreeing to return, they were offered better living conditions, which was “an obvious lie”, or threatened that they would be banned from the EU for five or ten years.

“During the registration, a person should be explained their rights,” the man said. “Evidently, these things were not being done.”

The interviewers would need to react to very specific keywords to determine whether to register the migrant as an asylum seeker. “People are taking part in the interviews like in a game where they do not know the rules,” he said. “[We were] told that voluntary returns were the ideal outcome of the conversation.”

Most of the time everything would come down to the interviewer’s own interpretation and individual knowledge of the asylum seeker’s country of origin. Mentioning tribal conflicts, for example, would not be deemed a threat, as opposed to government persecution or threats from terrorist organisations.

“I saw transformation among some of my colleagues,” he said. “Some were shocking – completely stepping over the boundary, [the interviews] were becoming interrogations.”

“They completely lost their sense of empathy,” he added.

The migration crisis calls for difficult decisions, the man believed. “But the state cannot behave with people as it is doing now,” he added.

Lithuania should acknowledge that the goal is to get rid of the people, “breach all the principles that we say we adhere to and demand from others”.

“But where does it lead us? We are becoming similar.”

Coerced returns

Vilnius officials maintain that the asylum seekers were in Belarus, which was, according to them, a safe country. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has previously posted a trilingual Facebook post aimed at irregular migrants, saying that “virtually no-one of you will receive an asylum” and they will be forced to go back.

But since the refugee crisis of 2015, European Union has also been unable to send more than a small share of undocumented migrants back to their point of origin.

Seemingly, Lithuania is faring no better, as only 53 people so far have agreed to head back voluntarily.

Now, teams of Lithuanian officers drafted from various institutions arrive at migrant centres for on-site interviews. Most of the asylum seekers living there say they either don’t understand the purpose of these talks or say they feel intimidated and bullied into agreeing to return home.

“Migration Department officials said during the interview that Lithuania is like Belarus, many here are racist,” said Edga from Cameroon in one of Lithuania’s makeshift migrant centres. “They said you have two options, either you leave voluntarily or we will deport you by force.”

“The person during the interview gave us a paper where we should write [our details] and sign for deportation,” said a man from Cameroon who preferred to remain anonymous. “They intimidate us every day, if you wish to go home you take 300 euros, or be deported by force.”

The same sentiment was repeated by more than a dozen asylum seekers from various countries in at least two different migrant centres.

In late July, Lithuania passed legal amendments with the apparent aim to deter new arrivals and coerce those already in migrant camps to leave. The new amendments cut down the processing time of asylum requests, limit the right of appeal, and legalise detentions of up to six months

NGOs have warned that the new legal amendments prevent authorities from differentiating among the asylum seekers and identifying vulnerable people or those in urgent need of international protection.

Among other scathing remarks, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has said that “detention of asylum-seekers should not be used by default or mandatorily for all arrivals, but rather remain the exception”.

Vulnerable groups of migrants are now housed mostly alongside single males. Among them, an Iraqi Jew says he feels unsafe, while two women say they are gay and are living in fear.

A recent 15min.lt news website report has profiled alleged prostitution and abuses taking place among men in one migrant camp.

On August 24, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights called on Lithuania to respect its international human rights commitments, saying that the new legal amendments allows the vulnerable “to be diverted to accelerated procedures, without regard to their specific situation”.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė replied that it's questionable whether the "irregular migrants" meet the definition of a refugee as descibed by the UN. She also said the country respects its humanitarian committments and takes care of their human rights.

On September 8, Interior Vice Minister Arnoldas Abramavičius also said that, "in principal, the EU has no complaints" about Lithuania's approach.

According to migration law experts and political analysts, the EU's involvement will likely increase amid what is slowly becoming a humanitarian crisis inside Lithuania, alongside the border crisis fostered by the Belarusian regime.

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

“There are a number of things -- the European Parliament could ask for investigation,” Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels, told LRT.lt. “If we think that in every emergency we can drop all laws, we have a very problematic situation.”

“Lithuania is not the first country to be under hybrid threat where migration is used by other countries,” she added.

Due to Lithuania’s limited asylum system being overwhelmed, EU law does foresee that a member state can “deviate from [...] certain standards”, including the detentions of migrants, she said. “But that should be for a short time.”

“This is all about setting a precedent which is disconcerting. Lithuania will not be last to experience this in the years to come and the right to asylum that something needs to be upheld no matter the [..] geopolitical conflict”.

“No wonder that many EU actors [including NGOs, Council of Europe] are concerned with what's happening” on the border with Belarus, she added.

Lithuania is now opting to encourage as many voluntary returns as possible, because “significant research showing [it is] significantly cheaper than forced returns.

But in light of coercion applied in other countries as well, “the degree of voluntariness” can be questioned. Ultimately, it may leave vulnerable people exposed “if there are no independent organisations present in the camps to give them information”, according to Beirens.

“Those with very limited information [...] or people who don't speak english or who struggle to find transl, may be particularly vulnerable to misinformation and pressure from powerful authorities.”

Translation issues?

“Some of us are smart, we ask to see a translation,” added a Cameroonian man.

A woman at the centre refused to sign the document asking to agree to return, but the constant pressure carries a psychological toll. “It's stressing people out,” said Kandiz. “We want to rest, but they come [to the centre], lie to us about deportation.”

The rest of the people at the migrant centre repeat the same claim that they find the conversations draining.

Head of the Migration Department, Evelina Gudzinskaitė, told LRT.lt that the officers are not authorised to use psychological pressure or coercion to get people to agree to voluntary returns.

“I would like to deny such a thing immediately, [...] such pressure is not used [by us], it’s not part of our procedures,” she said.

LRT.lt was unable to verify what document is allegedly only presented in Lithuanian language. The document for accepting voluntary returns is written in multiple languages.

Gudzinskaitė said that internal documents used during the asylum process are in Lithuanian. They do include a short summary at the end in foreign languages.

“The foreigner is also explained the decision via a translator, [who] explains the content of the decision in more depth,” said Gudzinskaitė.

Meanwhile, the documents handed out to the migrants are translated into the most common foreign languages found among asylum seekers, she added.

Understanding ‘what they have done wrong’

The interviews held with the migrants are “meant to explain their procedures and perspectives”, said Darius Remeika, an official from the Defence Ministry responsible for the processes on August 25 at the Verebiejai migrant centre.

“[We are explaining] where the migrants are having flawed understanding, where they were cheated by Belarus,” he said, adding that the aim of the talks is to inform about their legal standing.

The goal, said another Lithuanian official onsite, “is to get them to know what they have done wrong and what the perspectives are”.

The perspectives, he added, come down to the asylum decision of the Migration Department.

As of mid-August, none of the 200 processed applications were approved.

The Migration Department confirmed to LRT.lt that the asylum process begins when the interviewer indicates that the migrant has asked for international protection. During this stage, the department “organises the provision of legal support”. However, it remains unclear whether the same is applied to people marked as “illegals”.

What comes next?

The European Commission previously said that it’s unclear what will happen if the asylum claim is denied, but the person’s point of origin cannot be identified or they do not accept to be returned.

“It all depends on the individual circumstances, there is a framework for returns of individuals whose asylum applications have been rejected and Lithuanian authorities are in position to implement these frameworks. We are not in the position to provide advice,” Eric Mamer, spokesperson for the European Commission, told LRT in Brussels in August.

A forced return may be impossible, if the country of origin does not want to cooperate and does not issue new documents to its citizens.

“Theoretically, it’s possible that it might be unable to identify the country of origin,” said Gudzinskaitė from the Migration Department. However, the home country is usually found via language and other indicators, she added.

“Then [Lithuania] cooperates with institutions of the other country [...] to identify the person’s identity and procure return documents,” she said.

Yet, the risk remains that the asylum seekers remain in limbo, stranded and unable to receive asylum nor willing to go back, as experienced by thousands in countries like Greece.

“But I do not want to jump to conclusions and predict what [we will have] to do with such people, let’s live and see,” Gudzinskaitė said.

The fact that Lithuania is hedging its approach on return policy shows that the migration issue is new to the country, according to Hanne from the Migration Policy Institute.

In 2020, there were 416,600 asylum claims in the EU. Around 291,000 were denied and only 61,951 people were effectively returned.

“Problems with returns is what EU member states have faced for the last decade,” she said. “Germany last year changed its laws, because they have such a significant number of irregularly staying third-country nationals that cannot be returned.”

The EU currently has readmission agreements with 18 countries, but not with Iraq, Cameroon, or other prominent countries of origin of asylum seekers in Lithuania.

“If people cannot be returned [...] this becomes a huge burden on local authorities,” which have to deal with people “who cannot work, have limited rights, cannot access the public health system”.

“In the end, it may lead to ping-pong between different countries and their authorities, which say 'can you show me evidence that this person is [our] citizen'.”

If the asylum claim is also ongoing, the country would also have no right to hold the people inside the camps for longer.

“I don't understand why the migrant camps are in such bad condition. [...] Is it really that difficult to set up camps either with EU assistance or the UN, and process these individuals?” said Judy​ Dempsey from Carnegie Europe think tank.

“To have this pushback policy without coupling it with decent humanitarian help, it defies the imagination of what the EU is becoming,” she added.

“There is no great solution to all of this,” she said . “Even after 2015 there is no solution -- pushbacks or tighten borders more.”

Two years in prison?

Laurynas Kasčiūnas, a Lithuanian MP and head of the parliamentary security and defence committee, visited a camp on August 26. In a video published by Delfi.lt news website, he can be seen arguing emphatically with the asylum seekers, saying they are receiving more money than Lithuanian pensioners.

The MP warns migrants that they will spend “two years in prison” for crossing the border illegally, unless they accept to be returned.

Later, Kasčiūnas told LRT.lt that he was referring to a flyer prepared by the Migration Department.

He shared a picture of the flyer, where asylum seekers are threatened with dire legal consequences, but says that they still have the opportunity to request a voluntary return “before a criminal procedure is initiated”.

However, under international law, people who cross the border illegally to request asylum are not liable to face criminal responsibility.

Saying that the migrant will face criminal prosecution if their asylum claim is denied “would be a deterrent against claiming refuge”, according to Laurynas Biekša, a Lithuanian lawyer with experience in migration laws.

Previously, a criminal case for entering the country illegally would only continue if the person had spent a significant amount of time in Lithuania and was looking for a way to avoid deportation.

“It’s like playing Russian roulette – if you get lucky, you will get asylum, if not, we will put you in prison,” said Biekša, adding that it goes against all logic.

“In its decisions, Lithuania is ignoring international law [and] we don’t know what we will do with these people,” he said, adding that “it doesn’t seem that the society would like to influence politicians to act differently”.

Similarly, dozens of Belarusians fleeing regime repressions have crossed illegally into the country since the violent crackdown against dissent began after the August 2020 presidential election.

Amid the outpouring of support for the Belarusian opposition and exiles, many of the Belarusians who crossed the same forests as the undocumented migrants to get to Vilnius have previously called for the same empathy from Lithuanians towards the non-Belarusians.

“I believe there is a difference” between Belarusians and other asylum seekers, Kasčiūnas told LRT.lt. “Belarusians are running from repressions of an authoritarian regime, while the stream [of migrants] is organised by the authoritarian regime against Lithuania.”

Most allegedly fleeing wars and repressions

Like the others from Cameroon, Edga has fled ongoing fighting between Anglophone separatists and the central Cameroonian government. Some of his compatriots say they have fled from force conscription, showing videos on their phones of the brutal bush war.

They are among the 4,100 people who have crossed irregularly into Lithuania once the Belarusian regime opened the new migration route after threatening to flood Europe with “migrants and drugs”.

Instead, African students in Belarusian universities joined the hundreds of Iraqis flying in from Baghdad on their largely unobstructed trek through the forests and into Lithuania.

However, it remains unclear why the African students in Belarus were forced to flee. Some claim racism and the same repressions that many Belarusians are subjected to, others say the fact that the route to the EU had opened up pushed them to leave, or that they only sought the student status to be able to reach Europe.

Alongside Edga, other asylum sekers in the numerous centres include Iraqi Yazidis, who have survived a genocide attempt by ISIS and are now living amid ongoing fighting.

“If you want to live in Sinjar, you must have a weapon,” said Khadr. “We don’t know at which time someone will kill you.”

Others include people from Mali, where Lithuania has currently deployed troops alongside German forces in an ongoing military operation.

However, they all complain that the main questions from the authorities surround deportation.

“That's the main question – where is your document,” said Emmanuel from Nigeria. “They [the Lithuanian officers] say you will be forced to go home if you do not have documents.”

“It sounds like a threat – if you don’t have a document, they say you will go back next week.”

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