2021.10.11 14:37

UNHCR: Lithuania’s pushback policy 'illegal'

BNS2021.10.11 14:37

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed concern over Lithuania’s response to the migration crisis fostered by the Belarusian regime, saying pushbacks are "illegal" and the prolonged detention of asylum seekers violated international law.

“UNHCR remains concerned that Lithuania’s response in the current situation risks eroding the integrity of the asylum system in the country, including by prolonged detention of asylum-seekers and by limiting access to asylum, in violation of Lithuania’s obligations under international and European law," the UN agency said in a statement.

UNHCR’s Representative to the Nordic and Baltic Countries Henrik M Nordentoft has recently concluded his two-day visit to Lithuania, where he met with government representatives, members of the parliament, and other interlocutors to discuss Lithuania’s response to the migration influx via Belarus.

Nordentofts said "it is a fundamental human right for people to seek asylum [which] also applies in extraordinary situations or in times of emergency."

"We call on Lithuania to live up to its international obligations by providing access for asylum-seekers and by ensuring proper reception conditions and fair and efficient asylum procedures," Nordentoft said.

Read more: Lithuanian Red Cross: situation in migrant camps has changed 'dramatically'

The reports of pushbacks at Lithuania’s border with Belarus as well as reports of groups of people being stranded in border areas "in dire and cold conditions, with no access to asylum, raise serious concerns".

While states have the sovereign right to protect their borders, "this must be done in accordance with human rights, including respecting the right to seek asylum", the UN agency said.

UNHCR has reiterated that pushbacks not only risk endangering lives but are also "illegal under international law".

"UNHCR is aware that Lithuania has been working to improve and address gaps in reception conditions of the asylum-seekers. However, the majority, including vulnerable groups, continue to be accommodated in closed and severely overcrowded facilities with inadequate access to basic services. For some of them, this has been the case for more than three months, with severe impact on their well-being as a consequence. With winter conditions approaching, the situation is only exacerbated," the organization said.

UNHCR has therefore urged Lithuania to guarantee that detention of asylum-seekers only be used as a last resort and never applied to children, and to step up its efforts to provide adequate reception conditions to protect the lives and health of asylum-seekers.

'Unprecedented situation'

However, the UNHCR has acknowledged that Lithuania is facing an “unprecedented situation" and has “condemned any instrumentalisation of refugees and migrants by states to achieve political ends”.

"Lithuania’s government and authorities have faced an unprecedented situation with a sudden and high number of arrivals in a short amount of time. However, with the support from the EU, the situation should be manageable, and it is imperative that Lithuania strengthens the efforts to address the current gaps and to ensure reception conditions in line with human rights standards," Nordentoft said.

Lithuania, Latvia and Poland have faced a spike in irregular migration via Belarus. Nearly 4,200 migrants, mostly Iraqi citizens, have crossed into Lithuania from Belarus so far this year.

Vilnius and the EU accuse the Minsk regime of orchestrating the unprecedented migration influx, calling it "hybrid aggression" in retaliation for the block's sanctions for Minsk in response to its crackdown on the country's opposition.

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