2021.12.28 17:55

MSF among volunteers fined for helping migrant on Lithuania-Belarus border

Augustinas Šemelis, LRT TV, LRT.lt2021.12.28 17:55

On Christmas Eve, volunteers travelled to Lithuania’s border with Belarus after receiving information about a Syrian man in dire medical condition. Because they did not have permission to enter the emergency zone, they were fined 100 euros each. Among them – three medics from Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

“I’m here, in the Lithuanian forest, for two days. I cannot walk or stand. I’m very sick. I need international protection in Lithuania,” the Syrian man said in the video sent to the humanitarian organisation Sienos Grupė (The Border Group).

“He just sat there, slumped over, leaning against a tree,” Mantautas Šulskus of Sienos Grupė described the condition of the migrant when the volunteers found him.

According to Šulskus, the volunteers gave the man warm tea and food and changed him into warm clothes. They called medics from the international organisation Doctors Without Borders because the Syrian man did not want to turn to the border guards for help.

“He said that while he was lying there, he saw armed people in uniforms passing by. So, he could have shouted at them and asked for help,” Šulskus said.

“But there are rumours in the migrant networks, and they know that if they turn themselves in, there is a huge chance of being pushed back into Belarus,” he added.

When the volunteers found the Syrian man, he told them that he did not want to go back to Belarus, according to Šulskus.

Doctors Without Borders inspected the foreigner and determined that he needed to go to the hospital immediately. The volunteers then called the border guards and the ambulance.

The Syrian man was taken to the hospital in Druskininkai and later transferred to one in Vilnius. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has granted him temporary protection – he cannot be expelled from Lithuania until January 31.

Fines and doubts

During the current state of emergency, humanitarian workers are largely barred from working on the border with Belarus. Special permissions are required and neither the volunteers of Sienos Grupė nor Doctors Without Borders had them. They were all fined 100 euros for being in the emergency zone illegally.

“Doctors without Borders work in those countries where they suspect, or they know, that essential medical services are not being provided,” Vidmantas Balkūnas, a journalist with news website who was onsite when the migrant was found, told LRT TV.

The MSF has refrained from commenting on the situation.

“With all due respect to doctors and everyone else, in this case, their profession is not a factor that might exempt them from this responsibility,” Giedrius Mišutis, spokesperson for Lithuania’s State Border Guard Service (VSAT), told LRT TV.

According to Šulskus, volunteers help migrants without official permits because “from our experience, we know that we wouldn’t get these permits”.

But the border guards say that the volunteers delayed helping the migrant.

“These people show up at the border calling themselves volunteers,” Mišutis said “Why those who could have called the medics sooner were not informed? [The volunteers] waited, delayed and thus, it could be argued, endangered the man's health even more.”

In the words of Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Kęstutis Lančinskas, the volunteers‘ posts on social media and actions are “anti-state and anti-border guards”.

“In my opinion, they are involved in anti-state activities and undermine trust in Lithuanian institutions,” he said.

According to Lančinskas, only organisations that have official contracts are allowed to enter the border area, following the governmental procedures.

“Currently, only the Red Cross, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have such agreements in Lithuania. That's all. This is a complete list,” he said.

But according to volunteers, such provisions run counter to human rights.

“We find ourselves in a place where law starts to diverge from common moral principles,” Šulskus of Sienos Grupė said.

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