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2022.08.10 08:00

Lithuania said it would deport irregular migrants. It hasn’t happened – what’s next?

Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt 2022.08.10 08:00

After hundreds of migrants entered Lithuania, the government said most would be sent home. They weren’t. What will happen to them now?

During a June discussion at the parliament, Interior Vice Minister Arnoldas Abramavičius defended the government’s hard border and migrant detention policies: “The position of the Interior Ministry was inspired by public sentiment.”

“If you read the lead articles of all the news websites [last summer], there was one question – why the authorities are not sorting things out, [...] not deporting everyone,” he said.

Abramavičius spoke in front of migrants as well as volunteers, who months prior had been berated by officials for allegedly working against the state. The migrants themselves were called a “threat”.

“Now, we can have discussions that would have not been possible a year ago [during the crisis],” he added

Having taken in thousands of Ukrainian refugees, the society might be changing its views towards asylum seekers, the vice minister said. Officials also called on the society to take in asylum seekers and care for them – same as for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

Several thousand people spent close to a year in de facto detention, confined to several migrant centres scattered around Lithuania. They were placed there following what Baltic officials and Brussels described as a “hybrid attack” by the Minsk regime.

In the summer of last year, Belarus opened a migration route to Europe for people from Africa and the Middle East. In many cases, they were driven by Belarusian officers toward the Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish borders. There, these people were left trapped in forests, pushed back and forth by both sides.

Lithuania was faced with such an influx of refugees for the first time. Unlike in the Mediterranean, officials say, it wasn't a natural spike in migration. Here, it was a clear attempt by Minsk and Moscow to plunge the Baltics and Poland into chaos.

Some people did make it into Lithuania. In most cases, they were placed in detention for the rest of the year as they lodged their asylum claims. This also applied to minors and families, a move that was criticised by human rights groups worldwide.

In the end, only a handful received asylum. For others, applications are still pending. For more people still, their claims have been rejected.

Lithuania banked its response to irregular migration on coercing or incentivising, people to return. Yet, hundreds of them remain in the country with an undefined legal status – without asylum, but with a court decision to force them home.

Most have shunned the 1,000-euro offers to accept voluntary returns or have refused to show documents that would precede deportation. And so, they stay in a legal limbo, but no longer detained in the migration centres.

This is where the questions of what happens next emerge.

Shadow economy

Two owners of a trendy restaurant in Vilnius first began employing Belarusian refugees who were fleeing the brutal crackdown in the wake of the August 2020 election. Now, while also seeking to help Ukrainians, they have turned to offering jobs for asylum seekers from Afghanistan.

In early July, the government gave undocumented migrants the right to seek employment after spending 12 months in the country, even if their asylum applications have been rejected.

“The war in Ukraine has shown that every person matters, no matter what war they are fleeing,” says Giedrė Selenytė, one of the co-owners. “We have helped integrate Ukrainians and we want to help [others] integrate. It is difficult to understand that some people are treated as less than human in our country.”

Over time, relations between the migrants and people in Lithuania, even officers, has changed, according to Robertas Narkus, the other co-owner.

“There are a lot of unwritten beliefs, and the [migrants] themselves say that when they arrived, they had a difficult relationship with the guards, but now, they get along well. They meet their guards in town, they are friends,” he said. “They have gained that trust and [the problems] have been solved.”

“There is no getting away from this problem. If we learn how to deal with a few thousand people now, that experience will be useful in the future,” Robertas said.

But by employing undocumented migrants, they have risked upsetting part of their clientele.

“It's not a very popular mission what we do here. This one was also an experiment to see how much our audience, [the] golden youth, [...] would support our mission. This is a big question,” said Robertas.

“We are well aware that this can be anti-advertising. That's why we want to distance ourselves from attempts to change opinions, and talk about technical matters,” he added.

They were first forced to hire the person on a “volunteering” basis as the employment permits are still pending. Restrictive rules have left the migrants in a vulnerable position.

“It can breed shadow [economy],” said Giedrė. “You take one person on for a month, you don't pay them, you throw them out, and then you do it again the next month, and you end up pushing them into poverty.”

Repeat of scenes in Italy?

With around 20 euros per month in benefits, those with refused asylum claims or applications still pending are often forced to look for work in the black market economy.

“When migration officers first offered people to find an address to leave the camp, to a hotel or an apartment, I asked them – are you giving them a work permit? They said no. Will they have a bank account so they can receive money? They said no. [...] I told them – these people will become homeless,” said Sara (name changed), a 25-year-old from Iraq.

“They said it’s okay, there is black work. I have never heard about [illegal] work before,” she added.

Khalid, a man from Afghanistan, said he had worked three hours on a renovation project, before being told to go empty handed. “They called me and said, leave, no more work,” he said in Vilnius.

Khalid found the job through Belarusian refugees living among the predominantly Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers at a migrant centre.

“There is work in construction, which pays 50–60 euros per day,” he said. “People go from [migrant centres in] Pabradė, like my Afghan or Tadjik friends, there is much work.”
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“Even some days ago, my friend called me and said there is work if you want,” he added.

Now, Khalid is one of the lucky few to find legal employment in the restaurant run by Giedrė and Robertas. “I need solid work, I want to live here, [...] bring my wife and children who are still in Afghanistan.”

Volunteers who help migrants say employers are not yet familiar with the new system, which allows undocumented migrants to work legally. Many asylum seekers are also pushed into the black market economy because they do not have identification documents.

To integrate them into the labour market, the authorities are now forced to reinvent the bike, one source with in-depth knowledge of the process told LRT.lt.

Without a residence permit, they cannot open bank accounts. The mandatory health insurance will also not apply to them.

Thus the whole system has to be reshaped to accommodate just the several hundred people who will remain in the country, according to the source, as Lithuania’s officials understand the majority will flee the country.

Lithuania’s approach follows earlier examples in countries like Germany, which had to establish a separate legal status – a Tolerated Stay Permit (Duldung) – for those who had their asylum claims rejected, but would not, or could not, be deported.

According to Lina Vosyliūtė, a researcher specialising in migration at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, good practices include encouraging vocational training, especially if they have skills in the sectors that seek workers.

But if they are forced into the black market, “there is an opportunity to exploit these people even more”.

According to her, year-long detention was a “crisis-driven response” to “wait and see what happens” and not a viable long-term strategy. “There was no need to detain and imprison them in the first place – it might have even been cheaper for the state [to keep them free] and easier for the public to get used to them,” she said.

The EU’s structural problems are partly to blame, Vosyliūtė said, adding that Brussels “sort of accepts the different treatment of people – if an asylum seeker from Ukraine arrives, we have even made a temporary protection directive, whereby the person immediately gets access to the job market.”

“Meanwhile, we have hidden these people in the forests, imprisoned them for a year, during which time they have probably become even more impoverished, their mental and general health has deteriorated, and they may have lost any motivation to learn the language or other things,” said Vosyliūtė.

If more people are pushed into the black market, Lithuania may see the repeat of scenes witnessed in France, Greece, Italy, or elsewhere.

“This creates a market for exploitation, which is what we see happening with undocumented migrants who, let's say, work in the fields of Italy without adequate health and labour protection measures,” she said.

Finally, it may have a knock-on effect on the labour market in the whole country.

“If you can restrict the rights of certain people, it can distort competition,” Vosyliūtė said. “With the crisis looming, it might be worth it for politicians to think about this.”

Lithuania’s Migration Department denied their workers had advised asylum seekers to seek illegal employment.

“Migrants are regularly dealt with personally by the State Border Guard Service or workers at the Refugee Reception Centre [...] or by representatives of NGOs, [...] so this question would be better directed to them,” the department said in a written comment.

So far, the Migration Department has received 29 requests for work permits, it added. The country's employment agency, Užimtumo Tarnyba, told LRT.lt the migrants are now able to access its services, as well as training options.

Legalising pushbacks

The number of people attempting to enter Lithuania irregularly is growing again, approaching the levels seen at the height of the crisis last year. According to the border guards, the wall constructed along the country's frontier with Belarus is helping keep the situation under control.

Lithuania is now seeking to legalise pushbacks – a controversial practice which may include picking people up that are already in Lithuanian territory and transporting them back to the border and directing them, allegedly sometimes with force, to go back to Belarus.

Due to reported human rights violations, a court in Germany refused to send an asylum seeker to Lithuania under the Dublin convention.

But this was the only measure that had worked, the country’s officials insist. If Vilnius hadn’t resorted to hard migration policies, the Minsk regime would have continued escalating the crisis.

If approved by the parliament, pushbacks would only be legal during war or a state of emergency, ie when officials see Russia or Belarus again attempting to use migration as a pressure tool.

Meanwhile, the initial argument for enforcing de facto detention of all migrants entering Lithuania centred on the need to protect Schengen borders. If the flows were not stopped, Vilnius officials stressed, Lithuania would have faced repercussions for letting scores of people move freely toward Western Europe.

But this is what’s happening now, with the migrant centres rapidly emptying out, as the number of people there has dwindled from 4,000 to just over 1,000 in several months – 800 have fled in July alone.

“Most people here have had their asylum case [rejected] a long time ago, and the government keeps saying that they will keep trying to deport them,” said Sara, the 25-year-old from Iraq. “So people are scared, they don't want to go to hell – as Iraq is hell for them.”

They understand that “the government doesn't want them” and so they flee.

To secure a permit to leave the camp, people need to sign a form, showing they have accommodation elsewhere. They can also seek a temporary pass to leave the camp without having to move out – an option that volunteers and the Red Cross say migrants often know nothing about.

“You can rent and [...] the booking that you will show – real or not real, or you will cancel it – it is not important,” says Sara. “Most importantly you have this [booking] so they can [let you] outside the camp.”

“Because imagine, you are closed up for 12 months and someone gives you this option, you will accept,” she says. “All of them who did that are not here [in Lithuania] anymore.”