31st May 2023

Lithuania law to allow 'volunteer' border guards to use violence

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Lithuania's parliament passed a controversial new law allowing volunteers from around Europe to join its national border guard force — while giving them the right to use violence against asylum seekers and migrants crossing in from Belarus.

"There is no restriction for people from abroad to come," Emilija Švobaitė, a lawyer and rights campaigner at Sienos Grupė, a Lithuanian NGO, told EUobserver on Thursday (20 April) ahead of the vote.

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She said it means radical rightwing groups from Germany could come and patrol alongside national border guards under the provisions of the state border and protection draft law.

Meanwhile, journalists and independent monitors will be banned from the border, she said.

The billed passed on Thursday with 69 in favour, 7 against and 24 abstentions. There is still a final vote to pass the law, which is scheduled for next Tuesday.

More specifically, the bill described volunteers as 'sponsors' and says they will be allowed to "use coercion", help make arrests, and other patrol guard-like duties.

It also says those that excel in their tasks may end up being nominated for state awards.

Sponsors can come from any EU state so long as they speak some Lithuanian, are at least 18 years old, and are not currently serving as a border guard somewhere else.

The volunteers will be allowed to provide emergency medical assistance.

But other tasks including the identification of vulnerable persons, humanitarian and other assistance, help in asylum applications were all vetoed on Thursday.


Rights campaigners and academics have also taken issue with the bill for allowing patrol guards to force people back into Belarus.

"Basically they are legalising the pushbacks at the border," said Monika Guliakaitė-Danisevičienė of the Lithuanian Human Rights Centre, an NGO.

Similar comments were made by Amnesty International earlier this week, which described the Lithuanian bill as a green-light to torture.

Lithuania has a 680km border with Belarus, some 550km of which is fences.

The country declared a state of emergency after Belarus enticed people to cross into Lithuania as part of what the EU describes as a politically driven ploy by Minsk to destabilise member states.

At least one person, a 32-year old from Sri Lanka, was found dead earlier this year at the border. Others have lost limbs to frostbite.

Lithuania has already been faulted for its asylum rules.

Last summer, the European Court of Justice ruled against Lithuania for preventing irregular migrants from applying for asylum and allowing mass detention during a state of emergency.

But Lithuania's ministry of interior maintains that the draft law is needed to ensure control of the state border and better manage asylum.

Dainius Daukša, an advisor from the ministry, said they want to exclude foreigners who violate the procedure for crossing the state border from entering the territory of Lithuania only during an emergency situation.

"The draft law provides for an individual assessment of the need for and provision of assistance to foreigners crossing the state border," he said, in an email.

Those assessments will exclusively be made by border guards who have been accused of already carrying out pushbacks. Rights defenders note that there are cases where people were illegally pushed back but then allowed to return to obtain asylum after the European Court of Human Rights intervened.

Daukša says people can still apply for asylum at border control posts, in Lithuania or through diplomatic missions or consular offices abroad.

But a report by the Lithuanian Red Cross says that in reality people are restricted in their efforts to apply for asylum at border control points and at Lithuanian diplomatic missions.

According to Lithuanian state figures, some 850 people were turned back at the border this year.

For its part, the EU's border guard Frontex has 17 agents deployed in Lithuania. The European Commission said it was not yet able to comment on the draft law.

Frontex ends Lithuania border surveillance operation

The agency is suspending border surveillance operations in Lithuania. It also wants to reverse a rule which requires it to suspend operations in EU states where violations take place — and instead send in more agents.

EU relying on 'ineffective' Greek body to probe pushback video

The European Commission says it cannot act on latest revelations by the New York Times of illegal pushbacks of asylum-seekers until authorities in Greece first conduct a national investigation. Critics say those same authorities are politically compromised and ineffective.

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