31st May 2023

EU: Lithuania can't use untrained volunteer border guards

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Lithuania's border guards must be trained professionals, the European Commission has warned, after the government in Vilnius amended its laws to allow armed volunteers to patrol alongside it national guards.

"It is very premature to go into the details before we have seen and assessed thoroughly the legislation," said a European Commission spokesperson.

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But she also said EU border rules in the Schengen Borders Code [article 16] require that guards "are specialised and properly-trained professionals."

This includes training that will enable them to handle vulnerable persons, such as unaccompanied minors and victims of trafficking.

Lithuania's future volunteer corps will be allowed to use violence against people attempting to cross from Belarus. And they will be patrolling a five kilometre buffer zone, during a declared state of emergency, that is off limits to most everyone else — including journalists and NGOs.

Any EU national can sign up, but they must live in Lithuania, speak some Lithuanian, and not be active in the military.

"There is no requirement for them to be professionally trained," according to Emilija Švobaitė, a lawyer and rights campaigner at Sienos Grupe, a Lithuanian NGO.

Given the buffer zone, Švobaitė says there will also be no way of knowing how these volunteers and patrol guards are carrying out their duties. "Basically, every person who comes in those five kilometres at the border, they are by law not in the territory of Lithuania," she said.

"So physically they are there but by law they have never entered the territory of Lithuania," she said.

Lina Vosyliūtė, a former research fellow at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, described the volunteer corps as a "militarised youth association".

She said there will be short, basic training, involved.

After being passed by parliament, the law was formalised by Lithuania's president Gitanas Nausėda and will enter into force on Wednesday.

It took Nausėda one day to sign it into law.

"We found it a bit shocking that the president signed this law in one day without consulting civil society or even international bodies," says Vosyliūtė.

For its part, Lithuania says the law is needed to ensure the security of the border in light of the Belarus regime, which they say have enticed people to cross into the EU in a wider attempt to destabilise member states.

In April, Ewelina Dobrowolska, Lithuania's justice minister, announced plans to take legal action against Belarus for deliberately bringing migrants across its border.

Lithuania has accused Belarus of violating a protocol against migrant smuggling in a UN convention on organised crime.

The EU's border police Frontex currently has some 17 agents in Lithuania. The agency says it does not take part in border surveillance activities and patrols along the Belarus border.

Instead they support national authorities with border checks activities at the selected border crossing points.

"The ultimate command of any operation is in the hands of the host member state, which decides what types of formations are deployed," said a Frontex spokesperson, in an email.


Civil rights defenders also say the new law will lead to the collective pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers.

The European Court of Justice had already last year faulted Lithuania for preventing irregular migrants from applying for asylum and allowing mass detention during a state of emergency.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says the latest law risks authorising pushbacks and may lead to individuals not being granted effective access to territory and the right to seek asylum.

"Individuals seeking asylum may still risk being pushed back at the borders, which would constitute a breach of European and international law," it said, in a statement.

The European Commission says they are in contact with the Lithuanian authorities to see if it complies with EU law and the court of justice ruling.

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

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.

EU calls for 'firm' Belarus border control by Poland

A dead body in a freezing river, spinal injuries after falling off a wall, a pregnant woman given a punishment beating after being forced back — this is what's happening on the EU's eastern border.

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.

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