Tuesday

16th Apr 2024

EU Commission defends Baltic states accused of pushbacks

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The European Commission has defended policies enacted by Latvia and Lithuania to stem migration at their shared borders with Belarus — despite widespread criticism that they are trampling on asylum rights.

"Those two countries are doing their best to protect the EU border," Monique Pariat, a senior EU commission official told MEPs in the civil liberties committee on Monday (4 September).

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  • Detail of map showing Belarus (red) border with Latvia (to north west) and Lithuania (west) (Photo: Wikimedia)

"Latvia and Lithuania have faced unprecedented illegal border crossings since 2021," she added.

Her comments come in light of widespread civil rights criticism, accusing legislators in Latvia and Lithuania of forcing prospective asylum seekers back into Belarus.

Lithuania has also recently declared some 1,000 Russian and Belarus nationals residing in the country as security threats, including Olga Karatch, an exiled Belarus activist nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize.

But Pariat insisted "serious evidence" must be brought to light that the right to asylum had been violated before launching any possible infringements against Latvia or Lithuania.

"We are here at the Nato border also. And that's why [this] legislation have been put in place," she said.

Pushbacks

Amnesty International and Dunja Mijatović, Europe's human rights commissioner, both took issue with the Latvian legal reforms over the summer.

So too did the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which said the Latvian legal tweaks allows for pushbacks — considered illegal under both international and EU law.

And earlier this year, Amnesty International said the new Lithuanian laws effectively tramples asylum rights. The European Court of Justice had also faulted Lithuania over its laws.

This comes as the number of attempts to cross from the Belarus border increased by 62 percent compared to last year. Poland saw some 17,000 attempts alone.

"Poland recorded an increase by seven times compared to the same period last year," said Pariat.

Polish NGO Grupa Granica says a total of 48 bodies have been recovered at Poland's border with Belarus over the past two years.

Most of those making the attempts come from war-wrecked countries like Afghanistan and Syria. Others come from repressive states like Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka and Belarus itself.

And some are arriving via Belarus from Russia, often with Russian visas or entry stamps, said Pariat.

"This is something new compared to the situation in 2020 that we need to underline," she said.

A hybrid threat

The EU frames such attempts as a political ploy, instigated in Minsk and Moscow, to destabilise member states as part of a hybrid attack known in EU parlance as the instrumentalisation of migrants.

But unlike in 2021, when Belarus was accused of pushing migrants across the border, the latest manoeuvre comes in the context of Russia's war in Ukraine.

And along with it, the remnants of Russia's Wagner mercenaries in Belarus.

Their presence on the border have been used as a pretext to further increase security, posing questions on the fate of ordinary migrants attempting to cross.

In an email on Tuesday, Edgars Oļševskis, a lawyer for the Latvian Centre for Human Rights, said that the country's border security fears are justified but they are also disproportionate.

"Our unequivocal opinion is that the practice of pushbacks (in the state's interpretation it is called "deterrence") of those seeking asylum at the border is unjustified," he said.

Igors Rajevs, Latvia's parliamentary secretary for the ministry of interior, maintains the country respects all its international obligations.

"There's no restriction for anybody to apply for asylum in our country," he said.

Go to Germany

He said some 94 people were allowed to enter Latvia in 2021, followed by over 2,000 in 2022 and some 300 so far this year. However, Latvia had also prevented over 5,000 attempts to cross in from the Belarus border in 2022.

"This year, when there are still four months left until the end of the year, almost 7,000 attempts have been prevented," he said.

Those numbers may reflect new Latvian legal amendments, which entered into force in July.

"The amendments provide for the possibility to not allow the person to enter Latvia at unforeseen places and time," he said, noting that a state of emergency has since been lifted.

Latvia granted 105 people international protection in 2021, out of 582 submissions. This increased to 243 in 2022. More than 800 have applied so far this year, with around 80 granted asylum.

Similar comments were made by Lithuania's vice-minister of interior, Arnoldas Abramavičius. "We are determined to protect the external borders with all it takes," he said.

Speaking to MEPs alongside Pariat, Abramavičius said that people can ask for asylum at their consulate in Minsk, as well at border check points.

He said most people crossing into Lithuania from Belarus are seeking to go to Germany. "Our registration centre is also about empty at the moment because now nobody wants to stop here," he said.

Abramavičius said they had also amended their laws, following a ruling by the European Court of Justice, which found Lithuania in violation of EU asylum law.

"There is now a possibility to apply for asylum in the territory," he said.

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