Migrants stuck at Belarus-Lithuania border endure EU apathy
The situation in Lithuania is at a deadlock. Around 4,000 migrants are now parked in camps scattered around the country, waiting for their asylum applications to be accepted, or, in most cases, rejected.
In the town of Verebiejai, 100 miles South-West of Vilnius, the capital 170 people live in what used to be a school. They are from Iraq, Russia, Cameroun, Congo etc. The blackboards are still there, the names of some rooms are still on the doors, and some old textbooks even lie on the floor.
Everything is in its place, the only things that have changed are the desks and chairs, which have mostly been removed and replaced with foldable beds, where these migrants sleep. They’ve been here for around two months, came in from Belarus, and asked for asylum in Lithuania, the first country of the EU on their Eastern border.
"[The Lithuanian authorities] do not believe these people arriving are refugees, but simply migrants who saw an opportunity to enter the EU and took it"
This itinerary is a new migration route, nothing compared to the Balkans route during the 2015 migration crisis, but one that was pushed by the Belarussian authorities. “This is not a natural route, says Evelina Gudzinskaitė, head of the migration department of the Ministry of Interior. These migrants have been sent by Lukashenko, they are not refugees.”
In May, the Belarussian president wanted to protest against the EU sanctions on his regime, in answer to the violent crackdown on the protests in his country. “We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves,” Lukashenko warned. In June, hundreds of migrants passed by Belarus via commercial flights then entered Lithuania illegally, located 100 miles away from Minsk, the Belarussian capital. Now, they are stuck in makeshift camps that they cannot leave, waiting for their asylum application to go through.
Life at the camp is organised, it is clean and everyone takes part in all the activities. Three young Yazidi women come down the stairs, huge garbage bags in their hands, today is cleaning day. Immediately, three of the young Africans raise their voices and take the bag in their hands. It's cold outside, the men will throw away the garbage, the girls smile, satisfied. They live upstairs, sleep in a large classroom with ten beds, all from the Sinjar valley. They've been through internal migration, fled the Islamic State group, and also left Iraqi Kurdistan behind, where they are not welcomed either.
“Some militiamen want to kill us, they believe that they will go to heaven if they kill a Yazidi, we had to leave,” says Dilbak, sitting on her bed, nails perfectly done and long silky hair. The others agree, they all decided to hop on the same flight to Minsk, from Baghdad.
“We had heard about the possibility of entering Belarus easily, says Vinos, a thirty-year-old Yazidi. So we went to a tourism agency in Baghdad and bought a ticket to Minsk. Then, we booked a hotel, slept there and simply took a taxi to the border!”
Once they arrived in Lithuania, border guards picked them up and brought them here, to this former school, where they now wait, with no news of their asylum process. This version of a story is the same, told by each person at the camp.
“For now, out of 200 finished asylum requests, none have been granted asylum," says Mrs Gudzinskaitė. "This does not mean that there will not be refugees with the right to asylum who will be granted this asylum in the future, we simply have not found them yet.”
It's a clear message from the Lithuanian authorities, who do not believe these people arriving are refugees, but simply migrants who saw an opportunity to enter the EU and took it.
“If we look at the numbers, around 40 percent of Iraqis worldwide who apply for asylum are granted it, why would these numbers drop to zero in Lithuania?” asks Akvilė Kriščiūnaitė of the Diversity Development Group, an NGO that advocates for refugee acceptance and rights in the country. The authorities answer by saying that the asylum process cannot be tricked.
Countries are bound to the “non-refoulement”, meaning it is illegal to send migrants back to life-threatening places, like Afghanistan. “For all Afghans here, who arrived before the Taliban were in power, we are placing them in a long asylum process, which takes up to six months, then, we will see if we can send them back,” a way for the authorities to wait for media attention to go down on Afghanistan, before potentially sending Afghans back home.
“Today, three people were sent back," says Nicolas, a young man from Cameroun of the Verebiejai camp. "Two Iraqis and one from Chechnya. Four armed guards came into the camp, we simply saw them coming in and out with him and his packed bags.”
“They tricked me," says Johnny, a young Congolese who wants to meet up with his mother who lives in France. "They told me that I could either choose freedom or be forced. I panicked, but made the wrong choice… I signed the paper they handed to me, and I will soon be deported.” His voice is bleak, he’s made a mistake and deeply regrets it, now, it is just a matter of days before Johnny goes back to Congo.
Nicolas, like all the other people in the camp, has been threatened by authorities to be deported if they do not accept voluntary deportation. “My heart is never at rest, it’s not easy at all,” he summarises.
But the authorities aren’t the only ones to reject refugees, the local population is cautious with this new flow.
“Some people here believe they are simply migrants, in Lithuania, we are not used to having immigration, less than four percent of the population are foreign, so it’s something very new to us,” explains Giedrė Blažyte from Diversity Development Group. "A cautious population may not see these newcomers as a threat, at least in comparison to Lukashenko and their Belarussian neighbour, who is rather seen as the first threat to Lithuania."
Clotilde Bigot is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Beirut, focusing on diplomacy and human rights.
Follow her on Twitter: @clo_bigot