“Welcome to Guantanamo!”
Amnesty International decries mistreatment of refugees in Lithuania and racist discrimination of non-white versus Ukrainian refugees; speaks of “torture.”
VILNIUS/WARSAW/BRUSSELS (Own report) – Lithuanian border officials and camp guards regularly mistreat non-white refugees and violate international law with their procedures. This is documented in a report published today by Amnesty International. According to this report, refugees were pushed into a river of chest high water as they were illegally forced back toward Belarus at the Lithuanian border. Others were maltreated with sticks and tasers. According to Amnesty, living conditions in Lithuania’s detention centers “amount to torture.” The organization particularly decries the discrimination of non-white versus Ukrainian refugees, who are welcomed with open arms. Non-white refugees, however, are additionally exposed to blatant racism at the borders and in the detention camps. Amnesty had already described similar conditions in Poland back in April. According to Amnesty, the EU and particularly the EU Commission under the leadership of its German President Ursula von der Leyen, are co-responsible: Brussels supports the border closures, while de facto tolerating mishandling and violations of international law at its borders.
Pushed into the Border River
In Lithuania, violations of international law and maltreatment greet non-white refugees already at the border quasi, as a welcome: Lithuanian border guards regularly push back those seeking to enter the country, who do not come from Ukraine – denying them access to asylum procedures, in blatant violation of international law. Refugees confirmed to Amnesty that their cell phones had been confiscated, sometimes their money taken away from them, before being pushed into the Belarusian woods – often at freezing temperatures – without water or food. They were also beaten with sticks and maltreated with tasers. At times, refugees were forced to cross a river in chest high water back to Belarus. According to Amnesty, several Cubans were forced back and forth across the border eight times before they succeeded to obtain a decision from the European Court of Human Rights obliging Vilnius to consider their asylum claim. Not even this prevented the Lithuanian border guards from deporting the Cubans across the border to Belarus another time, since the court decision – in double violation of international law.
Those refugees, who manage to enter the country, are arbitrarily detained by Lithuanian authorities and held in inhumane conditions. In March, an Amnesty International delegation was able to visit two detention facilities (Medininkai, Kybartai). Their access to the facilities was restricted to selected areas and they had to prematurely halt their interviews with refugees. According to Amnesty, the facilities are “highly militarized,” surrounded by walls, fences, and barbed-wire, they are severely overcrowded, water and food, of bad quality, and there is a lack of access to adequate medical care. “The conditions” notes Amnesty, “amount to torture or other ill-treatment under international and EU law.” Already in November 2021, protests against the poor conditions in Medininkai were crushed with the use of tear gas. As of 6 June 2022, 2,647 people, including at least 592 minors, remained detained in the centers. In addition, asylum procedures permitted the refugees, do not even remotely meet internationally accepted requirements. The Lithuanian authorities exert also considerable pressure on detainees to convince them to return to their countries of origin – voluntarily.
Violence and Racism
In its report, Amnesty specifically notes the “obvious difference” between the treatment of Ukrainian and that of non-European refugees. In Lithuania alone, more than 50,000 Ukrainian refugees had been registered by May 2022, which shows that the question of acceptance of refugees is not one of practical constraints, but rather one based on political priorities. Non-white refugees in the detention centers have clearly registered discrimination against them, in comparison to the treatment of white Ukrainian refugees. When due to this discrimination and the desolate situation in the camps protests were renewed on March 1, in Medininkai, the repressive authorities again used violence to suppress them. Some refugees reported having been beaten with sticks, a group of black women were held outdoors, half-naked, and handcuffed in the bitter cold. Particularly Black refugees reported to Amnesty that they had been regularly subjected to racist attacks by the Lithuanian personnel both at the border and later in the camps. A young woman from a Sub-Saharan country, told the Amnesty delegation that she had been told to just “go hunting in the forest,” “all guards” are “very racist.”
“Racism and Hypocrisy”
Violations of international law and maltreatment of refugees are not cases isolated to Lithuania. Already in April, Amnesty International had documented in detail very similar conditions in Poland, where there also, refugees are illegally forced back across the border, sometimes even at gunpoint. Poland has also installed detention centers, wherein refugees are held in overcrowded cells without adequate access to sanitary facilities and medical aide. In the Wędrzyn detention camp, up to 24 men are forced to languish in eight-meter-square rooms, at the time Amnesty conducted its research. Many refugees were subjected to inhumane treatment, such as superfluous strip searches, or racist insults, some – including individuals, who had fled torture in their homelands – were greeted with “Welcome to Guantanámo.” Amnesty points to the fact that last year alone, around 2,000 refugees were held under these catastrophic conditions in Poland. According to Amnesty, the fact that this is still on-going, while refugees from Ukraine are being received with open arms, leaves, an “aftertaste of racism and hypocrisy.”
The Deadliest Border of the World
Sealing off the Polish and Lithuanian borders to Belarus, along with the illegal pushbacks have cost lives. More than 20 refugee deaths have been documented in the border areas. Refugee assistance workers, of course, estimate the numbers of fatalities to be much higher. The death toll at the EU’s external borders in other regions is additional. On Friday, at least 23 refugees were killed, when 2,000 attempted to breach the sealed border between Morocco and Spain’s exclave Melilla. Some died of their injuries, while border guards left them laying on the ground unattended for hours. According to statistics gathered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 850 refugees have lost their lives this year trying to breach the southern and southeastern borders of the EU. Since 2014, altogether more than 24, 000 migrants died at the EU’s Mediterranean borders according to the IOM. The organization assumes a large number of unreported cases. The EU’s external borders thus remain the deadliest borders in the world. Since 2014, around 11,500 have lost their lives on the African continent, according to the IOM report, less than half as many as those trying to enter the EU. In Central America, nearly 6,500 have lost their lives during the same period. Around half of the world’s refugee deaths occur at the sealed borders of the EU.
 Quotations from: Lithuania: Forced out or locked up. Refugees and migrants abused and abandoned. London, 27.06.2022.
 Poland: Cruelty not compassion, at Europe’s other borders. London, 11.04.2022.
See also Refugees Dying in No Man’s Land (III).
 Sertan Sanderson: Poland to end state of emergency upon completion of border wall. infomigrants.net 10.06.2022.
 Sturm auf spanische Exklave – Zahl der Toten steigt. zeit.de 26.06.2022.