‘I’ve been detained for months, like a prisoner,’ says African migrant in Lithuania
Issued on: Modified:
More than 4,200 migrants, the majority from Iraq, crossed from Belarus into Lithuania illegally in 2021, an unprecedented situation in this small European Union country. Lithuanian authorities have sent migrants to hastily built reception centres, where many of them remain in limbo. That’s the case for our Observer, who wanted to let the world know about his situation.
More than 4,200 people illegally crossed the border from Belarus into Lithuania in 2021, versus just 74 in 2020. Of these migrants, the majority – 2,797 – come from Iraq. The next most common country of origin is Congo Brazzaville (200), followed by Cameroon (131). The Lithuanian border forces also reported stopping a further 8,000 people from crossing the border this year.
Most of the Iraqis obtained tourist visas and flew from Baghdad to Belarus before continuing their journey into Lithuania on foot. Most of the Africans who illegally entered Lithuania this summer had already been living in Belarus for some time, potentially even years, on student visas.
Overwhelmed by this unprecedented wave of migration, Lithuania – a small country in the EU with just 2.7 million inhabitants – started construction on a fence along its border with Belarus. The country also opened a number of special reception centres, some of them built in old schools, to house the large number of undocumented migrants who were stopped by the authorities. Some of these migrants have been trapped there for months.
'We’re sleeping in shipping containers, which each house up to four people'
Tshetshe (not his real name) is from a French-speaking African country. He has been trapped in a centre located in the village of Medininkai, located just two kilometres from the Belarusian border.
He asked to remain anonymous because the Lithuanian authorities are attempting to restrict migrants’ communications because of the ongoing state of emergency provoked by the flux of migrants crossing the Belarusian border.
I had been studying in a Belarusian university since 2018. In early July, I decided to cross the border into Lithuania. I was stopped by Lithuanian border police, near the border, and then I was sent to this reception centre in Verebiejai, in an old school building.
Then, two or three months later, I was moved to the Medininkai centre, where I am still being detained, like a prisoner.
The centre is divided into five parts, which are separated by fences covered with tarp. Two of the sections are for men only. The other three house women, children and gay people. Overall, there are around 800 people here, most of whom are Iraqi [Editor’s note: This estimate corresponds with numbers provided by the border patrol in September]. We sleep in shipping containers that can house up to four people each. Nearby is a building that houses a training programme for border guards.
We are lacking soap here. On December 22, we did get some from the Red Cross, along with shampoo and toothbrushes. That was the first time they had come to the camp in a few weeks.
As for water, I buy 5-litre bottles at a mobile shop that comes twice a week. Other people drink water from the faucets, but I’m not sure about the quality.
Sometimes, the water runs cold in the showers all day. Even though it is currently about -10°C (equivalent to about 14°F).
'We end up staying awake all night because our sleep is disrupted'
We often stay awake all night and then sleep from around 6am to 3 or 4pm because our sleep is disrupted. For example, before, I usually had class all day but, here, I don’t really have any kind of activity so I have trouble sleeping at night.
The only activity provided for the adults being kept here are English classes, which they started offering about three weeks ago. The teacher is a Cameroonian man who is also a detainee.
Other than that, we watch videos and read things on the internet, we pray … but there isn’t wifi in the centre and so we have to find a way to buy data. We’d love to take Lithuanian classes, but they only offer those for the children.
It’s not just that there isn’t anything to do. We are also facing a lot of uncertainty, which makes us worry constantly.
Moreover, people here are quick to anger, especially because the border guards tend to act disrespectfully towards us. They call us "criminals" or "hooligans" for no reason. Before, I thought that Lithuania was advanced in terms of human rights but I don’t think so anymore.
Less than 2 percent of asylum claims accepted
Like many of the migrants trapped in Lithuania, Tshetshe applied for asylum but was refused. He says that he contested the decision. Lithuania only accepted 54 asylum applications out of 3,272, which represents less than 2 percent. Around 610 people have contested the refusal of their application.
Lithuania recently began offering migrants €1,000 and the cost of the plane ticket to return to their home countries. Previously, they had been offering migrants €300. As of now, a total of 345 people have accepted voluntary deportation.
Migrants could be detained for up to 12 months
On December 23, the Lithuanian parliament approved several amendments that make it possible for foreign nationals to be detained for up to 12 months, especially when the country is in a state of emergency, as is the case right now.
Even before the amendments, the law had stipulated that migrants needed to be kept in detention for the six months following arrival in Lithuania. Now, the time in detention could be extended for another six months if their asylum claims are rejected and they haven’t been deported during the first six months.
Aside from Lithuania, thousands of migrants have also crossed the border from Belarus into Poland and Latvia since this summer. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is accused of orchestrating this influx of migrants into the EU to punish the bloc for sanctions it had laid down on Belarus.