In July 2021, Lithuania accused Belarus of using vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers as political pawns in its ongoing spat with the EU by pushing them across the border into Lithuania and other neighbouring countries. The EU had previously imposed sanctions on Belarus in June over an “escalation of serious human rights violations and the violent repression of civil society, democratic opposition and journalists.” In response, Belarus stated they would allow migrants to cross into Lithuania (for more information see 14 June 2021 Lithuania update on this platform). The country noted a significant increase in the numbers of people crossing the Lithuania-Belarus border. As of mid-August 2021, 4,110 people had been detained at the border (2,882 detained in July alone), compared to the 81 apprehended during 2020.
Lithuania’s Parliament responded by approving new laws tightening the rules on migration and asylum in July, with the intention to deter high numbers of asylum seekers crossing Lithuania’s border with Belarus. The amendments to the legislation introduced significant changes including limiting access to asylum procedures, thus giving rise to the automatic detention of applicants and the restriction of their appeal rights. Also, the legislation provides for the deportation of migrants while their appeals are still under consideration. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) reported that when the amendments were made, Lithuania’s parliament set a detention period of six months for people arriving irregularly, which can be extended for up to two years by a court, during any “declared state of emergency.” UNHCR criticised these moves, arguing that “detention of asylum seekers should not be used by default or mandatorily for all arrivals, but rather remain the exception.”
In addition, government employees that process asylum claims reported being pressed to conduct sham interviews and to coerce applicants into voluntary return to their countries. An employee told the Lithuanian national broadcaster: “we had at most a minute or two […] to ask why they are in Lithuania.” Following a 20 minute interview, employees have to quickly decide whether to register the person as “illegal” or an “asylum seeker”, which would determine their future claim. Anti-migrant rhetoric spiked on social media as well, including from Lithuania Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who in one post promised that Lithuania would grant asylum to “virtually no-one.”
In September 2021, Lithuania’s Interior Ministry reportedly began re-considering authorising the indefinite detention of irregular migrants, removing the current limit of six months. The proposal had initially been made by the Interior Ministry in July, but it had not been adopted because of concerns about the impact of indefinite detention on vulnerable people. Under current rules, if a person’s asylum claim is rejected but Lithuania is unable to deport them, that person would have to be provided with a temporary residence permit. Dovilė Šakalienė, a Social Democrat member of the Parliamentary Security and Defence Committee, proposed considering the introduction of a new migration status: “illegal migrant.” In these cases, foreign nationals would be permitted to reside in Lithuania but they would be prohibited from leaving.
- European Council on Refugees and Exiles, “Lithuania: Moves to Legalise Indefinite Detention, Fairness of Asylum System Called into Question, Politicians and NGOs React to Events at Belarus Border,” 17 September 2021, https://ecre.org/lithuania-moves-to-legalise-indefinite-detention-fairness-of-asylum-system-called-into-question-politicians-and-ngos-react-to-events-at-the-belarus-border/
- LRT, “Lithuania Looks to Legalise Indefinite Detention of Migrants,” 15 September 2021, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1496904/lithuania-looks-to-legalise-indefinite-detention-of-migrants
- L. Jegelevičius, “In Lithuania, Anti-migrant Rhetoric Hardens as Europe Awaits Brussels’ Next Move,” Euronews, 1 October 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/01/in-lithuania-anti-migrant-rhetoric-hardens-as-europe-awaits-brussels-next-move
- Deutsche Welle, “Lithuania Passes New Asylum Laws to Deter Migrants,” 13 July 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/lithuania-passes-new-asylum-laws-to-deter-migrants/a-58256669
- M. D. Lenzu, “EU Imposes Sanctions on Belarusian Economy,” European Council of the European Union, 24 June 2021, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/24/eu-imposes-sanctions-on-belarusian-economy/
- European Council on Refugees and Exiles, “Extraordinary Responses: Legislative Changes in Lithuania, 2021,” 3 September 2021, https://ecre.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Legal-Note-11.pdf
- Benas Gerdžiūnas, Artūras Morozovas, “The Main Goal is to Get Rid of Them. Lithuania’s Asylum System Cracks under Pressure,” LRT, 13 September 2021, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1493583/the-main-goal-is-to-get-rid-of-them-lithuania-s-asylum-system-cracks-under-pressurhttps://ecre.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Legal-Note-11.pdfe
- Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Lithuania, “Registration of Migrants Completed: Efforts to Speed Up Asylum Processing,” 22 September 2021, https://vrm.lrv.lt/en/news/registration-of-migrants-completed-efforts-to-speed-up-asylum-processing
- Vulnerable Migrants Being Moved to Rukla in central Lithuania, (BNS, “Lithuania looks to legalise indefinite detention of migrants,” 15 September 2021, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1496904/lithuania-looks-to-legalise-indefinite-detention-of-migrants)