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13 October 2022 – Latvia

Amnesty International, “Latvia: Return Home or Never Leave the Woods,” 13 October 2022,
Amnesty International, “Latvia: Return Home or Never Leave the Woods,” 13 October 2022,

Latvia has violently pushed back and arbitrarily detained scores of refugees and migrants, including children, in secretive tented camps along its border with Belarus, says a recently published Amnesty International report. The rights group contends that authorities have used undue force including torture to stop “illegal crossings” since declaring a state of emergency in mid-2021.

Belarus has actively facilitated a new migration route into the EU via its borders with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. According to Belarus’ three EU neighbours, this was part of a “hybrid attack” upon the EU by the Belarusian government—a narrative that was used to justify the introduction of various anti-migrant measures. (For more on such measures in Poland and Lithuania, see our joint submissions to the UN Committee against Torture (2021, Lithuania), Universal Periodic Review (2022, Poland), and European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (2022, Poland.))

In Latvia, authorities introduced a state of emergency on 10 August 2021 within the four border areas of Augšdaugava, Ludza, Krāslava, and Daugavpils city. Permitting derogations from fundamental rights, it empowered the Border Guard, assisted by the army and police, to prevent border crossings and return those who arrived irregularly, and prohibited people from claiming asylum in the border areas. Despite the situation at the border stabilising, this emergency measure has been repeatedly extended since August 2021—although in April 2022 Latvian authorities passed an amendment allowing refugees to lodge asylum applications at “border crossing points and at the Daugavpils detention centre.”

As part of the state of emergency, reports Amnesty, Latvian border guards summarily returned migrants and refugees found crossing from Belarus. However, with Belarusian forces similarly forcing them back towards Latvia, many found themselves trapped between the two countries and exposed to frequent and often violent returns in both directions—sometimes several times a day. One Iraqi man told the rights organisation, “I was pushed back and forth more than 150 times. There were days when you were pushed back eight times each day.”

Refugees and migrants told Amnesty that they were handed to armed balaclava-wearing Latvian “commandos” following their apprehension by the Latvian Border Guard. These commandos imprisoned them in tents—sometimes for months—in isolated forested areas before forcing them back across the border or transferring them to formal detention facilities. Phones were confiscated to prevent any form of contact with the outside world, tents were often overcrowded and heavily guarded, detainees were only allowed outside to access the toilet, food was often unavailable or insufficient, and detainees were denied access to asylum procedures or legal assistance. Commandos are also reported to have physically and verbally abused detainees—including using tasers to deliver electric shocks, beatings (in some cases using objects and weapons), and forced strip searches. Some people also reported experiencing abuse and harassment if they refused to return to their country of origin “in what appears to be a clear attempt to intimidate them into compliance and to break their spirit.”

Such treatment of refugees and migrants, Amnesty points out, stands in contrast with the country’s “swift mobilization” of resources to support Ukrainian refugees–which has included the provision of accommodation and other resources, “raising concerns about racial bias being the principal rationale for the introduction of the state of emergency.” (For more on this, see the GDP’s special report: “The Ukraine Crisis – Double Standards: Has Europe’s Response to Refugees Changed?”)

In response to the report, Latvia’s Ministry of the Interior claimed that the watchdog’s claims of torture and mistreatment were “absurd” and “bogus.” In an email to the Associated Press, it held that “not a single case has been identified” of authorities “having used physical force or applied special means.”