Double standards at Poland and Lithuania’s borders
In 2021, the Polish government sent 15,000 military personnel to its border in response to the arrival of thousands of refugees primarily from Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria, Cameroon, and Afghanistan who were attempting to cross from Belarus into Poland and Lithuania. MSF heard firsthand reports of violence, theft, destruction of people's belongings, and physical assault at the hands of border guards. In a dramatic shift from this approach, Poland has now allowed three million people to cross its borders from Ukraine and agreed to settle one million Ukrainian refugees.
Next door, Lithuania has also received more than 52,000 Ukrainian refugees, while in May this year, at least 2,500 asylum seekers and migrants from other countries who crossed from Belarus in mid-2021 remain detained in inhumane conditions in two detention centers where MSF provides mental health and medical care. “People do not have access to a fair asylum process and there is no specialized support for psychiatric disorders or survivors of torture and sexual violence,” said Georgina Brown, MSF’s country representative in Lithuania. “EU migration policies aimed at restricting migration and expanding detention have a detrimental impact on people’s mental health and well-being.”
Drowning at Europe’s doorstep
At its southern borders, the EU continues to turn its back on refugees and migrants fleeing Libya. In early April, MSF’s team on the search and rescue ship Geo Barents reported that more than 100 people had drowned in the central Mediterranean Sea within one week while trying to reach the safety of Europe’s shores.
At least 24,000 people have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014.
“The withdrawal of the EU and its member states from search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea and their support to the Libyan coastguard are at the root of the deaths and violations of human rights occurring in the Central Mediterranean,” said Caroline Willemen, MSF project coordinator on board the Geo Barents in May. After one year at sea, the Geo Barents has rescued 3,138 people from distress. But thousands more have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast guard— funded by the EU—and forcibly returned to Libya where MSF has witnessed people subjected to indefinite detention, abuse, and mistreatment.
MSF has repeatedly spoken out about the humanitarian crisis our teams continue to witness on the Greek islands. Asylum seekers who have arrived in Greece in recent years often wind up stranded in squalid, prison-like camps without access to basic needs, education, or safe shelter. While conditions have somewhat improved in the last year, our teams in Greece continue to treat people, including children, for serious medical and mental health problems related to poor living conditions, isolation from the community, fear of deportation, and arbitrary asylum processes. The Greek government has proven it has the capacity to treat refugees arriving in Greece with dignity. Almost 20,000 Ukrainians have sought refuge in Greece in recent months. They’re eligible for temporary protection cards containing a residence permit, a social security number, and a tax number, which gives card holders automatic access to the national health care system and the right to work.
Meanwhile, almost 4,000 people remain waiting in limbo in inhumane conditions on the Greek Islands for their asylum claims to be processed.