Asylum seekers and migrants, including families with young children, are being subjected to repeated pushbacks between the borders of Lithuania and Belarus with little to no access to food, shelter, and medical aid. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is appalled by the impact of Lithuania’s hostile migration policies on vulnerable people on the move, as well as the use of inhumane practices such as pushbacks in response to people seeking safety.
There have been numerous instances of Lithuanian authorities forcibly returning migrants and refugees to Belarus, violating their human rights. The Lithuanian State Border Guard Service (SBGS) publicly claim to have carried out thousands of pushbacks at the border since the beginning of the year.
“It is unacceptable that the Lithuanian government is trying to normalize this mistreatment and denial of rights in response to the movement of people who have fled their countries out of desperation, in search of safety and a better life,” said Georgina Brown, MSF country manager in Lithuania. “People on the move in Lithuania are entitled to dignified and humane treatment, including safety and international protection. And yet we know that many people trying to enter Lithuania are being denied all of this and instead find themselves stranded, isolated, and abused.”
Asylum seekers and migrants have told MSF that they have been repeatedly pushed back and forth across the border for days or weeks.
“For thirty days we didn’t settle in one place,” said Sara [name changed]. “We went back and forth around ten times between Belarus and Lithuania during that time. The guards kept moving us in and out, in and out, and back and forth. Once we were captured, we were given some tinned food which was expired. I couldn’t even eat that, as I kept it for my children. Then they would put us back in cars and take us back to the border. I was traumatized and I just wished to go anywhere there was shelter so it would put an end to our suffering.”
Repeat pushbacks compound the distress and trauma faced by migrants and asylum seekers at the borders of the European Union.
“People who already faced several traumas such as sexual violence and torture in their country of origin are now faced with the new trauma of violent pushbacks,” said Heidi Berg, an MSF psychologist in Lithuania. “They feel as though they are being hunted and chased across the border again and again. This leaves them feeling dehumanized and with an even higher level of stress and anxiety.”
Pushbacks expose people to more violence along the migratory route. Sara said that while attempting to enter Poland after being pushed back, her family was attacked by border guards. “My 19-year-old son was physically attacked. Even my husband, who is in his fifties, was kicked and punched,” she said.
Fear of being detained and pushed back is also leading people on the move in Lithuania to try crossing isolated areas where there is no access to food, shelter, or medical care. MSF medical teams in Lithuania have treated people for skin and lower limb conditions developed after walking long distances through forests and swamps, as well as exhausted families and individuals who have slept exposed to the elements, often without adequate clothing and footwear.
MSF teams are aware of people who have contracted gastrointestinal illnesses after being forced to eat berries and plants and drink swamp water during their journeys.
As winter approaches, we are alarmed about even more serious consequences for the physical and mental health of people subjected to such mistreatment.
Lithuania’s hostile migration policies are yet another example of EU member states deliberately creating unsafe conditions for people to seek asylum at their borders. People will continue to flee violence and persecution and travel to where they believe they can seek international protection, safety, and a better future, regardless of the risks or lack of welcome they will face. These abusive policies do not curb migration, but they do endanger vulnerable people seeking safety.
“People have fled conflict, persecution, and danger with little more than the clothes on their back in search of international protection,” said Brown. “Parents have brought their young children, people with chronic illnesses have endured difficult and stressful journeys. Pushbacks, fences, and other inhumane efforts at deterrence will not stop them. As winter approaches and temperatures in the forests on the border fall, Lithuanian authorities must urgently cease these cruel practices and respond to the needs of those trying to enter the country with humanity.”