Thousands of people remain stranded in Polish and Lithuanian reception and detention facilities, where conditions are “worse than prisons”. Human rights commissioners from both Poland and the Council of Europe have spoken out against pushbacks to Belarus – a violation of  international and EU law. Since the summer, Latvia has gone to lengths to militarise its border with Belarus. Whilst noting a moderate increase in irregular border crossing attempts, Latvia – alongside other eastern EU states – has declared its readiness to host Ukrainians in the event of war.

Poland’s deputy commissioner for human rights Hanna Machińska,has spoken out against “disastrous” conditions in Polish reception centres. More than 1,500 people are held in the guarded centres, including 400 women and 290 children. “Children and families with children, women…victims of torture, shouldn’t be sent to such places,” said Machińska.  130 people are on hunger strike at Wędrzyn, the centre where riots broke out last December. At the time, the centre – which is located 50km from the border with Germany, inside a Polish military training camp – housed 600 asylum seekers. 24 people slept in each room, with two square metres of space per person. “Wędrzyn should disappear from the Polish map. It is the worst place,” said the deputy commissioner noting the “very limited access to medical assistance”. Machińska’s comments were made before the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). At the hearing, Róża Thun Und Hohenstein, a Polish MEP, noted that she had been denied access to the border zone three times. “I also tried to get the permission to go to one of those centres and see what’s going on. I was refused,” she said.

The Lithuanian ombudsman has warned against equally dire conditions in reception detention. In a recent report, the head of the ombudsman’s office Erika Leonaitė denounced conditions in the Kybartai camp as “equivalent to inhuman or degrading treatment”. The centre was converted from correctional facility to asylum seeker accommodation four months ago in response to the arrival of more than 4,200 people that crossed the border from Belarus over the summer. The 550 people currently in the facility are housed in the disciplinary area that was formerly used for the punishment of prisoners. Residents have three square metres each, below the minimum requirement of four square metres. Thus, the conditions breach international law to which Lithuania is a party. Allegations have also been made regarding the Pabradé camp, where people are subject to daily harassment from Lithuanian soldiers telling them to “go back home”. After taking part in a peaceful demonstration, one man was “beaten up, dragged to the ground, he couldn’t walk”. He was then handcuffed and taken to a closed cell where he was denied contact with journalists. Further, asylum seekers continue to allege that the asylum procedures they are offered are not fair.

In her comments to the LIBE Committee, Poland’s deputy human rights commissioner also denounced Polish violation of international, EU and domestic law in its treatment of migrants at the border. The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, has also been explicit on this point. On 4 February, the commissioner intervened in the case of R.A. and others v. Poland, which concerns a group of asylum seekers and migrants who were stranded at the border between Poland and Belarus. Mijatović considers that: “a repeated and systematic practice of pushing migrants and asylum seekers back to Belarus exists in Poland. Such pushbacks happen without regard for those persons’ individual situations and in particular, whether they may be entitled to international protection”. The practice of pushbacks is also likely to put people at risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment at the hands of Belarusian state agents. Migrants who remain in a logistics centre on the Belarussian side of the border continue to report abuse by border guards. In her comments to the European Court of Human Rights, the commissioner also denounced the Polish failure to provide humanitarian aid and Polish attempts to block NGOs, medics and journalists from the border zone.

Latvian border guards report intercepting 1,500 people attempting to cross the border in January, up from 1,400 in December and an average of 500-600 interceptions monthly over the summer. Border patrols have “turned back more than 5,800 illegal migrants from Belarus” since August 2021, the authorities reported. In light of questionable legal amendments made since August, NGOs perceive these “deterrence” or “border control measures” to be de facto pushbacks. The Latvian government has engaged in extreme militarisation of its border with Belarus since the summer, justifying this in reference to the “threat” posed by “instrumentalisation” of people seeking protection. In August, authorities declared a state of emergency along the country’s 172km border and proceeded to erect 37km of barbed wire fencing and 32 metre high observation towers. Heat sensors, helicopters, video cameras, and round-the-clock patrols are also used to monitor the border. Meanwhile, on 4 February Latvia’s parliament approved at second reading a piece of legislation that aims to improve support for asylum seeking victims of violence.

Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Estonia have all announced that they are readying to accept Ukrainian refugees if conflict erupts. However, Ukrainians already enjoy visa-free access to the Schengen zone. Thus, if such countries were unwilling to accept Ukrainians, they would need to implement border controls that do not exist. Currently, Poland is home to more than a million Ukrainian residents.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.