The Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania (Seimas) voted on 20 April to approve amendments to the Law on the State Border and its Protection. The amendments which are legalising pushbacks at the 5 km border zone between Lithuania and Belarus and establishing civilian volunteer support of border guards allowed to use violence have been denounced by leading Lithuanian and international NGOs as well as academics.

The Lithuanian Parliament has just  approved the proposed amendments legalising pushbacks and establishing civilian volunteer support of boarder guards – out of 100 votes, 7 voted against, 24 abstained and 69 voted in favour. The vote on the final text will take place next Tuesday on 25 April. In a joint appeal to MPs, to the speaker of the parliament and to the Prime Minster, Ingrida Šimonytė, hundreds of leading Lithuanian as well as international NGOs and academics warned that the amendments violate international law. The appeal, initiated by the migration group of the organisation Global Leaders of Lithuania (GLL), the humanitarian aid organization Siena Group, and the Lithuanian Center for Human Rights, notes that pushbacks at the Lithuania-Belarus border have already claimed several lives. It also points out that: “The CJEU [the Court of Justice of the European Union] already has ruled that the declaration of a state of emergency in Lithuania does not relieve the State of its obligation to ensure access to the asylum procedure (C-72/22PPU). Nevertheless, the amendments proposed by this draft law aim to circumvent this CJEU preliminary ruling judgement. The proposal foresees that once a state-level emergency situation is declared due to so-called ‘mass influx of foreigners’, authorities can ‘turn away’ (used as a euphemism for push-back) ‘any foreigners intending to cross or who have crossed the state border in non-designated areas or in designated areas, but who have violated any procedures for state border crossing”.

Further, the appeal points out that “The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has repeatedly condemned a breach of the prohibition on collective expulsions, under Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights Protocol 4 and notes that a group of people pushed back despite a ruling of interim measures by ECtHR were later granted asylum in Lithuania –  an example demonstrating that officials do not have the competence to assess whether individuals are fleeing from persecution, leaving a need for an “independent monitoring mechanism”. Monika Guliakaitė-Danisevičienė, head of advocacy at the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights, states: “If an illegal provision contrary to international law is inserted into the law, it will not become legal from this. This is an attempt to take responsibility away – we push individuals back to Belarus, pretending that it is a safe third country, and we are trying to justify the deaths of migrants with the name of a ‘hybrid attack’. The rejections are contrary to our international obligations, to the case law of the EU courts. With such amendments, we are following the infamous path of Hungary”.

Hungary, notorious for its violations of the rights of people on the move and recently ranked top EU country of pushbacks by Amnesty International, already introduced civilian support of the border guard. “The draft law also seeks to consolidate the institution of border guards’ ‘supporters’ by providing the possibility for civilians to use coercion and violence in the protection of the state border. Such use of ‘civilian supporters’ has already been used by the Hungarian army and police and infamously covered in media as border hunter’”, the joint letter states. “There is no restriction for people from abroad to come,” Emilija Švobaitė, a lawyer and rights campaigner at Sienas Grupė, a Lithuanian NGO, told EUobserver ahead of the vote, noting that “radical rightwing groups from Germany could come and patrol alongside national border guards under the provisions of the state border and protection draft law”.

According to Lina Vosyliūtė, former Research Fellow at CEPS and an initiator of GLL Migration Taskforce: “These amendments do not address the provocation by the Lukashenka’s regime and pushes all the responsibility to refugees and other migrants. The departure from Geneva Convention 1951 and other internationally agreed commitments will have long-term consequences for Lithuania’s international image and possibilities to find sustainable solutions. Now Lithuanian parliamentarians are copying the Hungarian model as, a quick fix, while forgetting that long-term societal security is based on the human rights, rule of law, democratic accountability and Global cooperation”. Similarly, the Lithuanian journalists’ union has issued a statement urging MPs to take the warnings from civil society as “extremely serious”. They pointed to the consequences of restricting media access to the borders with Belarus, preventing the monitoring of the situation, chilling effects on freedom of speech and potential violations. Amnesty International, has also warned about the increase of violence and torture at the borders in their separate appeal to Lithuanian authorities.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the Seimas, Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, stated that the proposed amendments are an attempt to find “a balance between national security interests and human rights” and pointed to safe-guards for vulnerable groups. Conservative chairman of the Seimas Committee on National Security and Defense, Laurynas Kasčiūnas lashed out at NGOs saying they offered no alternative but open borders. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabrielius Landsbergis, claimed that, so far, he has not heard criticism of Lithuania’s policies. However, deaths, pushbacks and violations along the EU borders with Belarus including in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in response to an alleged “hybrid threat” from the Lukashenko regime have been widely criticised over years. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced on 17 January: “We closed our operations in Lithuania and Latvia on 31 December 2022. Violent pushbacks and restricted access to those most in need of assistance prevented our teams from providing care to migrants/asylum seekers with full confidentiality and in accordance with our principles”. The organisation further stated: “in 2022, there were also over 8000 pushbacks and over 4000 by Lithuanian and Latvian border guards respectively. This significantly limits MSF’s access to provide essential medical and mental healthcare”.

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