Hungary and other states hostile to migrants and refugees are waiting to see whether the EU will act as Lithuania flaunts European law.
In a Facebook post published in Arabic, Kurdish and English Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, promised that his country would grant asylum to “virtually no one”.
Three months later, and it seems Landsbergis -- a former MEP and now chairman of the ruling Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) -- has been true to his word.
A total of 2,800 people have claimed asylum in the Baltic state since neighbouring Belarus opened its borders and so far, not a single person has been granted the protection.
By contrast, a total of 320 asylum claims have been rejected and 325 have been “discontinued”, meaning that the individual either absconded or agreed to go home voluntarily, said Evelina Gudzinskaite, the director of Lithuania’s migration department at the interior ministry.
The grandson of the main architect of an independent Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis, Landsbergis has branded migrants coming from Belarus as criminals.
"Those people who tempt you with an easy way to get into the EU – they want to deceive you, they want to rob you of your money, exploiting your credulity or ignorance,” he said.
“You will be apprehended by the Lithuanian border guards and transferred to a tent camp,” he warned migrants.
“Virtually no one of you will receive an asylum and be recognised as a refugee.”
That rhetoric has worried those in Lithuania that would like to see are more welcoming attitude towards those feeling war and poverty for safety and security in the European Union.
“I see [an] atmosphere of animosity and hatred towards migrants,” said Dainius Zalimas, a former president of Lithuania’s Constitutional Court and law professor at Vytautas Magnus University.
“The dehumanising of migrants does big harm to trust in our state institutions,” Zalimas said.
Faced with the unprecedented influx of migrants, the liberal-conservative Lithuanian government has announced its intent to enable the indefinite detention of asylum seekers.
This follows legal changes in August which now allow the detention of migrants during a state of emergency for up to six months and, with a court’s approval, up to two years.
The amendments run contrary to EU and international law, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) has ruled, and Zalimas, a former judge, has branded them “legal nihilism”.
Detaining migrants and stripping them of the right to defend themselves in local court is a “clear violation” of the Lithuanian Constitution, he said. Meanwhile, the practice of pushing back migrants over the border to Belarus is a violation of European law.
Generally, Zalimas said that the government response to the crisis has been a massive overreaction.
“The number of undocumented migrants we have in the country is relatively insignificant and handle-able by a state with the resources like ours,” he said.
"We’re acting as if we have been flooded by thousands and thousands of migrants… Lithuania is clearly unprepared for a situation like this.”
“International law clearly states that families with children cannot be detained just because they arrived here and asked for asylum here,” added Laurynas Bieksa, a human rights advocate.
“For now, we are doing the opposite – apprehending them for six months. A democratic state simply does not even foresee that (in its laws).”
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) said on September 17 that the legal amendments Lithuanian has passed “introduced significant changes” to the asylum system that contravene Lithuania’s obligations under international and EU law.
In particular, these changes were said to limit access to asylum procedures, give rise to automatic detention of applicants, and restrict appeal rights, it said.
The ECRE also noted that (Lithuanian) government employees processing asylum applications report being tasked with “coercing” migrants into agreeing to voluntary returns, raising questions about the fairness of the country’s asylum system.
Monika Guliakaite, a project manager at Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights (LCHR), said that pushbacks prevent migrants from applying for asylum.
“There is also no possibility to contest the decisions (by local migration authorities). That raises doubt if the applied measures are legitimate and transparent,“ she said.
But the Lithuanian government has defended the practice of pushing back migrants on its 680-kilometre border with Belarus.
“The crisis Lithuania is dealing with is orchestrated by the Belarusian regime – not only against Lithuania but against the entire European Union,” said Tomas Raskevicius, chairman of the parliamentary committee on human rights.
“I believe the currently applied tactic of pushbacks is the only effective measure to stem the flights, yet the practice has to provide a possibility to submit asylum requests in the country’s official border guard precincts,” he said.
His counterpart in the committee, Dainius Kepenis, an LFGU MP representing the parliamentary opposition, said Lithuania is doing “quite a good job” on the border.
“Let’s not forget that they came here illegally,” he said.
Laurynas Kasciunas, an influential Lithuanian MP and chairman of the parliamentary committee on National Defence and Security, said the tactic sent a clear message to migrants from Iraq, Kurdistan and elsewhere that they are not welcome in the country.
“I think our state did a right thing,” he said.
Lithuania has recently drafted changes to the existing EU migration rules to legalise pushbacks of irregular migrants when an extreme situation is declared in a country, Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said on Tuesday, September 28.
The EU rules also “should include an understanding that physical barriers are a necessary measure”, according to the minister.
These proposals will be presented during a meeting of EU home affairs ministers in October. Lithuania will also seek to build a coalition of member states in favour of changing the bloc’s migration rules.
Lithuania’s tough migration policies were not left unnoticed by Hungary, which is notorious for its harsh treatment of migrants.
In a post on Facebook, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga noted that the European Union has not criticised the recent amendments to Lithuania’s migration legislation, despite having similar provisions as the laws in Hungary.
“Silent endorsement of Lithuania’s migration policies shows double standards applied in regards to Budapest,” she said.
Europe’s next move will have repercussions far beyond the Baltics.