Lithuanian authorities have arbitrarily detained thousands of migrants in prison-like centres where they have been subjected to beatings, abuse and racism, according to Amnesty International.
A report by the human rights group says refugees and migrants have been held for months in squalid conditions, denied access to fair asylum procedures and subjected to other violations — in the hope that they would "voluntarily" leave the country.
The treatment is in stark contrast to the welcome and generosity with which people fleeing the war in Ukraine have been greeted in the EU, Amnesty says. It accuses the European Union of tacitly condoning Lithuania's behaviour which it says flouts international law.
Contacted by Euronews, the Lithuanian interior ministry regretted that the report "tends to reflect the views and testimonies of only one side". It cites the extraordinary circumstances of a huge influx of migrants arriving from Belarus in an orchestrated campaign by its neighbour to destabilise the EU.
Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė said the authorities had "continuously cooperated with all human rights institutions and organisations" and had "adhered to the principle of open dialogue and the rule of law".
'Here there are no rights'
Amnesty interviewed hundreds of people who it says were detained unlawfully after travelling from countries including Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria and Sri Lanka.
Many people reported being beaten, insulted and subjected to racially-motivated intimidation and harassment by guards, according to the campaign group. Access to sanitary facilities and healthcare was insufficient, it adds.
"In Iraq, we hear about human rights and women’s rights in Europe. But here there are no rights," said a Yazidi woman who was detained in the Medininkai detention centre, near the border with Belarus. It is one of two such centres where Amnesty interviewed detainees.
The Lithuanian government says there are around 2,600 in five "registration centres", and only 3-4% of asylum claims have been granted.
It points out that the "massive influx of foreigners" prompted the country to declare a state of emergency in November 2021. The European Commission recognised "the use of third-country migrants as a hybrid attack by the Belarusian regime" aimed at destabilising the bloc, it says.
Complaints follow mass detention law
Amid an influx of people arriving at the Belarusian border, in July 2021 Lithuania’s parliament approved the mass detention of migrants and curbed their right of appeal.
The move was meant to deter high numbers crossing the border with Belarus but stirred an outcry.
Amnesty says thousands of people, including many who are in need of international protection, have been detained for prolonged periods and denied proper access to judicial procedures.
“I want to thank Lithuania for receiving us... But here they don’t treat us well. This is a prison, not a camp. Everywhere I look there is barbed wire, why? I am not a criminal; I am a refugee,” the group quotes a Syrian man as saying when he was interviewed in March.
It claims that thousands of others have been violently pushed back across the border to Belarus, where they have no chance of seeking protection.
Hundreds of people at Medininkai "sleep in containers on a football pitch", Amnesty claims. Those who spoke to its researchers were in a state of fear due to the guards' "aggressive behaviour", it says. Detainees who took part in protests were beaten and subjected to pepper spray and taser guns.
Amnesty says it has seen video footage in which a group of black women were forced outside into the cold, half-naked with hands tied, and locked in a container. This was not an isolated incident, it adds.
Other detainees have been placed in isolation and bitten by dogs if they tried to escape, the group claims.
Lithuania has said will it no longer seek to extend detention beyond the current limit of 12 months, Amnesty notes, but says the authorities have yet to detail how they will remedy violations committed.
Border guards 'provoked and insulted'
Lithuania's interior ministry denies official ill-treatment of migrants who crossed the border, insisting that the protection of human rights and compliance with international law remains a priority.
"Lithuania has provided and continues to provide humanitarian, medical, social and legal assistance to foreigners in need," said Agnė Bilotaitė, the interior minister.
The authorities say much effort has been made to improve conditions for migrants, and the State Border Guard Service (SBGS) is "subject to the highest human rights standards".
"The aim has been and continues to be to improve the living conditions of migrants, the infrastructure of foreigners' registration centres etc., but 'in return', the officers of the SBGS have been constantly provoked, openly insulted, and accused of unreal things," says Rustam Liubaev, the head of the SBGS.
EU's 'two-tier system'
Amnesty International blames the European Union for allowing a "two-tier system" to develop in recent months.
“While Lithuania has rightly extended a warm welcome to tens of thousands of people fleeing Ukraine, the experience of the detainees we spoke with could not be more different. This raises serious concerns about institutional racism embedded within Lithuania’s migration system,” said Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty's Europe Regional Director.
The human rights group accuses the European Commission of the "tacit endorsement" of what it calls Lithuania's attempt to "legalise" pushbacks, automatic detention and the denial of asylum through domestic legislation — in a "blatant" disregard for EU and international law.
The European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) is also accused of continuing to help Lithuanian border guards in activities that may contribute to human rights violations.
"The European Commission still has not taken any action to bring Lithuania’s legislation into line with EU law. For as long as the European Commission stands idle, it sends a message to member states that EU laws can be violated with impunity',” said Amnesty's Nils Muižnieks.
Lithuania's government says around a quarter of irregular migrants — some 1,100 in total — have accepted a financial offer to return voluntarily to their countries of origin since last year's crisis began.
"It is essential that both international organisations and NGOs help migrants to return to their countries of origin, provide the necessary assistance and take active steps to prevent migrants from being used as tools for the political ends of authoritarian regimes," the interior ministry says.