New legislation will allow volunteers to use force and help make arrests on Lithuania's border, sparking fears among activists.
Activists have warned a new law passed on Tuesday could allow “violent far-right groups” to police Lithuania’s border.
Due to come into force in May, the Border and Protection Law will enable volunteers to work alongside the State Border Guard Service, permitting them to use force and help detain people in certain circumstances.
A spokesperson from the NGO Sienos Grupė (Border Group) told Euronews there are fears it will allow "far-right extremists" to use violence and commit human rights abuses against migrants on the Belarussian frontier.
"Why would someone want to catch foreigners at the border," they said. "If the border police feel understaffed they should hire more. Instead... they are asking people who are motivated enough to come and work for free."
Volunteers will receive state funds and be issued with "certificates, identification badges and vests" under the legislation drafted by the Interior Ministry.
Since 2021, Lithuanian authorities have tried to stop undocumented people from entering the country in what has been called Europe's forgotten migration crisis.
Tens of thousands of migrants have been expelled in an illegal practice known as pushbacks, with Sienos Grupė claiming the border area - a dank, swampy forest buffeted by inhospitable weather - is littered with bodies.
At least three migrants are known to have lost their legs to frostbite while trying to cross from Belarus.
In a statement sent to Euronews, the Interior Ministry said it had proposed these legal "improvements" "in order to defend national security" and reduce "pull factors" allegedly attracting migrants.
"The Ministry considers these measures as defence and currently sees no alternatives," it added.
Under the law passed on Tuesday, volunteers will have the legal right to "use mental or physical coercion", "stop vehicles", "perform personal examinations and inspections", "enter residential and non-residential premises" and help arrest suspects.
It specifies they must obey the law and "respect human dignity", plus provide assistance "to foreigners who are not allowed the enter" Lithuania.
"Concerns raised by the humanitarian groups... are unfounded," said the Ministry of Interior. "The Institute of SBGS [State Border Guard Service] supporters aim to provide help for officers at all times, as well as in case of an influx of migrants, rather than cause any harm."
"Only persons of impeccable reputation will be able to become SBGS supporters," it added.
Though the legislation still needs to be signed off by the Lithuanian President, Sienos Grupė spokesperson claimed it could let extremists from around Europe volunteer, adding the Interior Ministry had not ruled out this prospect.
Far-right vigilantism has grown across Europe in recent years, with an increasing number of often armed groups patrolling border regions. They have been accused of aggravating violence and tensions, targetting migrants, NGOs and journalists.
The draft bill states EU citizens must be permanent residents of Lithuania, with a registered address inside the country, before they can volunteer.
Convicted criminals or those who have been dismissed from military service or as civil servants, lawyers or bailiffs are forbidden from signing up.
"Supporters would not have the right to use firearms or explosives, the use of which could cause the most serious consequences for a person's life or health," the Interior Ministry told Euronews.
Authorities in Lithuania - and Brussels - blame Belarus for the crisis, claiming Minsk is sending migrants to the border in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the bloc in 2020.
In 2021, Lithuania declared a state of emergency on its eastern frontier and created a five-kilometre zone that shut out observers.
The right to claim asylum was also controversially temporarily suspended, allowing authorities to turn away and expel an estimated 20,000 people without assessing whether they need international protection.
Lithuania's Interior Ministry claims this was necessary to safeguard national security, though it has been slammed as inhumane and illegal under international law.
Speaking to Euronews, Sienos Grupė spokesperson called out what they called the hypocrisy of authorities who were allowing possible extremists in the border zone, while shutting out "human rights defenders".
Tuesday's law also legalised the practice of pushbacks, with Amnesty International saying last week it would "green-light torture".
Lithuanian border guards have been accused of violently pushing migrants back into Belarus and denying them assistance in perilous conditions. Officials deny this.
Pushbacks are illegal under the Geneva Convention and the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which Lithuania is bound by.
"Since the beginning of the irregular migration crisis, the aim has been to strike a balance between national security and human rights," said the Interior Ministry.
It claimed it had proposed new laws in parallel to Tuesday's legislation that will allow people to submit asylum applications at "border control posts and transit zones".
However, doubts remain among activists.
"This law will not stop migration," said the Sienos Grupė spokesperson. "People will just have to spend more time in the forest or make more difficult passages. All I foresee is that there will be more injures and deaths on the border".