Latvian authorities have violently pushed refugees and migrants back to the country’s borders with Belarus, subjecting many to serious human rights abuses, including secret detention and even torture, according to new findings published in a report. Amnesty International report.
Latvia: Go Home or Never Leave the Forest reveals the brutal treatment of migrants and refugees – including children – who were arbitrarily detained in undisclosed sites in the Latvian forest, and illegally and violently returned to Belarus. Many were beaten and shocked with Tasers, including on their genitals. Some were illegally forced to return “voluntarily” to their country of origin.
“Latvia has given refugees and migrants a cruel ultimatum: agree to return ‘voluntarily’ to their country, or remain stranded at the border or risk detention, illegal deportations and torture. In some cases, their arbitrary detention at the border can amount to enforced disappearance,” said Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.
“Latvian authorities have left men, women and children to fend for themselves in freezing temperatures, often stranded in forests or held in tents. They violently pushed them back to Belarus, where they have no chance of seeking protection. These actions have nothing to do with border protection and constitute flagrant violations of international and European law.
On August 10, 2021, Latvia declared a state of emergency following an increase in the number of people encouraged to cross the border by Belarus. Contrary to European and international law and the principle of non-repressionemergency rules suspended the right to seek asylum in four border areas and allowed Latvian authorities to forcibly and summarily return people to Belarus.
Latvian authorities have repeatedly extended the state of emergency, currently until November 2022, despite the decrease in movement over time, and their own admission that the number of entry attempts was the result of multiple crossings by the same people.
Dozens of refugees and migrants were arbitrarily detained in tents at the border in unsanitary conditions. A small percentage of people were allowed to enter Latvia, the vast majority of whom were placed in detention centers and had little or no access to asylum procedures, legal assistance or independent monitoring.
Amnesty’s Latvia report follows and complements similar reports of refugee and migrant abuses by Belarus, Poland and Lithuania.
Violent refoulements, arbitrary detentions and possible enforced disappearances
Under the state of emergency, Latvian border guards, in cooperation with unidentified “commandos”, the army and the police, have repeatedly subjected people to summary, illegal and violent forced returns . In response, the Belarusian authorities would then systematically push people back to Latvia.
Zaki, an Iraqi stranded at the border for about three months, told Amnesty International he had been turned back more than 150 times, sometimes eight times in a single day.
Hassan, another Iraqi man who spent five months at the border, said: “They forced us to be completely naked, sometimes they beat us while we were naked, then they forced us to go back to Belarus, sometimes crossing a river which was very cold. They said they would shoot us if we didn’t cross.
Between pushbacks, people were forced to spend long periods stranded at the border or in tents set up by authorities in isolated areas of the forest. Latvian authorities have so far denied using the tents for anything other than ‘humanitarian assistance’, but Amnesty International’s findings show that the tents were heavily guarded sites used to arbitrarily detain refugees and migrants and as outposts for illegal returns.
Those not held in tents sometimes found themselves stranded in the open at the border, with winter temperatures sometimes dropping to -20C. Adil, an Iraqi who has spent several months in the forest since August 2021 , told Amnesty International: “We used to sleep in the forest on the snow. We used to light a fire to keep warm, there were wolves, bears.
At the border and in the tents, the authorities confiscated people’s mobile phones to prevent any communication with the outside world. Some families searched for people who were known to be in Latvia but who could not be contacted by phone. A Latvian NGO reported that between August and November 2021 they were contacted by the relatives of more than 30 refugees and migrants fearing they had disappeared.
Detaining migrants and refugees in tents at undisclosed locations or leaving them stranded at the border without access to communication or safe alternatives to the continuous commute between Latvia and Belarus constitutes “secret detention” and could amount to to enforced disappearance.
Forced returns, abuse and torture
Without effective access to asylum under the state of emergency, Latvian officers have coerced some people detained at the border into agreeing to return “voluntarily” to their country of origin as the only way out of the forest.
Others were coerced or misled into accepting voluntary returns to detention centers or police stations.
Hassan, from Iraq, told Amnesty International that he had tried to explain that his life would be in danger if he was sent back: “The commando replied: ‘You can die here too'”.
Another Iraqi, Omar, described how an officer hit him from behind and forced him to sign a return paper: “He held my hand and said you should do the signature, then forcefully , he made me do the signature.”
In some cases, the IOM representative for Latvia ignored evidence that people transferred under “voluntary” return procedures had not given their genuine consent to return.
“Latvia, Lithuania and Poland continue to commit serious abuses, under the pretext of being victims of a ‘hybrid attack’ from Belarus. As winter approaches and border movements have resumed, the state of emergency continues to allow Latvian authorities to illegally return people to Belarus. Many more could be exposed to violence, arbitrary detention and other abuses, with little or no independent oversight,” said Eve Geddie.
“Latvia’s disgraceful treatment of people arriving at its borders is a vital test for the European institutions, which must take urgent action to ensure that Latvia ends the state of emergency and restores the right to asylum in across the country for anyone seeking safety, regardless of where they came from or how they crossed the border.
As pushbacks at Belarusian border with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland escalate, EU Council prioritizes adoption of regulation on ‘instrumentalisation’ of migrants and asylum seekers ‘asylum. This would allow Member States facing situations of ‘instrumentalisation’ – as Latvia experienced – to derogate from their obligations under EU law on asylum and migration. The proposal has a disproportionate impact on the rights of refugees and migrants and risks undermining the uniform application of EU asylum law.
In June, the EU Court of Justice ruled that Lithuania’s Asylum and Migration Law, which limited people’s ability to file asylum claims under the state of emergency and provided the automatic detention of asylum seekers, was incompatible with EU law.
The Court’s analysis and findings should apply directly to the situation in Latvia, where since August 2021 the state of emergency effectively prevents most people entering or attempting to enter “irregularly” from Belarus. to access asylum.
See Amnesty International reports on Belarus, Poland and Lithuania.